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Grading: What’s Really Important

Grading - What's Really Important
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Grading: What’s Really Important

I work in a high school with special education students. If there is one thing that I’d want to convey to elementary and middle school teachers is that the biggest challenge, we face is the lack of perseverance in our students—students both in and not in special education.

It is never great to generalize, of course, but most of our students give up whenever they face an academic challenge; they have developed “learned helplessness” (Read this blog for a description of what this is and how it develops.)

There are some basic literacy and mathematical skills that all children need to learn, but the focus of “education” for most students should not be on delivering a rigorous curriculum; it should be developing resilient, confident students.  

Grading And Self-Esteem

Most elementary schools grade students on their progress. They may be judged to be approaching, meeting, or exceeding expectations, for example.

Comparing grades has long been shown to reduce self-esteem and decrease motivation. While this is better than the old ABCDF system for the little ones, it’s not like the kids don’t understand where they stand in relation to their peers because of this kind of grading system.  Even those who aren’t particularly academically gifted ‘ain’t stupid’; the avoidance of giving As, Bs, and Cs on report cards is not going to prevent kids from comparing grades and prevent damaging their self-esteem. 

So why not grade them on the skills they are going to need to be successful in the higher grades and in life?

What Real World Skills Go Into Grades?

In my role as Special Education Case Manager at a public high school, I interact with everyone – students, parents, teachers, and administrators. We encounter many educational struggles in our high school with both special ed and non-special ed students. 

Many students struggle with basic math skills. They limp through basic algebra and geometry and are hopelessly overmatched by more advanced math, like Algebra 2. These days grammar is pretty much ignored, so grammatical and punctuation skills are lacking. More importantly, the basic skills of being a good student are critically lacking; note-taking, study skills, time management, and basic organizational skills are underdeveloped.

These students hate school and learning. They are often lost and feel out-of-place. Whenever they are faced with an academic challenge, they retreat. Instead of facing the challenge head-on, they give up—assignments are incomplete and missing, notes sparse or non-existent, and studying is rare. Few students persevere, raise their hands to ask questions in class, or attend extra help.  Because they do not know how to be “good students,” students’ lack of skills is compounded.

Not all students are impaired as I have described. The students who can succeed even when lacking some academic knowledge (basic math or writing skills due to SLD, ELL, or other issues) have the most important abilities. They have good “student skills” and they persevere. They ask questions, do their homework, attend extra help sessions. 

Education, success, or doing their best is important to these special people. These students impress their teachers. I do not worry about these kids. They will find success in whatever career they choose. They have the skills that you cannot teach. Or can we?

Grading: The Bottom Line

Why can’t we encourage and teach these life-critical skills?  I’m not advocating that we ignore all academic content in favor of a purely study-skills curriculum.  I’m saying that we can make basic study skills, time management, and educational perseverance an important part of how we educate our students. 

Make these a routine part of the curriculum and grade them. Adding them to the report card will let everyone—students, teachers, parents, and administrators—know that these skills and this attribute are critical and to be prioritized.  Otherwise, MCAS and other curriculum concerns will take precedence.

Let’s teach kids how to learn and how to respond to challenges.  Doing so will ensure their academic and vocational success.

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