Loving our Kids to Failure – How Generous Grading Can Hurt Students

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December 10, 2019

Educators are the conductors of the classroom, guiding instruction and parent and student expectations. A teacher's assessment process is the foundational component informing all three components. Like a house, a faulty foundation leads to cracks and ultimate collapse.

Overly generous grading is one cause of a faulty foundation. Our analysis shows that lenient grading in early grades sets students up for failure as they age.

Fact: 68% of grades have no correlation to student proficiency

That is, over HALF of our students receive classroom grades that have no measurable impact on learning.

In our work with hundreds of schools in Alabama, we've uncovered the following:

– 7,000 students receiving end-of-course grades below 70 were among the top 1% on high-stakes state accountability scores.

Said another way, some of our cream-of-the-crop as measured by state assessment tests are not showing that potential in the classroom. More alarming, this data was news to most district and school administrators.

– There is a 75% likelihood the students above will fall below the proficiency line within two years.

A meta-analysis of state assessments test data (e.g., Scantron in Alabama) showed that students meeting the profile above fell from ‘exceeds' or ‘proficient' to below the proficiency line within two years. This means some of the highest-performing students from an accountability perspective move from boosting a school’s overall score to depleting it within two years of receiving Cs, Ds, and Fs. That’s likely because, disappointed with their classroom grades, these students often disengage from the learning process.

– 90% of the time, the ‘toughest' graders have classroom state accountability test averages among the top 3% of scores.

Said another way, you want your kids with the teachers that everyone thinks are hard. I've taken this to heart with my girls in our local public schools.

Why the disconnect? It starts with the way we assess learning.

Let's look at why we have 68% of our students performing at levels above or below the appropriate proficiency level with no correlation to course grades.

The best teachers in the country follow a very consistent and simple process. Instruction is aligned with standards, delivered, and then rigorously assessed. Educators don’t need $300,000 in professional development packages to tell us something that can be delivered in one sentence. Instead, take that $300,000 next year and invest it in retaining educators that live, eat, and breathe this simple approach.

Unfortunately, in practice, we've let the efficacy of our assessment process erode into compliance monitoring. Compliance should be captured in a behavior grade (behaviors that contribute to a successful student). All of the schools we work with were shocked to see students earning Cs, Ds, and Fs while demonstrating subject mastery on state tests. On the other end of the spectrum, you see a majority of students with As and Bs, not benchmarking or performing the same as the C and D students on their state accountability scores.

Grades must matter in today’s accountability modeled world. If you don’t get them right, you are setting yourself and your students up for failure.

Loving our kids to failure

Let's look at the long-term ramifications of giving As and Bs to students that are not proficient. If you've served as a principal, you probably know this scenario all too well. Suzy cruised through 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade Math with straight As. Then she gets into ‘Mean Mrs. Smith’s’ 5th grade class and bounces between Bs and Cs. Parents are shocked and upset, and Suzy is utterly confused and disappointed. Poor mean Mrs. Smith is doing her best to assess Suzy as transparently as possible and inform her instruction accordingly but is getting labeled as an unfair teacher.

Suzy was loved to failure by district and school administrators.

Correlating Suzy’s high-stakes tests to her classroom grades the past three years shockingly shows that Suzy never was proficient on her standards despite the fact she received As. However, Suzy was very compliant on homework and classroom assignments. With no data-driven policy in place, Suzy’s grades did not represent mastery of the content.

Here’s an alarming fact for administrators:

97% of parents believe grades represent Mastery. See the problem?

For years, we’ve told Suzy and her parents that she was great at math but in fact she really needed to work harder. We loved the family into complacency only to rudely awaken them once Suzy met a transparent grader following the best practices of the highest-performing teachers in the country. If they knew Suzy was not mastering standards the past three school years, they could have worked harder to make up the ground.

This simple fact is the number one contributing factor why school districts cannot understand why they have a declining rate of relative performance (high stakes and national assessments) as their students move from elementary to middle to high school. High school principals are frustrated with ACT performance not aligning with student GPAs. Looking longitudinally, we see most A students in elementary and middle school are below the state average on state accountability scores.

Punishing Brilliance

The other side of this coin is a situation that hits most districts’ accountability in two ways: failing students with high aptitude. As we noted above, we are crushing some of our most promising students with compliance-based grading. Our longitudinal analysis showed how devastating this can be for school districts. When students receive Cs, Ds, and Fs on a consistent basis, they build a mental model about their aptitude. Parents and students start to believe they are ‘not good at math,’ for example, when their state assessment testing shows that they have very high aptitude for it.

You cannot afford to lose these students because they are propping up your ‘loved to failure’ student scores. But statistically speaking, as we showed above, these students will fall below the proficiency line within two years.

You don’t have to accept this. It starts with leadership.

How to break the cycle

Two immediate actions can help break this cycle.

Schools should be holding regular grade correlation meetings where they explore this very issue – classroom grades’ correlation with assessment testing. Districts can use software to measure the correlations down to the student and classroom level. Students and classrooms whose correlations are off may need interventions.

Second, classroom assessment weightings and methodology should be standardized across grade levels and ideally across schools. This standardization should be data-driven based on the analysis above to ensure all stakeholders understand the rationale for making these changes. Using a data-driven approach allows you to align course grades with mastery. By doing so, both parents and students will understand student progress throughout the year.

This approach can be unpopular. Teachers and principals are people and sometimes give into the social pressures of their feeder patterns. They may have gone to school with Suzy’s mom or live on the same street. But that shouldn’t matter. We are here to educate students and give them every opportunity to succeed in life. Suzy’s parents would rather Suzy be successful in life than have the wool pulled over their eyes throughout elementary school.

Full article on Emerging EdTech