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Schools should have a pass/fail grading system on core subjects

Schools spend too much energy distinguishing between scores like 85% and 95% under the false pretense that the difference is meaningful. Perhaps high school (and lower) educations should be about meeting minimum standards for fluency in a subject. I suggest using today's C+/B- as the bar.

Our schools try to create subject matter experts in subjects which matter little to success in life. We can, of course, offer any number of rigorous, grade-based courses for those interested.

However, the objective should be to impart the knowledge needed to be productive and informed participants of our communities.

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    • May 17 2013: I love this! My favorite phrase to say when people in leadership roles truly mess things up by lying, cheating, stealing and hiding things is...."what part of kindergarten did they miss"?
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    May 11 2013: Hi Ash,

    I teach at the 2-year college level, and so I can't comment with any expertise on primary and secondary-school education, but I do encounter many students recently graduated from high school who are woefully unprepared in basic areas such as mathematics and reading comprehension.

    One strategy I've found extremely helpful, especially for these students, is to divide the concepts taught in each of my courses into two categories: "have to know" and "good to know". The "good to know" concepts get tested on a percentage scale, with a certain minimum score for passing. Those concepts which are "have to know" (i.e. critically important) get tested at a mastery level -- students cannot pass the course unless and until they demonstrate mastery (100% competence) of those concepts on both written tests and performance evaluations. At first this might seem unnecessarily strict and/or disheartening to students who fail to demonstrate mastery. The key to its success is that students are given multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery, with each re-try triggering a one-on-one conference with me to identify where they're experiencing trouble and what to do to prepare for their next try. This process focuses both student and instructor attention directly on what they need the most. In fact, mastery assessment has proven most beneficial to those students who arrive most unprepared from high school.

    One huge problem I see with the structure of most courses is that it's based on a percentage scale, allowing a fairly large amount of concent to go unlearned. If a student knows that their grade is based on a 500-point scale, and all they need is 370 points to pass, the course is likely to be treated by the student as a kind of game: a cynical act of collecting points to win. With mastery-based assessment, however, it's no longer a game one can cut corners on.
    • May 13 2013: I like this approach, like it very much, this "have to know" piece. This would take some serious re-jiggering of education, but might just be the way forward.
  • May 11 2013: A simple pass/fail grade is too broad a stroke for there ARE difference between an A student and a C/D student. Especially one who can consistently get A and one who consistently get C/D. It is true that the distinction can be refined but don't think it should be abolished, not for the formal testing.
  • May 17 2013: Why do we need grades at all? All they do is tell you how you compare to others or if you meet a specified standardization of conformity. What if we had portfolios that showed how an individual has progressed over time with no goal of reaching a particular standard but rather self appointed goals. If ones self esteem is a tad on the low side it will only be worse if 'forced' to compete against the brightest kid in the class because they feel they could never be like that person. But if that person can see their very own growth and be encouraged strictly by what they have done themselves wouldn't self esteem grow? We need ways to create self motivated people who are not competing for everything. Put the competition in some other place. I work in the arts with people with disabilities and mental illness and one of the first things I let them know is there are no wrong answers and that is an instant eye opener and moves the person towards higher self esteem very quickly. I think our education system should look at people as being on a spectrum not a grade level. We all have our gifts in life. Some may have the gift of extreme intelligence in chemistry and have their PHD in it but can't write while others have their gift in writing but don't have a degree at all. So whose better? The person with the highest degree? Or the exceptional writer with no degree? Our grading system as it is puts those with the best grades up on pedestals and others at their feet mired in self doubt and low self esteem. We are all equal. I believe we are all on a horizontal line that is connected at both ends to form a circle called a circular spectrum of gifts and we all slide along that line depending on where we are in life and we all 'live' at different and multiple points depending on where our gifts are.
  • May 14 2013: We are removing government from the education industry .
  • May 13 2013: What I struggle with is the suggestions of many TedED speakers to be more "creative" and "innovative" and to de-emphasize grades and testing. How do we get to a the "right" level of education if testing is not the end-all, be-all? I'm suggesting a parellel to how some professional certification programs work: you get a passing grade whether it's an 80% or a 100% because the certification body says that is "good."

    Do we know what "good" looks like? And then can we put the TedED suggestions into practice?
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      May 14 2013: Various forms of assessment have a useful place as ways of monitoring what students understand and are able to do so that teachers can try approach the content differently for those who show they are not getting it and students can approach their study differently when they see they don't know how to use or explain the content at hand.. Assessments are a part of the process of meeting the needs of the student. They are not a goal.
  • May 11 2013: Better yet...take away grading authority from teachers completely.

    Face it: We don't trust our teachers.

    Otherwise we wouldn't be having all these standardized tests, creating common cores, initiating "Value Added" ratings to teachers.

    Since we obviously don't trust our teachers, we should take away grading authority from them. And since we're going to have more and more testing for "common core" standards...

    Let's make the test scores the grades!

    Not only would it create a standard grading system across the entire country, it would free teachers from the worst, the most pointless, the most worthless part of their jobs: grading papers and tracking those grades.

    Teachers would be free to teach instead of administrating.
    Administrators would have common, strictly vetted achievement comparisons.

    And students get the best of this: They get a more actively engaged teacher in the classroom because he or she is no longer burdened with any administration beyond taking attendance. That alone will achieve better outcome improvements than all the ideas of the last 60 years.
  • May 11 2013: Seems like just another step in the "dumbing-down" of America. Core subjects (history, civics, music, art, chemistry, physics, math, et. al.) may not lead directly to the acquisition of wealth, but are essential to an understanding of the world surrounding us. An A+ on your Javascript test might boost your income, but what good is that if you haven't read the Federalist Papers? Critical reasoning can only be achieved by thorough immersion in core subjects; subjects which won't necessarily help you get an MBA. The purpose of education is NOT to acquire more money...that's vocational training.

    95% versus 85% is indeed a meaningful difference when it comes to understanding why 9/11 happened,
    why the Westboro Baptist Church exists, why we let our respresentatives be bought and vote against our own interests, why we let ourselves be so easily influenced by Fox News sound bites. It is also extremely important to TED viewers. I want to hear and reflect on what the A+ speakers have to say; not the mediocre C+ students. We had plently of that from Bush junior.
  • May 11 2013: Ash, do you mean, instead of reaching for 'the best', we should have kids reach for 'the best they can possibly achieve', above a certain standard.
    What is used to determine the minimum standards right now?
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    May 10 2013: As you propose pass-fail grading on core subjects but then also write "We can, of course, offer any number of rigorous, grade-base courses for those interested," what sort of sorting do you envision? Who do you think would choose at the high school level the courses in which excellent performance in core subjects would be acknowledged, and who would choose the courses in which excellent performance would not be distinguished from barely passing? Or are you suggesting that schools not be permitted to offer any CORE subjects in a graded way but could offer non-core subjects in a graded way?

    Specifically, are you saying that schools should keep, and potentially report to colleges, no records of whether a student performed outstandingly in math, science, language arts or history, but it would be okay to make such distinctions in other subjects?