Posted by: bkivey | 6 December 2013

Grading Away Accountability

Our local paper published a story last month on grading changes in the school district. Rather than use the traditional A – F grades on midterm report cards, and final report cards for elementary students, teachers would use 1 – 4 to report student progress. Almost no one likes the idea.

District policy requires that a grading system be

“clear, understandable and accessible; consistent and standardized across subjects, courses and grade levels district wide; based on valid and reliable assessment; efficient and manageable for all stakeholders, timely and at regular intervals.”

Parents, teachers, and some board members are concerned that the new system isn’t clear, understandable, or consistent.

The design intent of the new system is that student progress will be assessed according to how students are performing relative to an overall learning objective. If a learning objective for the year is to learn long division, for instance, then a student would receive 1’s or 2’s early in the year, with the expectation that as they mastered the subject, their grade would go to a 3 or 4 by the end o f the year.

At the close of the school year, elementary students would receive an overall grade of P, P-, or F, while middle and high schoolers would receive a grade on the A – F schedule.

The changes have caused mass confusion among parents, who have no idea how well their children are doing in school, and teachers, who must now cope with an extra step and increased complexity in the grading process. School board member Anne Bryan noted:

“If we need a special decoding to understand (grades), I think we’re headed in the wrong direction,”

Parents agree. The parental quotes in the article revolve around the lack of translucency in the new grades. Given the new standards, a grade of ‘1’ or ‘2’ tells a parent nothing about how a child is doing at the moment. The purpose of a report card is to provide information on academic progress to date, not progress against some standard unknown to the parent.

As for the elementary year-end grades, what the hell does a ‘P’ mean? Assuming that it stands for ‘passing’, that could mean any numerical score between 70 and 100. The only thing this tells a parent is that their kid isn’t a total academic failure. It makes no distinction between Johnny, who’s a nice enough child, but no intellectual heavyweight, and Lisa, who’ll be a nuclear physicist at 20.

The reason given for changing a system that’s worked pretty well for centuries is that state law requires the separation of academic and behavioral grades. Huh? Other than the fact that Oregon is some thirty years behind many other states in this regard, what logical connection is there between that requirement and the grading system? When I was a high school student in North Carolina in the late ’70’s, the state passed a similar law. The only difference was that the behavioral grade was on the same scale as the academic grade. There was no wholesale changing of the system.

Generations of children have gone to school under the A – F grading system all over the world. Everyone understands it, and it’s fairly objective: test and/or homework scores are totaled at year end, and the letter grade corresponds to a numerical range. Simple.

I thought about why the district would change such a reliable, robust system. Perhaps they were suffering a hangover from the ‘self-esteem’ fad of the 90’s. Can’t have the little darling’s ego damaged with a ‘C’, so we’ll give them a ‘2’ or a ‘P’.

If student self-esteem is such an issue,  the new system is worse than the old. If a student is going to be graded against an overall objective, rather than on the material learned to date, then even the brightest child will be seeing a ‘1’ or a ‘2’ early in the year. That’s not going to be good at all for a student who may have become accustomed to nothing but ‘A’s’. As far as the grading system is concerned, the new standards put the mediocre on the same level as the brilliant, at least in the beginning of the year. Hmm. Given that left-of-center politics are over-represented in educational institutions, maybe this leveling is part of the reason. Everyone’s the same. Isn’t that fair?

My inclination, especially as there’s no real reason to change the system, is that it’s a way for the teacher’s union to shield it’s member from accountability.

Every so often, a wave of education reform mania based on teacher evaluation through student grades will sweep school boards. My opinion is that student grades aren’t a good way to evaluate teacher performance, since too much of a professional’s career rests on the ambitions and ability of children, but advocates tout it as a ‘fair’ and ‘objective’ way to evaluate teacher effectiveness. As long as grades are, in fact, based on quantitative standards like test and homework scores, there is some merit to the argument.

As soon as the objectivity in grading goes away, grades can mean anything. The kids are getting ‘1’s’ and ‘2’s’? Why, the grades are based on a continuum of learning objectives rather than knowledge to date. At the elementary level, a teacher can point to a class full of ‘P’s’, and claim job competency, even though the reality may be that most of the students  are barely working at grade level.

Barack Obama: Sportscaster

President Obama recently remarked that after he was finished with his time in the White House, he’d like to host ESPN’s Top 10 list. Other than perhaps a novelty appearance, I can’t see this happening. Despite what his sycophants claim, Mr. Obama has an annoying speaking style. There are a lot of ‘um’s’, and ‘uh’s’ in his speach. He speeds up his words attheendofsentences. Even if you agree with what he’s saying, he’s not a smooth talker.

But I thought about what he might say:

“He, uh, gets the pass, and then shoots from downtown, much as I did in the war on terror.”

“Blackhawks – Redwings, 3 minutes in the third. A one-timer through traffic into the net. Let’s hope the Blackhawks change their name, as it may offend some people.”

“Red Sox -Yankees. Top 5, full count. A towering hit to, um, straight left. He climbs the wall to make the catch, but catches his heel and falls to the, uh, ground. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, he can’t be denied insurance for this pre-existing condition.”

Hey, when can he start?

Greetings from Ulan Bator

Got my first view from Mongolia this week. This blog’s market penetration CAN NOT BE STOPPED.  On the other hand, in the nearly four years I’ve been blogging, not one hit from China.



  1. Perhaps p stands for participation trophy, that way no ones feelings are hurt, unless of course you were the one overachieving with significant sweat equity, but then of course you would be expected to suck it up and get on with it. Of course a teachers credentials should never be critiqued, as part of an established education system that just wouldn’t be right(read with sarc). Nice blog Blair!

  2. Thank you for your kind comment, Joe. I’m thinking that even in the grade-inflated world of university, claiming ‘I got a P!’ is going to lead to expressions of ‘WTF?’.

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