“Lookie here!” the principal shouts into the microphone.
Despite the upscale suit, the professorial glasses, and the elegant white hair, the principal is a bona fide Southern-bred good ol’ boy. His big eyes grow big as he pauses for effect and then thrusts his arms outward and downward to indicate two rows of students seated in chairs cordoned by stretches of blue ribbon.
“These up here in the front,” he pauses again, “are the top ten percent!” [Pause] “And they’re up here to show all the rest of y’all—”[Leans into the microphone] “—what excellence looks like!”
Obediently the rest of us look upon excellence sitting straight—if nervously—in the glory of a thousand gazes.
“Now, next year!” [Pause] “We gonna need us a bunch more blue ribbon.” [Pause] “‘Cause I wanna see every student up here in the top ten percent!”
Seated next to me, the Latin teacher leans my way and whispers, “That’s a mathematical impossibility, right?”
But in the principal’s defense, he’s not alone in overlooking this aspect of rank-ordering students. The principal’s words have rolled over the assembly like water off a duck’s back.
In my experience more than a few teachers, students, and parents vaguely believe that if everyone tries super hard, then everyone can be in the upper percentiles. Few stop to think that the traditional way of sorting out student performance guarantees that some students—no matter how well they perform—are required to be the mediocres or the losers.
For example, what if we took the principal’s top ten percent—those excellent ones sitting in ribboned chairs—and made them a group unto themselves? Brilliant as they are, they would be split into sets of winners, mediocres, and losers. In fact, they should stand up right now, turn around, and offer great thanks to the ninety-percent seated behind them. For without that ninety percent, nearly every one of the top ten percent would’ve been reduced to mediocres and losers.
“What’s wrong with that?” you may ask.
Well, consider this: suppose that after Test #1, the teacher works hard, as do her students, to ensure that everyone improves. Now, suppose every student does improve on Test #2 by, say, a whopping fifty percent. How will the scores for Test #2 look in terms of student comparisons when placed next to those of Test #1? Exactly the same! The losers on the first test are still losers on the second one, despite their having performed fifty percent better.
Thus, in our current practice of education, there will always have to be losers, no matter how well the losers perform. Ain’t no way the principal’s lower 90 percent can break into the top ten percent.
This brings a subtle but, I think, harmful side-effect. In my twelve years of teaching I’ve noticed that ranking students in relation to one another creates (in both students and parents) an attitude that, if expressed honestly, is: Learning be damned, just tell me what I need to do to get an “A.”
As a result, by eighth grade almost every student has developed an academic identity based on his/her average grades: “I’m an ‘A’ student,” or “I’m a ‘C’ student,” etc. And this means that students shape their expectations of themselves based on past grades. They settle into their rank, because they begin to think it’s written in stone.
From time to time, my frustration inspires me to speak with my classes about their obsession with grades. I remind them that grades aren’t nearly as important as learning. This sets off a cascade of eye-rolling, and inevitably, a student asks, “But don’t grades show what you’ve learned or not learned?”
Sadly, no, they don’t.
For the most part, grades are an indication of how long a student can remember information that is usually irrelevant to his/her life. To confirm this, I will occasionally remind students of tests they may have taken in, say, Science or History two weeks earlier. “Would you do as well if you got it as a pop-test today?” I ask. They laugh at the absurdity of the question. “Of course not!”
There’s an old riddle that goes:
Question: What’s the difference between an “A” student and an “F’ student?
Answer: An “A” student forgets the answers five minutes after the exam; an “F” student forgets them five minutes before.
Some may say, “Well, that’s life! We all went through it!”
I say we can, and we can start by making the following changes:
- Let’s trash grades (yes I said it!) and replace them with performance standards. For example, in my subject, English, a student would be presented a rubric that clearly defined specific degrees of mastery in reading, writing, speaking, and listening. The student would be shepherded through these degrees of mastery. Upon displaying mastery (which is something more than making an “A” on a one-off test; it is, rather, the display of an enduring skill) the student would move on to the next defined and specific degree of mastery. True, some students would move faster than others. So be it. And there would be no stigma associated with a student’s slower pace. After all, we don’t all learn at the same pace. The pace is far less important than that we learn.
- Give the student voice and choice in pursuit of standards. We often forget—or never stop to think—that there are almost always many different paths to mastery of any performance. Traditional public education, with its cookie-cutter methods, tends to favor one mode of learning over the many others, thereby unfairly disadvantaging many students. Plus, students are far more likely to see relevance in their learning if they are given voice and choice in how to achieve their goals.
- Encourage collaboration among students as they seek mastery of standards. Traditional grading systems turn students against one another. If I know that my value as a student is based on where I rank among all other students, then I’m inclined to wish ill for those above and below me, and disinclined to share knowledge or to help my peers. If, on the other hand, I see myself and my classmates as climbing a mountain together, even if by different paths, then I’m much more likely to collaborate with and help my classmates. Better yet, I’m more likely to be a collaborative and helpful citizen in future society.
Granted, these are three very broad-brush suggestions. And I’ll issue here what I consider to be the five most important words in the English language: but I could be wrong. However, I can confidently say this: What we’ve been doing ain’t working well for us at all.
I think it’s time for radical reform. What do you think?