To Grade or Not To Grade? This is the Question.
Within the context of Blended Learning this question can mean a lot of different things. Because some schools are founded as Blended Learning schools they can more easily push the boundaries around how to define either grades or grade levels. For those of us who are bringing Blended Learning instructional models into an existing school structure the parameters are much more confined. So, the short answer to this question is No. Grades are not unimportant and No, we cannot completely do away with grade levels.
The long answer:
Even though grades and levels seem to be an archaic remnant of an industrialized education system that one could argue is obsolete, ( and I agree with many of these arguments) these structures still perform vital roles within the system. Especially when thinking about the world that we are preparing students to be apart of, these two methods of monitoring mimic ones students will encounter. The evaluative system of, which Grades is one aspect of, is something that is present in almost all areas of adult life. Being able to identify the aspects of these systems that matter most to the system itself, and being able to know when the system is a true measure of ones successes and when to find other measures of ones growth are vastly important coping mechanisms that our students will need in order to survive. And since I consider it part of the role of school is to prepare students not only academically but also socially and emotionally, being able to navigate imposed measures of success can have a lasting impact on ones developing self-worth.
My argument about the importance of grade levels rests heavily on a believe in the developmental nature of our species. I do understand that by being forced to learn a particular set of standards in a given year can be a great hinderance to some learners, and that there are students who graduate from college when they are 16. But these are few and far between. The vast majority of students are developmentally prepared for certain concepts at certain times (I also acknowledge that these are sometimes a source of hot debate and this is a good thing). I believe that it is inappropriate for students to learn with only those who are at their level. Why? Because, part of the roles of school is to prepare students not only academically but also socially and emotionally for adult life. My background in Special Education has taught me, with no uncertainty, that students develop together if not academically then socially and emotionally. When a student is struggling in a particular academic area he or she is developing socially along side his or her peers. Having this struggling student remain in that grade could result in them being surrounded by students who are at dramatically different developmental levels which in the long run is detrimental for all. This is why parents fought hard for full inclusion. Part of the task of the teacher is to identify what is within the students Zone of Proximal Development, yes Vygotsky, to ensure that all students are progressing, even those who need to be reminded of things they learned last years and those who “already learned it.”
So the counter argument to my above is a more open concept school. It is, perhaps, a school where students learn in small groups. Where they collaborate with similar aged peers to complete projects where they are at similar academic levels, and everyone is on a variety of educational software where they progress at their own pace and don’t need to be graded because they just advance when they have reached mastery. I think this vision of education is possible and I even think that there are schools that are on the way. My questions to them are: how do you report to the state? Which state test do students take? How do you ensure that struggling students still interact with their same age peers during constructive learning time? Are students intrinsically motivated all the time and working on programs just so they can advance? Where is the teacher and what type of credential does he/she have? Are students engaged in applied projects that demonstrate multi-disciplinary application of their learning? And lastly, what do you tell parents when they want to know how their student is doing in class and whether he or she will advance or be retained a grade?
Some time later:
Well the above is rather ranty! I went for a walk to enjoy the evening sun and realized that perhaps I was thinking about this all wrong. At Envision we really value growth over time and find a way to translate this into an external metric, most of the time this is a grade. Our portfolio process is central to our students experience and we spend lots of Professional Development time calibrating our staff to ensure fair grading. We have developed rubrics that accompany this grading process that score different facits of the task. So while our grading system is unique, and we believe, more meaningful, it is a grading system none-the-less. As far as grade levels go, we try to have students progress through the four years together. There are many rites of passage, such as the previously eluded to portforlio, that students struggle through and succeed in together. However, there are those students who need to make up credits here and there in order to be eligible to graduate with their peers. Our Flexlab, that we are using at both CAT and METRO this year, is one of the ways we are addressing this issue. Because our schools are relatively small, it is difficult for a number of reasons when students get out of the course sequence. Our Flexlab allows these students to get the courses they need and still progress with their peers and participate in all other aspects of the curriculum. I believe that Envision sees the value in grade levels because it serves as a container for a meaningful process, a process that celebrates not only academic but also social and emotional growth.
The opinions found here reflect those of the writer and may not reflect those of the organization. Also, because this is such a complex issue I reserve the right to change my opinion, as I feel like the act of simply writing this has made me change it several times already. I look forward to reading the posts of my fellow bloggers and look forward to reading comments that can begin to find answers to the questions I have.