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 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 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 grades or help them or their parents. Wouldn’t it be ludicrous if physicians conducted examinations of their patients and then told them 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 at all grade levels. This is a daunting task, but the first important step was taken in 2009 with the identification of Common Core Standards. These general goals were adopted by 48 states and by New York in 2010, and are available in math, English/language arts, science, and social studies in this state. They provide a framework for school districts to enumerate specific objectives leading to curriculum information available to teachers, students, parents, and the general public. The purpose of testing would be to determine whether 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 1960s and ‘70s. Spelling out what students are supposed to know will inform them, parents, and the general public of those expectations, making schools more transparent and open to 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 feedback.

Testing becomes solely diagnostic and grades 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 students have mastered those learning objectives and for providing direction for future teaching and learning. Grades become meaningless and labeling students’ failures is 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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