Grading students: Pass them? Fail them? Your job? Their development?

Posted: July 16, 2012 in For Educators
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One of the most difficult tasks that teachers face today is how to assign grades to their students. Do you grade objectively? considering only the students test performance, acquisition of information, quality of work and attendance… and risk turning in low pass rates to your administrator? Do you grade simply to meet the unspoken pass rate quota so that your job is secure?… despite the disservice it may do to the development of your student(s)?  Do you grade based on what you think might be most motivational to the student? Or are you an educator who has found a way to both honor your own professional integrity and meet everyone else’s needs and expectations?

Today, many students are entering high school with deficient skills for their age and grade level, and their teachers are left trying to figure out how to both catch them up and teach them the material you’re responsible for teaching them. Essentially, you’re being held accountable for the teachers who taught your students before you (or tried and failed at teaching them), as well as covering your own curriculum.

Looking at the issue from a larger perspective, clearly the structure of our educational system is imperfect (understatement?), with an over-reliance on testing, promotion rates, statistics and grades and an under-emphasis on actual learning and the development of critical thinking and analytical skills. Looking at the issue from a more individual perspective, teachers are caught in the crossfire, standing in front of rooms filled with students who are ill prepared to meet the expectations of their current class and grade… let alone beyond high school and into adulthood.

Unfortunately for educators, there doesn’t seem to be one formula.  Each teacher is left to reflect on their own, trying to manage their own professional integrity and job security anxiety. Each teacher is left searching their school for the support and guidance they need to be able to negotiate this climate of teachers-under-microscopes and increased student neediness.

Whatever the origin of low performance, whether its inadequate parenting or supervision at home, the influence of media and exploding technologies, or actual learning disabilities and/or emotional disturbances… the job of the teacher NEVER changes.  How do you, the teacher, being pulled in all kinds of personal and professional directions, educate your students AND meet the expectations of your administration and job description?

For teachers, it’s easy to resent the position you’re in, stretched thin by the opposing pulls of what’s right and what’s necessary. It’s easy to feel and express righteousness in the face of administrators who appear to have drifted away from what’s best for the student, and towards statistics and data. It’s easy to slip into martyrdom and self-pity and it’s even easier to justify cynicism and the lowering of expectations. And many educators do… but even more don’t.

When it comes to time to submit grades, each teacher must be clear for themselves what their priority is, and they must be comfortable with their decision. It’s a challenging enough job where you don’t need to bring any added stress home to your loved ones. Do you give an inflated grade hoping it motivates the student? Or do you give an accurate or lower grade hoping it motivates the student? Do you emphasize character and conduct? Or do you grade based solely on the quantitative data? Do you allow your personal feelings about a student influence the grade you assign? Or do you focus only on giving the grade that will promote the most development and reflection?

No one can tell a teacher how to make this choice. Students are being promoted from prior grades into your classroom unprepared for what you have to ask of them. And these same students are bringing into your classroom stresses, dramas, traumas and unhealthy habits. So how does reading this help you when it comes to grading your students? Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your comfort level making tough decisions for yourself),  it’s up to you to decide what your priorities are when it comes to educating and grading. But as a guide, you might want to put some thought into the following considerations:

  • Try to have an accurate sense of your standing in your school and in the eyes of your supervisor.
  • Be clear as to the spoken AND unspoken expectations of your supervisor and school regarding class pass rates and test pass rates.
  • Where are you in regards to your tenure and job security?
  • How connected are you to your union representative?
  • Are you sufficiently organized with your grade and attendance book to justify all of your grades to your administrators and the parents of your students?
  • How prepared do you think the student is for any state exams they might have to take that you’re held accountable for.
  • Based on what you’ve seen from the student, do you think the student is personally invested in achievement enough to be motivated by a lower grade and explanation? Or are they so fragile and apathetic that a failing grade might push them into giving up?
  • Who are your confidants in your building? Who do you trust to talk openly to about your confusion?

And from a counselors perspective who has partnered with all demographics of teachers with all kinds of teaching styles with all different kinds of relationships with their department heads… if you do your jobs with integrity and honor your role as educators, and you’re as organized as you can be in tracking student work and progress, and you’re keeping the parents of your students in the loop, your job will be far safer, and your students will be far better off than if you’re coasting or simply hoping that people will like you enough to want to keep you around.


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