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School Grades Must Be Fair, Accurate

As marks become more important than ever, factors that influence them are worth a look. Many have little to do with how well the student knows the subject. Performance assessment must be the product of a logical, equitable system.

February 07, 2001|CHRISTINE BARON | Christine Baron is a high school English teacher in Orange County. You can reach her at educ@latimes.com or (714) 966-4550

Many students have now received their first semester grades, which means that discussions about how to bring them up are going on in many families.

At the same time, educators also should be talking about grades--and evaluating their own performance in coming up with meaningful ways to assess a student's work.

Controversy about this issue is nothing new. I think all of us have received an arbitrary grade that seemed anything but an accurate assessment of our real knowledge. Although grading will never be a pure science, there certainly are steps educators can take to make it a more accurate reflection of student achievement.

To begin with, everyone who assigns grades needs to consider what a final grade actually means. It seems reasonable that a grade should represent the degree to which a student has mastered the subject matter. This is assessed through tests and assignments that allow students to demonstrate what they know. If the subject is Spanish II, the student is expected to speak and write Spanish at a certain level agreed upon by the foreign language department. If the subject is American history, the student is expected to demonstrate an understanding of important events and concepts.

But other factors go into a grade--factors that might have less to do with actual achievement.

Take homework, for example. Some teachers insist that turning in homework is required for a decent grade. However, there are students who can nail every trigonometry test without doing any homework. Can the teacher still insist that homework is essential to understanding the subject? Is it fair to penalize students for missing homework even though they have demonstrated mastery of the material? To be sure, there are homework assignments that do not constitute "practice," but it's important to differentiate between the two.

Another component often figured into a grade is effort, and, nice as it is, it cannot be a relevant indicator of achievement. Let's say a student in 11th grade English has perfect attendance, attempts to write every essay, and pays close attention in class. But at the end of the grading period, the student still cannot write a paragraph without serious errors.

One may want to reward the effort, but are we really doing students a favor by raising their grades just because they tried hard? Inflated grades give both students and parents a skewed vision of reality.

On top of this, the student may be assigned to a class the next year based on grades that have little relation to the student's true ability. The new teacher will be frustrated and the student angry or hurt.

Perhaps most problematic is extra credit. Some teachers with good intentions resort to this in order to boost low achievement. Too often, extra credit has little to do with the original assignment or even the subject matter itself.

Some questionable examples students have reported are donating blood to the Red Cross, keeping statistics for a sport the teacher happens to coach, or bringing in class supplies.

If a student has not done well on work the teacher thinks is essential, why should he or she then be allowed to do something else altogether, thus bypassing the required work the other students have done? If a teacher is giving students a second chance, the work should be similar to and as challenging as the original assignment. If the point is to increase competence in biology, then making a poster of Darwin won't cut it.

Even if schools and teachers agree on the key components of a grade, they still have to agree on how to measure each component accurately. Even in a school that appears to have a fairly unified curriculum, there remains the potential for inconsistencies.

Let's say the English teachers at a particular school decide they will carefully follow the state framework and that grades will thus be based primarily on the ability to write a coherent and error-free essay. Unless these same teachers can agree on reasonable criteria for judging that essay, there's a good chance that the grades will vary.

Like it or not, the increasing reliance on standardized tests, especially the upcoming high school exit exam, will place even stronger emphasis on the letter grades students receive in their academic classes. It's not going to go over well if a student receives a B in algebra, but cannot pass the math portion of the exit exam. Either the test is too hard or the classroom grade is too high.

We all hope that state-mandated tests eventually will assess those things that our kids truly need to know, but in the meantime we also are faced with the impact these tests have on our schools. Teachers will feel even more pressure to see that their grades are closely tied to mastery of subject matter.

There are districts, schools, and teachers who are concerned about this issue and who work to ensure that grades reflect achievement, but this is far from universal.

Teachers are different; variations are to be expected. But it seems reasonable that schools can arrive at some agreement on what kind of assessment best measures student achievement and what constitutes an A performance versus a C performance on those assessments. Students' grades should not be a matter of luck, depending on which teacher they draw, but the result of a fair and logical grading system.

* Christine Baron is a high school English teacher in Orange County. You can reach her at oceducate@latimes.com or (714) 966-4550.

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