What does a grade mean? Does an “A” look like the same thing from all perspectives? Does it feel like a slap in the face to some and a stunning achievement to others? Does it measure attendance or does it measure understanding? And really, what do we want it to mean and measure? Is there some grand vision for “the Grade” that we could all get behind?
Noah Geisel, of East High School, helped me think all of these questions through when I met with him this week. He helped me to consider the way he envisions grades: as representations of what students know and can demonstrate, rather than how much they can turn in their homework on time and “play the game of school.” This isn’t revolutionary, nor is it outside of the scope of our work to consider. Rather it is perfectly normal, or at least it should be.
Grades should not represent that you raised your hand in class; they should mean that you learned something. If you earn an “A”, it should be because you have constructed knowledge and can demonstrate that construction. To a very large extend, I don’t think we have this figured out quite yet, at least not in every classroom.
Learning is not a singular act, isolated from the overall path a student is on. It is not a status symbol to be affixed to a piece of paper. The grade is not something outside of the standards, but rather an extension of them, a way of making them real. If we take grades away from the demonstration of learning, they lose all of their value. The grade is both part and parcel of school. It can convey the meaning of student work or distract from it just as easily.
But most of us stopped getting grades after high school or college. Most of us stopped relying on them for determining self-worth or as descriptors of what we were passionate about long ago. So, I wonder if the disconnect from grades and the demonstration of learning stems from our lack of authentic grading in our own lives.
As a Spanish department chair at East High School, Noah has helped the department to look at their grading practices in ways that are authentic to both adult learning and student learning. He has engaged in the work of change management by maintaining high standards for the folks he has helped to bring on board. As a part of the interview process for new teachers, he called each candidate and spoke to them in Spanish. While that may seem like a typical thing that most people might do in his position, I can assure you it is not. He has applied the same methodology for encouraging teacher quality as he does within his classroom. He is asking others to demonstrate their learning.
It is special when someone goes out of their way to make their working environment collaborative, yet based upon an objective understanding of what is important. When grading simply becomes a way of evaluating the quality of learning and the ability to exhibit that learning, it is authentic and powerful. And I hope, something we can all get behind.