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Andrew Hecht

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Should public schools in the United States eliminate the traditional A to F grading scale? And if so, what assessment do we replace it with?

In 5 months, at the age of 21, I will be graduating college from the University of Florida. Yet, it wasn't until recently that I began to realize how distorted my view of education has been for past 15 years of my life. From childhood, we are commonly "taught" (and indoctrinated) that when we receive "good grades", we are "good people" and "good students." Consequently, beginning around kindergarten, a child's self worth is defined on an "A" to "F" scale. From the perspective of a child, an "A" student is "good" and an "F" student is "bad".

This belief entirely distorts the real purpose of education. We are commonly driven to learn not for the sake of learning; but instead, we are motivated by the almighty grade. Growing up, rather than reading books for fun or curiosity, I commonly read only those books that were assigned. Rather than exploring new concepts, I stayed on the designated curriculum and track. And rather than creating new ideas after school, I completed my homework. By high school, my GPA became somewhat of a false deity, a barometer of self worth, and a ticket to future success. Sadly, a large number of my "academically successful" peers had an even more distorted view of education than I. In high school, I often saw students copying each others homework before class as a means to manipulate the system. School was not about learning, it was about recieiving high grades. In college, this same manipulation manifests itself every time I hear a student say "I'm not taking Professor X's class because it's hard and I need an "A" for grad/law/med school."

Moreover, not only does the "A" to "F" scale seem flawed but the standards we measure as well. Commonly, in public schools we measure math, science, and reading but deny the students who excel in dance, singing, painting, building, and poetry the self worth of receiving an "A" in their area of expertise.

Should pub. schools in the US eliminate the traditional A to F grading scale? Is there a better way?

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  • Jan 9 2012: Replacing the A to F grading system will not change the culture of school to the extent that we would like, because the grading scale isn't the problem. The problem is the deeply embedded cultural idea that a good grade = a good person and a bad grade = a bad person.

    As a teacher, one of the biggest obstacles I face is the fear of "the wrong answer". Useful learning is not comprised of a set of memorized facts or formulas. Useful learning requires that a student be able to take the facts and actually build formulas through experimentation, analyzation, synthesis and extrapolation. If a student is afraid to take a guess, then he or she will never get to the other steps. In an attempt to begin to free students from the fear of failure I built a sign that is prominently displayed in the classroom. It says" There are no such things as mistakes or failures, only choices and outcomes. If your choice didn't work, make a different choice until you get an outcome that does."

    Most of the methods used in education are at least 150 years old. They do not take into account current knowledge about the brain and how humans learn. We are only just now beginning to adjust our classrooms to use the new technology. My colleagues and I are about 20 years behind when it comes to integrating computer tech in school. The whole field needs to be forced into the 21st century, both physically and philosophically. Experimentation needs to be encouraged and failure seen as a way to learn what not to do next time.

    It is a shame that the field insists on doing the same things and expecting different results. A new assessment would focus on what the student could do with the information rather than the information itself. This would make the assessment as useful to the student as it is to the teacher.
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      Jan 10 2012: Mariahn,

      Such a good point about the difference between memorization and applied learning! It makes a lot of sense therefore that the problem is not so much the grading system as the fact that teachers use the wrong metrics on which to judge performance. Why don't more teachers grade on demonstration of competence at a skill or step, as opposed to grading on memorization? Or, what can be done to shift the mindset?

      I also agree with you about having a tolerance for experimentation. I think it's important to highlight the iterative nature of this. One experiment which ends in "failure" should not be the end of the lesson. The experimentation should be continued until "success" is achieved (however that is defined).

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