There’s an interesting conversation brewing here in Wake County, y’all.

Our system—which adopted a standards-based report card for elementary schools seven years ago and which has long talked about moving the standards-based reporting system to middle and high schools—is considering dropping the practice in grades 3-5 for a return to traditional letter grading.

What caught my attention, though, was the feedback being left by parents, teachers and community leaders in the comment section of the article.

One comment in particular—left by a tutor—stood out as an accurate reflection of both our traditional beliefs about—and the ever-present failures in—our grading practices.

She wrote:

I will never forget the child I tutored once who was thrilled to get a “3” in math and immediately announced she would get a “4” next quarter, except that was never going to happen.

This is a kid who turned in everything on time, worked hard, her work was neat and clearly had taken her a long time.

In another grading system she would have been rewarded for her work ethic — which by the way is the quality that really defines a good student more than anything else.

But in the 1-4 system, the quality of the work is not taken into account. It was so dispiriting for her that she could never receive the “top” grade no matter how hard she tried.

Interesting, isn’t it?  For this tutorand for the majority of teachers and parents raised in traditional school systems—mastery of content isn’t the indicator that should determine a student’s final grade.  Instead, a final grade should be a combination of content mastery and work behaviors.

At the risk of being blunt, the children that I never forget are the ones who roll into my classroom with huge knowledge and skill gaps, but have made straight As for their entire school careers because they are polite, well-mannered and hard working.

I can’t get past thinking how badly their teachers have failed.

You see, when we mix work behaviors into student grades, EVERYONE—parents, students, teachers, principals, guidance counselors—are left to guess at what the letter grades being assigned REALLY represent.

That means children with average levels of content mastery—like the tutored child in the comment spotlighted above—earn the highest grades simply because they turn everything in on time, produce neat work, and are well-behaved.

How is THAT helpful?

Rather than being honest and accurate in reporting the essential outcomes that wonderful kids have yet to completely master, teachers who mix work behaviors into grades often sugarcoat the truth because it makes everyone feel a little better.

Think about the consequences of these careless choices:

  • Parents are prevented from the opportunity to seek additional help for their children.
  • Students are prevented from the opportunity to have a clear picture of the areas where they need to continue to study.
  • Teachers are prevented from the opportunity to intervene immediately.
  • Schools are prevented from the opportunity to target the skills that large numbers of students are struggling with.

To put it simply, mixing work behaviors into our reporting of student grades blurs our collective vision—and when our collective vision is blurred, it’s impossible to work smarter.

What does this mean for your PLC?

Here’s a few thoughts:

You’ve got to develop a system for clearly defining the academic outcomes that you expect students to master—and then you’ve got to share those outcomes in approachable language with parents and students.

One of the reasons that parents and students want to prioritize work behaviors in our grading practices is that they are tangible and observable.

Neat work and determination are obvious to everyone who works with children.  You can see it in action no matter who you are or what training you’ve had.

For parents who have little real knowledge of what is in the academic curriculum for each grade level, that’s often the only way to judge just how well their children are doing.

Recognizing this, responsible PLCs develop lists of essential objectives written in student and parent friendly language that are referred to constantly.

Doing so enables both parents and students to begin evaluating levels of content mastery, too.  No longer are their opinions about success based on work behaviors only.

Need some help with this process?  Then check out these two posts:

Writing Student Friendly Learning Goals

More on Student Friendly Learning Goals


You’ve got to find a way to report on work behaviors without mixing those reports into a student’s academic average.

Don’t get me wrong:  I DEFINITELY believe that work behaviors have an impact on the future success and failure of students.

In fact, I spend a TON of time trying to help my middle schoolers to develop the kinds of habits that characterize the most effective adults.

But I’m determined to try to report on those behaviors separately from a child’s level of content mastery.

I want the number grades on student interims and the letter grades on student report cards to be a representation of content mastery ONLY.

What does that look like in action?

Most years, I use a work behaviors rubric developed by a guy named Robert Canady with my students.

Sent home with every report card, this rubric allows me to give targeted, specific feedback about the kinds of work behaviors that a student is demonstrating in my classes.

My goal isn’t to eliminate work behaviors from my assessment of students.  Instead, it’s to elevate work behaviors in importance by reporting on them separately.

Want to learn more about separating work behaviors from academics?  Then check out these two posts:

Waiting to be Torched

Pushing Back the Flames


Long story short:  Our traditional views on what grades are supposed to represent need to change if we ever really want to see students achieving at higher rates.

We need to start reporting on mastery at finer grained levels.  Parents and students need to understand the content that they’re being expected to learn—something that is nearly impossible if we don’t consider rewriting standards into student-friendly language.

Parents and students also need to have a clear picture of content mastery AND work behaviors.  The only way to do that responsibly is to start reporting on content mastery and work behaviors separately.

Is this a conversation your PLC is ready to have?

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