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Grades, Revisited

At the end of the last grading season, my attention turned to the notion of paying kids for grades after the subject came up on Facebook. Now I’m just thinking about grades in general: what they mean and whether and how much Simon needs to know about them.

Let’s start with what they mean. At the primary level in our district, students get the following grades:

  • O: Outstanding, exceeds grade level expectations
  • S: Satisfactory, meets grade level expectations
  • NI: Needs improvement to meet grade level expectations
  • U: Unsatisfactory. Work does not meet grade level expectations

That seems clear enough. Or does it? It can quickly take on the following appearance:

  • O = A
  • S = B
  • NI = C
  • U = D

But wait. A “C” is average, or at least it used to be before the era of grade inflation. So maybe it’s:

  • O = A
  • B has no equivalent
  • S = C
  • NI = D
  • U = F

Now, you aren’t supposed to be making these comparisons. That’s why the district came up with an alternative grading system in the first place. But Graeter’s, a local ice-cream shop, will give a child free ice cream cone if he or she can show off an “A” on a report card. And for Graeter’s at least, an O is an A.*

Things are fuzzier at the district level. There is no formal, standardized rubric for grading at the primary level in JCPS. Here’s what that means: Let’s say a student like Simon scores all perfect scores on their history quizzes for a term. Teacher A might say, “Look! All perfect scores. That’s an O,” while Teacher B might say, “This student understands everything he is supposed to at this grade level. That’s an S.”

Last year’s teacher took the Teacher A approach, and Simon’s report card was littered with Os during three of his six grading periods. This year’s teacher takes more of the Teacher B approach, meaning he gets Os in reading and math only because those subjects allow for assessment against a scored rubric.

Does this matter?

I don’t think so, but many do. At Open House, Simon’s teacher was very eager to get across to parents that an S was a good grade and that Os were reserved solely for subjects in which a given student regularly, demonstrably exceeds grade level expectations. Clearly, she was worried about a parade of unhappy parents asking why Johnny got straight Os in kindergarten and was now getting mostly Ss.

It also clearly matters to student ice cream lovers and the ice cream shops that decide who gets free portions of the stuff. It possibly matters most of all to the parents who like to brag and humble brag about their children’s academic prowess in social media. For the record, I save most of my bragging for the grandparents, whose job it is to listen to and agree with gushing assessments of their descendants.

I am personally inclined to think that—outside the extremes—grades don’t tell you much until 3rd or 4th grade. How many kids get Ss or NIs in reading in kindergarten, turn 7 in first grade, have a bunch of neurons connect, and then turn into S or O level readers practically overnight? Based on what I’ve seen and heard, I think it happens often. Obviously, the child who struggles in a given subject and seemingly makes little or no progress over time should be flagged for assessment and intervention. Equally obviously, prodigies need attention. But plenty of kids are late to bloom and many precocious kids hit a plateau, so it’s best to wait a while before glib satisfaction or despair set in.**

But what do grades at this level mean to the kids? And should kids know what their grades are? We don’t show Simon his report card. I give him a general summary and will tell him if there’s a subject he did particularly well at. Then I praise his conscientiousness and hard work, emphasize that effort is more important to me than result, and move on. I’m worried that if Simon knows, he’ll kill himself trying to achieve straight Os and will be disappointed when it doesn’t happen. I’m also worried that he will turn his grades into a competition with class-mates. Simon is so competitive anyway that I fear that way lies madness, to say nothing of friendlessness.

I wonder if I’m the only one taking this approach? Today at the pediatrician for Simon’s 7-year check-up (I get an NI for punctuality in medial appointment scheduling), Dr. Newstadt askedĀ  Simon if his grades were good. Simon looked a little confused and told him that he didn’t get any NIs and that his vocabulary tests have been good. I explained Simon’s confusion to Dr. Newstadt, who seemed slightly taken aback by my approach and talked openly about the best middle schools and what Simon’s path to Manual High School would be. (Out-of-towners, Manual is consistently ranked the #1 high school in Kentucky and competition to get in is fierce.)

Then I thought about the one vocabulary test he got an 8 out of 10 on. Simon doesn’t know about it because his teacher didn’t put it in his folder. She handed it to me because she knew Simon would be devastated, thought he made mistakes due to speed, and didn’t want it weighing on his mind and causing anxiety for the next go-round. Given that, I’m thinking keeping Simon from obsessing over grades might be more important than what the grades themselves are. And if that sounds as crazy to you as it does to me, I can only imagine how much crazier everything will seem when standardized testing begins two years hence.

*So me being me, I actually kind of hate this because it rewards the result and not the effort. I can think of *plenty* of really smart kids who could or did take easy classes and get an A without exerting any mental energy at all. On the flip side, I can also think of plenty less academically gifted kids who work their tail off to get Bs. Not to mention the false equivalence of grades across subjects. I have total respect for the humanities, but I think we can all agree that an A in American Literature is easier to come by than an A in Inorganic Chemistry. I know, I know: It’s ice cream; don’t over-think it.

**That being said, I watched a kid in one of the preschool 2-year-old classes read last Friday. Not by recognition, either; he’s sounding things out and understands what he reads. My jaw about hit the floor and I hereby declare that this kid is capital G Gifted.








2 Responses to “Grades, Revisited”

  1. goldsteinrita says:

    Simon is the kind of kid who would probably be better off with no grades at all. He is his own incentive. G-d! He is just like his Uncle Steve.

  2. Amanda says:

    I was reading at about 2 1/2. I’d say I was smart, but not genius. I did have a mom that read to us constantly from before we were born. And I think with Simon it’s an excellent idea not to let him get hung up on grades, because he will obsess. As your mom said, he pressures himself more than anyone else can. I’d also argue the lit vs. chemistry argument–I know people for who chemistry is much easier that literature. It seems easier to us because we are wired that way, but my brother and cousin Chris certainly aren’t and would far rather take a chem test than write a paper.

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