Last year, a student emailed me during the final week of school:
Dear Mrs. Lee,
I see you’ve given me a D. I want you to know I really tried in your class. I think I deserve a better grade than a D. If you don’t, well then I guess I don’t.
I checked the grades and her point average, a 62%, clearly point to a D. I’ve done my job, right? She earned a D, she gets a D. But something doesn’t feel right about simply boiling everything down to a number in a grading app to represent a three-dimensional student. I do further research:
- Reviewing her essays, she writes tons of interesting details about the text; however, there is not any structure, or any of the component parts of an essay.
- Her attendance is near perfect
- In her other classes, she has all Fails, and one D
- The previous year, she had all Fails and one D.
- I reflect on how many insightful comments and questions she asked throughout the year.
Is it possible that something is being overlooked? Is there a part of student performance and engagement in the classroom that can’t be captured by grades? As a teacher of students with special needs, I am almost numb to the amount of Ds and Fs my students receive from the collection of their classes. The lesson my student learned last year, as evidenced in the email, is the lesson I want all students to learn: self-advocacy. She definitely has a voice and a healthy perspective on her worth as a student.
There is a quote arguably attributed on the internet to Albert Einstein, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” This same sentiment has been made into cartoon sketches, videos, and it is often used for Special Education professional development. Despite this focus in schools on Universal Design, alternative assessments, choices in expression of knowledge, many students in special education programs continue to have multiple Fails because they don’t measure up to the rubric, the standards, the points.
I haven’t figured out how to articulate this thought clearly, but I will attempt to get the gist of it here. If students can do something, they get an A or B or C. If they can’t do it, they are graded and punished for what they do not know how to do on demand, in a certain format, under specific time constraints. While discussing this at a table with colleagues, a teacher voiced her opposition:
Obviously this is not my position. However, for students that consistently earn Ds and Fs, the effort to show-up is immeasurable. MindShift published an article, “The Emotional Weight of Being Graded, for Better or for Worse,” that discusses the impact of ‘bad’ grades on students’ mental health. Additionally, one professor of neuroscience and psychology is quoted several times explaining that students assess their own knowledge of a subject based on the grade they receive, and also, students are emotionally attached to the grades, which can dictate if they like or dislike the subject. Therefore, if a student Fails a class, s/he will feel that s/he does not know anything pertaining to the topic, and the student will develop an aversion to the subject because s/he received a negative grade in the class. Considering I work with teens with special needs who often have difficulties acknowledging, naming, and expressing their emotions, it is difficult to comprehend how damaging receiving 3-4 Ds and Fs on every report card is to their general feelings about education and self-worth.
While the emotional needs of a student cannot be a basis for assigning a grade, it is equally inappropriate to state that students who receive Ds and Fs aren’t trying hard enough in class. My teaching philosophy is that every kid wants to learn. There are multiple reasons why it can appear to a teacher that a student isn’t ‘trying hard enough.’ When a student struggles to understand a concept or subject, often, the student doesn’t understand how to ‘try.’ Sometimes teachers say, “All I want is for him to try,”-and when he attempts to–the result is the same D or F as he earned before this assignment.
At my table of colleagues, I told the story of a student who joined my English class in the middle of the year. He’s an 11th grader who has never attended a school for more than 10-20 days in a row. Many grade levels he did not even experience. He tells me about helping his grandmother set out products on the street in downtown LA to sell at 4 in the morning. The first writing assignment he completed in my class consisted of one sentence. Each assignment afterwards, I had someone helping him, even if it was an assessment–so that he could learn how to write a formal response to a text. We just completed a comparison essay on The Crucible and “Half-Hanged Mary” and he wrote the entire paper by himself. He wrote three full paragraphs that showed his position and used evidence from the two texts to support his position. I was thrilled beyond belief for his accomplishment; however, if I graded him on a rubric, he would receive a D or an F. He did not have any of the three components of an introduction paragraph, he did not write using transitions, and he did not have an in-depth analysis of each text. Despite this, while reading his paper, I felt like I was on a bicycle for the first time, riding without my hands, with a cool breeze guiding me to the next destination–and I know he had to have a similar feeling about his work and effort.
In the planning stages, I thought I could get all of my ideas in to one blog post. However, after writing everything, I will add a part two to discuss how I plan to approach grading for the next school year.