Ending Student Failure


Receiving failing grades, being retained at a grade level, or denied high school diplomas are sure ways to traumatize students and destroy their self-confidence. Conventional grading, report cards, and similar measures actually represent a form of educational malpractice and need to be replaced by procedures that promote achievement, not prevent it.

I’ve always felt grading systems were highly subjective and arbitrary. Students come home with conventional report cards or test results containing grades that can’t possibly provide a comprehensive analysis of what the student did or didn’t learn. More importantly, these assessment practices do little to improve student achievement grades or to help them or their parents know what has or hasn’t been learned. Wouldn’t it be ludicrous if physicians conducted examinations of their patients and then told the patient they earned a D or an F, with no specific diagnostic report?

School districts need to develop curricula in terms of specific learning objectives that describe what a student should know and be able to do in all subject areas and at all grade levels. This is a daunting task, but the first important development step was completed in 2009 with the identification of Common Core Standards. These general goals were adopted by 48 states and by New York state in 2010. Curriculum core standards are available in Math, English/Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies in this state. They would provide a framework for school districts to enumerate the specific objectives in each of these areas leading to curriculum information that would be available to teachers, students, parents, and the general public. The purpose of testing would be to determine whether or not students have met the criteria for saying they’ve mastered those objectives.

To achieve a diagnostic approach to student evaluation, the first step is to go back to the concept of behavioral objectives introduced in ‘60s and ‘70s whereby the curriculum for all subjects and grade levels spells out what students are supposed to know and do as a result of teaching and learning. Formulating behavioral objectives for all subject areas and grade levels will inform students, parents, and the general public of those expectations, making schools more transparent and more open to public scrutiny.

An example of these objectives goes something like this: “After instruction in grammatical standards including correct spelling, punctuation and usage, theme development, and paragraph construction, the student will be able to compose an essay of at least 500 words on a subject of his or her choosing.” The student’s essay can be analyzed and the teacher can determine what aspects of that objective have been met and where further instruction is needed. This determination replaces a grade for the student’s work. Negative grading is eliminated and the focus is on constructive and positive feedback.

Testing becomes solely diagnostic and grades are superfluous if the items are listed in behavioral terms (i.e. “the student will know this or that and have the skills to do these things.”) Testing and other forms of evaluation are only for determining whether or not students have mastered those learning objectives and for providing direction for future teaching and learning. Grades become meaningless and the necessity of labeling of students’ failures eliminated.

(The question remains, how do we evaluate teacher performance in the absence of high-stakes testing and with the elimination of grading? I’ll attempt to address this question in a future article.)

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