Blogger’s Note: In an attempt to address the tendency in today’s world to forget that letter grades aren’t as important as learning, I whipped up a few thoughts on grades and shared them with my parents on our classroom blog.

Thought you might like to see it.  Hope it helps.


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Dear Parents,

Recently, a mom on our team dropped me a line asking for some honest thoughts about letter grades.

Specifically, she was interested in knowing how to balance rewards for As and Bs versus punishments for Cs, Ds and Fs on the practice (formative) tasks that don’t count heavily against a child’s average.

To her, grades lower than a B are never acceptable even if they are on practice tasks, but to her child, formative tasks just aren’t important because they don’t have a big impact on overall averages.

The result is a constant tension between mom and her child over low scores.

Sound familiar?!

I’ve been thinking about her question for a few weeks now and thought you might be interested in hearing my take on this.

The way I see it, there are three important points for parents in similar circumstances to keep in mind:

Remember that grades are SUPPOSED to give you feedback about what your child knows and can do: 

One of the mistakes that middle school parents often make is placing TOO much emphasis on letter grades and not enough emphasis on whether or not their children are mastering essential knowledge and skills.

The simple truth is that “making the All A Honor Roll” isn’t NEARLY as important as having a sense for whether or not your child has a firm grasp of grade level content and a firm mastery of grade level skills.

That means it might be useful to spend less time looking at overall averages and more time looking at scores on individual tasks because scores on individual tasks will give you a better sense for which concepts your child has mastered and which concepts your child has yet to demonstrate mastery of.

That’s the kind of information that really matters, right?

And as strange as it may seem, that means the LOW grades you find in SPAN are actually MORE valuable to you as a parent because they give you MORE information about where to focus your time and energy.

Instead of being angry about a score that doesn’t meet your expectations, use that score as a starting point for conversations with your child.

If you think a reward/punishment system for grades is needed in your home, those low grades are also a GREAT tool.  Just because they don’t have a huge impact on your child’s overall average doesn’t mean that they are unimportant.

They really ARE reflective of your child’s mastery of key concepts and skills — so if you aren’t satisfied with the score, set the expectation in your house that any low score will be reworked.

Whether teachers and or teams grade those reworks is really irrelevant.  Have your child complete extra practice problems or write another essay.  Ask the teacher for textbooks and/or workbooks  — and assign extra practice to your child whenever you aren’t happy with the levels of mastery that they’ve demonstrated.

If your child KNOWS what he/she is doing and just isn’t applying themselves — which is pretty common for middle schoolers — that will end the first time that they lose time with friends because they didn’t try hard enough on an easy assignment.

If your child DOESN’T KNOW what he/she is doing, you’ll be giving them the additional practice that they need in order to master concepts that matter.

Remember that grades shouldn’t be the ONLY indicator that you use to judge just what your student knows and can do:

One of the sad truths about public schools is that teachers serve TONS of students.

That means the level of targeted feedback that we CAN give your child on individual skills is far less than we’d LIKE to be able to give — especially in classes like language arts, social studies and science where “demonstrating mastery” depends on students giving detailed explanations for their thinking.

In my class, for example, we’ve only had 8 graded tasks so far this quarter.  That’s largely because grading one set of 140 papers can take 10-15 hours even when I’m using a rubric to give a small bit of feedback to each child.  With 65 minutes of planning per day, each assignment can take up to two weeks to grade.

That means (1). that teachers are forced to give fewer assignments, (2). that teachers are forced to give less feedback on assignments and/or (3). teachers are forced to give low level assignments that can be graded quickly.

The lesson for parents: Grades shouldn’t be the ONLY indicator that you use when trying to judge the ability of your child.  Sit down and have a conversation with them about the concepts listed on our unit overview sheets.

Ask them to answer the essential questions listed at the top of each unit overview sheet.  Ask them to complete the tasks listed at the end of each I Can Statement.

You might discover that your child knows more than you thought they did — and more than their grade actually shows — about the key concepts that we’re studying.

Similarly, you might find that they know less than you thought they did — and less than their grade actually shows — about the key concepts that we’re studying.

Either way, keep in mind that — as educational thought leader Dean Shareski explains — the actual letter that ends up on your child’s report card only represents the small sliver of content that teachers can actually give feedback on during a quarter.

Remember that developing solid work behaviors REALLY IS just as important as making As and Bs:

One of the truths that I’ve learned after 20 years of teaching middle school in Western Wake County is that the majority of the students on our academic team will walk out of my classroom with an above average to superior understanding of the concepts that we’re studying — but that DOESN’T mean that the vast majority of students will always make As and Bs on their report cards.

That’s for one simple reason:  Middle schoolers are still learning to master key work behaviors.

Things like putting high levels of effort into every task, turning in every task on time, and being an active participant in every conversation that happens in every class every day just doesn’t come naturally to kids.

That determination to excel moment-by-moment — intellectual grit, so to speak — isn’t always an automatic part of their nature yet.

Which is why it is JUST as important to monitor and celebrate and give your child feedback on mastery of key work behaviors as it is to monitor and celebrate the grades that they’re earning.

As teachers, we give this feedback once per quarter using this work behaviors rubric.

It comes home with your child’s report card — and we think it is actually MORE important than their academic grades and/or Honor Roll status.  The simple truth is that your kids are all capable.  Their success is less a factor of their ability and more a factor of their determination to apply themselves.

When my daughter is old enough, I’m going to use this rubric to rate her work behaviors around the house — her completion of chores, her completion of homework, her interactions with my wife and I — on a bi-weekly basis.

And if there’s ever a need for a reward and/or consequence system to motivate her, it will be based on the ratings on this rubric INSTEAD of her letter grades.

The way that I figure, students who master key work behaviors are the same students who are going to make As and end up on the Honor Roll anyway.

The work behavior rubric gives me the opportunity to really target the kinds of specific behaviors that are interfering with my child’s academic performance.

I guess what I’m saying is that letter grades — especially in middle school where students aren’t building an academic transcript that will determine whether or not they can get into the right college — are probably less important than we think they are. 

The ultimate goal for a middle schooler should be to master key concepts, skills and behaviors.

To that extent, grades that are lower than you’d like them to be are actually MORE helpful because they cast a light on potential weaknesses — either in content knowledge or in the development of the kinds of behaviors that define successful individuals — that you can encourage your child to focus on and polish.

Hope this helps,

Bill Ferriter

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