(Editor's note: Entirely Secondary is a column by English teacher Jerry Heverly. The title is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do a science experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary.)
By Jerry Heverly
Grades are important. They can get you into college. They can, indirectly, get
you into jail. They can get you put in a classroom with loud, obnoxious people or one with future lawyers and physicians.
In some cases I can manipulate student behavior with grades—although not
as much as you might think. Even kids who care about grades often won’t change their behavior to affect their grade point average.
I keep a numerical record of my students’ performance in a computer at
school. Any parent can use the school’s ABI system to track, day-by-day, how their child is doing in my class. In theory the number in the computer is only a guide for me in establishing a letter grade on the report card.
I could, if I wanted to, give an A to a student with a 50 percent average or give an F to a student with a 90 percent average if I saw fit. I don’t do that, of course, because it would undermine people’s faith in the system.
I do, however, make alterations in the computer to sometimes increase or
decrease a grade to reflect factors that the number might not capture. A brilliant student whose work was exemplary but who missed many classes because her beloved grandmother died in Texas might see her 63 percent grade miraculously turn into an 85 percent.
In other words I use grades for various purposes. Which brings me to my question. Should I use grades to control behavior?
That isn’t exactly the same thing as grades that reflect behavior. That always
happens, sometimes unconsciously. The student who tried and who cooperated gets a break where the miscreants don’t.
I’m talking about something I’ve never done—but have been tempted to do
for years: include some behavior component in my calculations when I compute the number that goes into the ABI system.
I’ve always felt a moral aversion to the practice. I get visions of Clockwork
Orange or 1984 when I see myself judging a child’s habits or conduct. And what
could be more subjective? Wouldn’t I inevitably identify more with the quiet docility of White and Asian kids?
The test-driven world that I live in now says that ‘college readiness’ is what
should be measured, not cooperativeness, or helpfulness, or, especially not a
student’s work ethic.
What about tardiness? That seems to be the most tempting and the closest to
objectivity. Why not give extra points to students who arrive on time?
But maybe “on time” isn’t enough. Better “on time, sitting in your seat, with
materials at the ready”.
You’d be amazed at how difficult it can be to ‘measure’ whether 35 people
are sitting in their seats with materials ready.
Let’s suppose I was willing to put the time and energy into toting up scores
for tardiness and adding it to everyone’s grade. What about more subjective criteria?
“Quietly listening to the teacher”? That’s really where this urge to use grades
came into my head.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could gain quiet in a room simply by holding the
grading cudgel over their heads?
It wouldn’t work. The kids who disrupt class don’t care about grades. The
obstreperous students always have three to five F’s on their report cards.
Having written this I find that my reasons for not grading behavior are still
strong: it’s impractical, open to legitimate charges of prejudice, and not reflective of what I believe school is about—effort and intellectual growth.
(New to the column? Read other installments of Entirely Secondary.)
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