High School Grades: High Stakes and High Costs for Families

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Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/9htwN2
Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/9htwN2

Samara is a great English student. She plays by the rules, working hard to complete every assignment her teachers give her to the very best of her ability, staying after school for extra help several times each week, and studying diligently for every quiz and test given.

She also has a very hard working teacher. Mrs. Reynard graduated at the very top of her class from a prestigious university, she’s won awards for her work in the classroom, and students and parents alike respect her. She takes pride in her work and has very high expectations for all.

This quarter, sophomores like Samara are studying rhetoric and logic in Mrs. Reynard’s class. They are tested heavily on what they study, and they are expected to use this knowledge to provide informed criticism of the debates that their peers engage in during class. Students are also examining Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. They write long and hard in response to the comprehension questions Mrs. Reynard assigns each night for homework, and they are quizzed on their reading. Daily.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Reynard misunderstands what rigor truly is, and her clouded perspective informs how she designs her tests. She includes reading passages that are incredibly long and well above the independent reading level of some students (because that’s what they’ll confront on the standardized assessment at year’s end she reminds me), and she requires her students to complete 40 multiple choice and five short response questions in a fifty minute class period.

“Smart students study so well they are able to think fast on tests,” she tells them.

What’s worse is that often, she isn’t able to attend to certain unit topics and skills with as much depth as she would like to because she runs out of time.

“The required curricula is forty thousand miles long and an inch deep,” she tells me. “The kids who want to do well need to do the reading on their own at home, they need to study every night, and they need to perform well on my daily quizzes.  I can’t be expected to teach them everything. They must be independent. Pop quizzes keep the hard working kids honest. This helps me know who is reading and who isn’t.”

Most of her students finish her course with averages in the low to mid 80s. A few, like Samara, earn higher grades. It’s very rare for anyone to score above a 93%, though.

“And there is no extra credit,” Mrs. Reynard reminds them frequently.

This is what sent Samara into panic mode when she learned that she was failing English with only a few days left in the marking period.

“Is there no way for me to fix this?” she pleaded with Mrs. Reynard. Despite her admiration for her student, the teacher would not budge.

“You missed two tests for me this quarter,” Mrs. Reynard explained. “Our school has a mandate that requires me to take multiple grades every week. You’ve done very well most weeks. Unfortunately, these tests were weighted four times heavier than the others I’ve given. Four hundred points. Each.”

“I didn’t know about them,” Samara admitted. “I missed class during my college visits, and when I returned, you were away at your conference for a week. I didn’t think to ask you if I missed anything when you returned. So much time had passed, and I figured that you would tell me if I owed you anything. I would have done well on those tests. You know that I work hard.”

“Yes, but this was your responsibility,” the teacher told her, and Samara did not disagree. “Fortunately, this is just one marking period, and it’s only your sophomore year. We all fail sometimes. It’s not like the stakes are high. ”

But the stakes are high

And Samara didn’t fail to learn. She failed to complete two tests because she didn’t even know they were given.

In the end, Samara didn’t simply fail the trimester.

She was robbed.

Every point matters inside of grade based systems. Colleges and universities are big business now, and big business is costly. Stealing points away from kids is the same as stealing money.

Think I’m over dramatizing here? Think on this a while:

The difference between a 2.5, a 3.3, and 3.7 grade point average can cost a student entry into the top schools for her selected major. This influences her job prospects.  What’s worse is that the same difference in grade point average can cost students and parents tens of thousands of dollars in merit scholarship money and grants too. When families are paying anywhere from $30,000 to $250,000 for an undergraduate degree and colleges and universities offer to defray those costs substantially by offering financial rewards to those who earned high grades in high school, every point counts.

“Well, maybe if Samara cared so much about winning scholarships she should have been responsible enough to make up those tests,” Mrs. Reynard might say.

And maybe we should start thinking a whole lot harder about the unintended consequences of garbage grading and take more responsibility ourselves by adhering to best practices if we’re all about grades.

Or maybe we should do even better than that. Maybe we should start asking people in power what grades truly reveal about students like Samara and every one of her peers, regardless of how they performed. If we did, we might consider ditching our grades entirely. We don’t have to test or grade to make a meaningful assessment of our students’ strengths and needs. In fact, I’m convinced that the more we test and grade, the weaker our assessment of students becomes.

Do these suggestions make you curious? Uncomfortable? Joyful? A little mad? Share your thoughts by jumping into the #TTOG chat.

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.

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