Here’s a cartoon I came across recently on Facebook:
It was timely, because I was feeling something similar myself. I’ve had more push back from parents and students in recent years about grades. Think back to your high school years — would you have challenged a teacher on a grade that you thought was too low? I couldn’t have imagined challenging my teachers on any grade they gave me; whether I loved or loathed them, I had a healthy fear of and respect for them. Don’t get me wrong — I was on a first-name basis with some of my teachers, so it wasn’t an issue of really fearing them. It’s just that it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to challenge a grade that they had assigned me on a test or paper; they were teachers. What they said went.
Fast-forward fifteen years, and things have really changed. I think it’s great that students are advocates for themselves, and I think it’s great that in education we’re challenging the traditional notion that just because teachers are teachers they “know” when a paper is an A vs. an A-. After working in some good international schools, especially ones with IB programs, those arguments don’t hold up very well against the ones that offer moderation (group grading exercises to align different teachers’ standards), clear, public criteria and rubrics. So I encourage students to ask questions about how and why they are being assessed a certain way. On more than one occasion, I have taken one of those assignments from a student, shown it to colleagues to ask for their assessment against the rubric, and handed it back to the student with the feedback that the colleagues all agreed with my original assessment (though on a couple of occasions, they actually marked it lower).
But the push-back I feel creeping more and more into my inbox and my after-school meetings is the one that goes something like this: “But Johnny has always had As and now he is getting a B-. The problem must be your grading.”
Some students and parents are nice about it; others less so. And I do not blame them for being confused or upset over an apparent drop in ability that is really a marker of grade inflation. But I get the feeling more often now than I ever have before that students believe they deserve an A just for working hard. The problem is, the standards don’t say anything about effort. I appreciate it when a student is working hard, but you can work very hard and not be effective, and if I reward you for that hard work with an A, how will you get better? What will happen on your IB exams? In college?
I had a telling conversation with a colleague friend today that really hit this home. In high school, she was a straight-A, 4.0 student. When she got to college, a large state university, she started getting Cs in her courses and she was devastated. She couldn’t understand what had happened (and worse, nobody there seemed to care). She got ulcers and came home to her parents every weekend because of the stress. Her boyfriend at the time (now her husband) helped edit her papers, and she was shocked when he told her she couldn’t write the way she spoke — she had to write for the appropriate audience, academically. “I had no idea. No one had ever told me that,” she said. “I had an A in English in high school and had no idea how to write.”
Her story struck me, because I had the polar opposite experience. I went to a very demanding private school (only because my mother worked there and tuition was free for me), where it was not uncommon to have 3 – 4 hours of homework a night in middle school. My senior year in high school, I took an infamous course taught by the headmaster that required us to read almost an entire novel a week and write a three-page paper upon finishing each one. It was “impossible” to get an A in that class, and I have never worked so hard in my life. I got a B and was so proud of it; I still am. I even had a C in AP European History, a class I spent hours working on and could not get my head around. I did manage to graduate with honors, but no where near the top of my very bright, hardworking class. But when I got to college, also a large state university, everything seemed so easy. It wasn’t that the work was that easy — some of it was, and some wasn’t. There were plenty of highly challenging courses to take, and some of them kicked my butt — it was that I knew how to do everything asked of me. Write a killer five-page paper at the end of that book? Check. Read and annotate the dickens out of every text required? Check. Manage my time effectively? Check. Use various study skills to learn new material? Check. Think critically and creatively? Check. Give a 30-minute presentation to my professor on the biology of breast cancer? Check. My fancy private school hadn’t set me up with a transcript of As, but by God, it had prepared me for college. I graduated Summa Cum Laude, was the top student in my major, won two awards as an undergrad, and earned a 4.0 in graduate school. I’m not bragging (OK, maybe a little…); what I’m trying to say that there is a difference between getting As and getting an education.
Of course they aren’t mutually exclusive. You can get a great education and get As. But you can get a great education and not get As, and this will be far more valuable to you later than all your empty As without the education.
My colleague friend told me today how she watched as dozens of people she knew from high school, students who were “good” students, go to college and wind up dropping out because they simply did not have the skills to manage their time or their studies the way college required them to. They had been led to believe they were better than they were by inflated grades.
So I say to those parents who challenge the B- their son has at midterms: Please don’t worry. I know what it takes for your son to succeed in IB when he gets there, and my goal is to get him there. I know what it takes for your son to succeed in college, and my goal is to get him there. And if you really want to know the truth, the best teachers are usually the toughest graders. Not because they want to hurt your kid’s chances, but because they actually want to help them.