The purpose of grades, whether in the grammar or rhetoric school, is the same: to convey information about a student’s academic achievement. As a Christian teacher, you are called to speak the truth. So, think of the goal of grades as truth: the truth about the combination of a student’s innate talents and the diligence applied in the classroom. If you delay the truth, how long will it be before the student ultimately learns the truth? Is a student’s learning made more difficult because of your delay? Will opportunities to develop the needed habits of body and mind be lost?
Students and parents will be surprised if they do not learn the truth early and often about their poor behavior and performance. Of course, the temptation is to accept the more palatable but less accurate information. Students, however, even in high school, are still just children in many ways. They should be expected to focus on their short-term comfort over their long-term well-being. Unfortunately, and increasingly, their parents do as well. But you, as the teacher, are tasked with the student’s long-term well-being. You must be the adult in the room. Therefore, girded with the knowledge that grades matter, in ways far more important than those obsessed with just college applications, what must you do to ensure that you are conveying the truth in love about your students’ academic achievement?
First, structure your grade book to reflect accurate academic progress. Do your grades prioritize demonstration of mastery? What emphasis are you giving to simple participation? Must students demonstrate mastery of all the skills, both behavioral and academic, needed for next year? Have you structured your grading so that a student must “mess up” to receive less than an “A” or its equivalent?
Second, look at how you are actually entering your grades. If daily class participation, in Socratic discussions for example, are a key part of your course, are you actually recording a daily grade or summarizing a week or more at a time? Are you carefully rewarding insight and thoughtful articulation or are your grades “earned” by air time or “lost” by lack of participation or disruption? Is the result really an evaluation of mastery or simply compliance? The same evaluation needs to be made of daily practice work or problems, graded routine homework, and especially “completion grades.”
Conversely, are some categories so heavily weighted that only a few assignments effectively dictate a student’s grade? Do those assignments fully and accurately represent subject mastery or are these heavily weighted only because they are difficult and require more time; think projects or papers? Practically speaking, this means that papers and projects may need to weigh less than individual, in-class assessments (which should be designed to evaluate mastery and transfer, not simply regurgitation. But that’s another article). They also may need to be broken down into multiple tasks instead of given a single, large grade.
Third, avoid high stakes assessment, both intentional and unintentional. Remember, your students are still in formation. They have lessons to learn and one is the reward of rebounding after failure. Additionally, their job is to grow, both in knowledge and discipline, rather than to figure out how to just earn an “A.” Growth requires movement from relative weakness into greater strength and grades must allow for a student to do so and still be judged successful. It does not follow that you should reward effort regardless of growth, but you should provide opportunities to demonstrate mastery that one failure or weak performance does not spell doom. Bottom line: there should be many grades and ample feedback in every area, early and often.
Fourth, look at the cumulative effect of your assignments. Do they accomplish, at the end of the grading term, what you intended? Or, has the reality of the term unintentionally shifted the message that the grades will communicate? Did the pace of your curriculum slow down and cause you to unintentionally
shift your assignments and assessments? Did you communicate this shift? Do you find yourself with only one or two grades in certain categories? Have they inadvertently become high stakes assignments and, worse yet, ones that the students did not realize were high stakes at the time? We’ve all been in this situation.
Speaking the truth in love means, if necessary, adjusting the percentages and transparently explaining this to both parents and students. Also, make sure you periodically take stock of your students’ cumulative grades. Are the “best” grades earned by the “best” students? Are the students lacking diligence or struggling with content receiving accurate information about performance? If not, you will have to dig a little deeper to figure out what is distorting your grades. If your grades to date are overly generous, you have some remedial work to accomplish. Make sure the students who have an inaccurately rosy picture of their achievement — and their parents — get an email, phone call, or conference in which you express your concerns in love. Adjust your grading going forward but always begin with clear, honest communication.
In the end, the good news is that grades are not the only means you have of communication. You can, and should, hold up diligence, positive attitude, tenacity and a whole host of virtues publicly and privately. Surprise parents with a positive (and accurate) email detailing their student’s achievement in class, both academic or behavioral. Better yet, pick up the phone and call them! If a worthy student struggles with content, offer suggestions, or opportunities for tutoring. Coming alongside students and parents is always appropriate, but hiding the truth from them is never wise.