The following are two scenarios that could occur at a typical middle school.
Sarah is given an assignment: a persuasive essay, due at the end of the week. She picks a topic—‘Facebook should be outlawed in schools’—because she already knows a lot about Internet safety and school privacy (her aunt teaches high school and talks about it all the time), and because she thinks her teacher will agree with her.
The week passes. Sarah is a talented writer, and she knows she can throw this together in an evening, so she does minimal work in class. In fact, she spends most of her time frustrating the others at her table, who are trying to work. She fails to workshop with the teacher (who hardly notices, because, well, Sarah always turns in outstanding work…) and she is rude and condescending during peer workshops.
The night before the assignment is due, Sarah sits down at her laptop and whips out the paper in under an hour. She did no research, she failed to grow as a writer, she negatively affected the others in her class, and, to be honest, she learned nothing.
Sarah gets an ‘A’ on her essay.
Dawn is given the same assignment. She picks a topic—‘We shouldn’t put fluoride in the water’—because she had heard something on the news, and thought it was strange that people would put chemicals in the water for health reasons, but she wasn’t sure what it was all about, and thought it’d be cool to learn.
The week passes. Dawn scrambles to find information on the topic. Much of it doesn’t make sense, and she has to ask for help from her older brother, who’s in college, and can try to explain to her about solubility, and aquifers, and what socioeconomic means. She’s a struggling writer, but she’s determined. She works quietly in class, meets with the teacher (who has trouble workshopping her essay, because, let’s face it, Dawn’s spelling is atrocious, and her handwriting…) and she tries to help her tablemates think of good hooks and conclusions during peer workshops.
The night before the assignment is due, she and her mom sit down to type the paper together, and they get it printed out before she goes to bed. Dawn researched her topic, formed her own opinion, learned the basics of the persuasive essay, and was helpful to her classmates.
Dawn gets a ‘C’ on her essay.
Now, obviously these scenarios don’t occur all the time. Maybe they’re even the rarity in some schools. But they do illustrate several of the fundamental flaws of a grade-based system of assessment at the middle school level: it doesn’t account for growth; it fails to address attitude, behavior and use of time; it is difficult to adjust to fit students’ ever-changing (and widely varying) ability levels. And probably most important, it does a disservice to students by rewarding the easy speech choice, or the vanilla book report, or the ready-made science project, rather than the challenging health topic, the biology experiment that might fail, or the history research that yields little more than a few paragraphs worth of material, but will stick with a student for years.
A letter grade has no language for a student’s interest, or boredom, or intensity, or curiosity. It cannot describe to you the rough draft, riddled with errors, that goes through multiple revisions and edits. It cannot communicate shame, risk, or frustration, and it cannot tell you about pride, fulfillment, or joy. Yet these are emotions that students deal with every day.
In Corbett Middle School, we constantly assess students, but we don’t give letter grades. We test, we evaluate work, we score projects, and we do it continually. But we have better means of communicating progress.
We score informally, with one-on-one dialogues, workshops, peer reviews, writing shares, museum walks, and flash critiques.
We score formally, with state tests, with the Oregon Benchmark rubrics, or with teacher- and student-created rubrics that can be specifically tailored to a unit that might last eight weeks or three days.
We communicate with a narrative report card that includes hundreds of hours of schooling’s worth of information: writing, speech, social studies and science projects; the books we read as a class; synopses of every unit; details on PE and enrichments that might be skipped on a traditional report card; and the real meaty stuff—the personalized comments and goals for each student in the upcoming weeks.
We often let the students’ work speak for itself. They compile portfolios in their ‘Work-I’m-Proud-Of’ drawer, to share during student-led conferences. They design and implement service projects that involve their peers and help those in need. They publish their writing in the Cardinal Call, or Cardinal Sparks, or the Gresham Outlook. They host community nights to showcase their work, or invite the grade school up to walk through their museums. They compete in math contests, and chess tournaments, and athletics, and drama, and music.
And the look on a student’s face when her story makes a classmate cry, or she gets through the speech without notecards, or her painting is hung in the commons, or her medieval catapult works, or she throws a spiral, or her movie trailer has the whole school laughing out loud, is a lot more telling than an ‘A’ or a ‘C’.