In a previous blog about grades, I warned that the love of good grades could be like the love of money, “the root of all kinds of evil “(I Timothy 6:10) I promoted the idea that our goal is to help students to love learning and not just focus on grades. I suggested that an overemphasis on grades can tempt students to take harmful shortcuts. Students, teachers, and parents can slip into an unhealthy focus on grades instead of learning.
And now for the other side of the story. Money can be the proper reward for quality labor, and it can be stewarded for good purposes. So can grades.
So when are grades good? When are they highly valuable?
1. When students use them to set goals to guide their next steps.
2. When classroom instruction and assignments are good.
3. When an “A” indicates genuine excellence.
1. Grades can be very helpful for students who use them to set goals and guide their next steps. I have often seen students who look at grades just to compare themselves with others, or as a judgment levied by the teacher. Classmates are seen as competitors, and teachers are seen as judges. On the other hand, I have seen good students who are really eager to learn and to improve. They focus on the problems they have missed or the note from the teacher providing improvement suggestions. They compare their score with the goal they set for themselves. They are like a competitive runner who checks each of his training times in preparation for his next race. For this student, grades are good information, but they are not an end in themselves. They are like money in the hands of a person who is saving up for something of high value. It is interesting to note that our best students are also the ones most likely to log into PowerSchool. These students care and they keep track of upcoming assignments and of their progress.
2. The value of the grade should directly correspond with the quality of the assignments and classroom instruction. I see our school becoming stronger as we train students toward greater creativity, intellectual curiosity, thinking skills, and ability to learn well with others. We want to enhance each class period and assignment by adding these emphases to other core literacies. We want to replace tests of short-term memory of snippets of information with assignments that develop good thinking. These changes place a lot of responsibility on the teachers to look for ways to improve each lesson and assignment.
But it’s worth the extra effort, because high quality classroom instruction and assignments are essential for learning and for high value grades. As we push into more assignments that require increasingly better thinking, our students will stretch. They won’t get high grades simply from completing assignments, cramming information, or decoding test questions. We believe that students will enjoy learning as it is increasingly stimulating and meaningful. It is wonderful to learn new things and to discover new intellectual abilities. The thrill of intellectual discovery can rival the joy we experience in learning to ride a bike or paint a picture or make music.
3. An “A” should indicate excellence. We must avoid inflationary pressures in our grading. Students want high grades, and parents sometimes demand them, but an “A” is for students who do excellent work on assignments and who invest themselves in the learning that the assignment intends. Curiosity and creativity coupled with precision, accuracy, thoroughness, and quality of presentation are some key characteristics of excellent work. Excellent students are invested in their learning. Great students are not apathetic, just trying to figure out how to do the minimum required. They care, they get involved in their learning, and they look for ways to excel. An “A” is a great encouragement to such a student. It’s like a really good tip given to a waiter who doesn’t just deliver the food, but who connects with his customers and looks for ways to serve and make the meal a wonderful experience.
I was proud of some 9th grade students in a class that I supervised recently. Their assignment was to write a story using twenty vocabulary words. Some of the students not only completed the assignment, but they thoughtfully incorporated the words into clever stories. A couple of students even wrote sequels to earlier stories they had written. This was evidence of personal investment. They cared and made the story meaningful, exceeding the basic requirement to use the vocabulary words. Getting an “A” on a high quality assignment like this means a lot more than getting one for completing a word search puzzle or matching words with definitions.
To sum up, grades are like money, and they can be used for good. It’s the love of money or grades that gets us in trouble. Grades can be rewarding and encouraging and can help guide a student in setting goals and identifying the next things to learn.