I am a firm believer in assessment, but not a firm believer in grades.  Think about it–what we are doing is labeling the kids with a letter or a number, and saying to them, “This is how good you are. Deal with it.”  In my opinion, grades should be for teachers, and assessment should be for everyone.  It’s important to rate our work and reflect on it, but I really see little use in labeling it with a letter of achievement, especially in fourth grade.

So What’s the Difference?

Assessment is the use of a rubric or proficiency scale to gauge proficiency of a learning target.  This helps us determine who has mastered the concept and who has not.  Assessment is all about the student.  Grading, on the other hand, is a holistic and, sometimes, rather contrived rating that compares students to their peers.  This concept of grading with the A/B/C/D/F scale dates back over 100 years to Harvard, when it was used for job placement.  Appropriate for kids?  I think not.

I’ve found, as I sit here writing report card comments, that I’ve sent a much more powerful but sensitive message through comments.  I can’t help but wonder how much more effective assessors we would be if we focused more on descriptive and differentiated comments (grounded in proficiency scales), rather than rigid grades.  Below, I’ve attached the comments I’ve written for one of my students.  I did this because, quite honestly, his report card will be mostly Cs, as that is the work he turns in, when compared to peers and grade level expectations.  However, I do not believe him to fulfill the connotation of a “C” student.  His name has been changed for privacy purposes.

Joshua has grown a lot this trimester.  Quite honestly, I have seen a great change in him.  He is becoming a closer and more careful reader, as well as a more descriptive and organized writer.  This trimester, Joshua and I worked a great deal on his research paper on polar bears.  This gave him extra practice with summarizing informational text, which he needed, as well as some time setting a purpose for reading and fulfilling that purpose.  With my help, he was able to compose an extremely organized and engaging paper, which I know he is very proud of.  Further, his engagement and attitude has changed dramatically.  He never seemed to have a “bad” attitude, but he was disengaged from learning a great deal in the first trimester.  Now, he is frequently participating in whole-group discussions, using his knowledge of literary devices to try and identify them, and contributing excellent inferences to class discussions.  He is not, however, doing this consistently on his own.  Frequently, during independent times or exams, he is rushing and not taking the time he takes when he is working with me.  He has claimed that it “takes a lot of work” or that “he doesn’t feel like it” when he is working on his own.  I’d love for him to begin to see the importance of this effort in his independent work, not through consequences, but through recognizing how good it truly feels when a job is well done.  I know he felt this when he saw his NWEA and his essay.  I think, as the third trimester begins, we need to focus on this sense of accomplishment that comes from working hard.  I look forward to working with this intelligent and energetic young man over the next year.  It is a pleasure to learn with him and watch him grow.

This shows, to a much greater extent, what this child can do.  It’s honest, but sensitive to his feelings, and it gives a true picture of his achievement.  Labeling him as a “C” student isn’t going to change the fact that he hasn’t met grade-level expectations yet.  It will change some things, though, like his attitude.  The positive attitude that has grown immensely throughout a trimester is likely to take a step backwards, and the pride that he felt is also likely to become diminished due to this wholly inappropriate label I’ve bestowed upon him.  The only factors that are going to change his achievement are his attitude, his motivation, and his teacher–not his grade.
Kids are not a rigid and one-dimensional, and I think all teachers would agree with that.  We need to stop grading them that way.
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