Monday, June 23, 2014

Get Ready, Not Right!

I occasionally hear the following question as a concern or sometimes even an argument against standards-based or standards-referenced grading: “If all kids have multiple chances to get something right, won’t they all get "As"?” It is a question that interests me as an educational leader and as a parent of school-aged kids for a couple of reasons.

1. Whatever your opinions and feelings about educational standards are, standards of knowledge and performance are a very real and integral part of life. Medical schools and pilot training programs have standards for issuing certifications and licensure for example. I believe a common set of outcomes (standards) is a good thing for students leaving our schools and heading out into life. It would imply or even confirm that students are ready for whatever is next in life’s journey. I believe traditional letter grades have nothing to do with effectively communicating whether or not students have achieved proficiency in standards and even less to do with conveying that students are ready for life’s next steps. (Think about your high school classmates today - or maybe even your own school and life experience)

As a parent, I see standards as a readiness or preparedness factor for whatever my child wants to study or pursue beyond high school. If he leaves high school proficient in the majority of the standards - he is ready! As an educator, I see standards as the minimum for readiness beyond high school. It is our job, our calling, and our responsibility to make sure ALL kids leave our schools ready. Let’s quit worrying about whether or not all kids should or shouldn’t get As and make sure all kids are ready! If my straight-A high school student ends up living at home in my basement in December after high school graduation, all the "As", top 5% awards, and class ranks will mean only one thing. She isn’t ready. (and that we spent several thousand dollars in college tuition to figure it out)

2. Second chances. Life is full of second chances. But often times in school, we want students to get it right the first time. “It’s not fair that my child worked harder and got the same grade as yours who took three tries to get it right..” I’ve heard. Hard work is a valuable and honorable trait. Good things happen to those who work hard. Agreed. No argument from me on this one. But, here is a question: What real life scenario exists where you don’t get a second chance to show that you are ready? Ready for the next step? Ready for the next course? Ready for a certification or licensure exam? How many kids take the ACT and learn they need to work a little harder? There is no limit to the number of times a person can take the ACT or many other high-stakes tests in the “real world.” Let’s stop worrying about getting it right the first time and getting "As", and focus our energy on getting kids ready!

There are thousands of scenarios where it is important to get it right the first time in life. Example: In the middle of a life-saving operation, surgeons don’t get a second chance to get it right. But while in medical school, there are hundreds of opportunities to read and hear and learn about procedures from professors, practice on cadavers under strict supervision, and observe and assist other surgeons through residency. In medical school, the focus isn’t on getting it right the first time or who works harder and learns faster. The focus is getting the students ready to get it right! Doctors are not walking around hospitals with "As", "Bs", and "Cs" branded on their lab coats. They do, however, have a framed piece of paper hanging on the office wall that certifies proficiency in the standards of medicine. In other words, ready.

Standards for K-12 education have been in place long before the common core. And there will likely always be high-stakes assessment and accountability for student achievement in education. But, in my 20 years as an educator, I have yet to see any research that proves letter grades are an effective means to communicate proficiency compared to the standards, or that students are ready. Students who are proficient compared to an industry or educational standard are ready.

Rethinking traditional grading practice is the logical first step in transforming K-12 schooling from a system of ranking and sorting to one where all students graduate readyReady for whatever they choose to do when they take their final walk out the doors of school. Isn’t that what’s right? Isn’t that our fundamental purpose?