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Grades and Test Scores Don’t Matter. A Love of Learning Does.

American education policy analysts would do well to take a cue from countries like Finland

A multiple choice test

"Yet you don’t need to crack open a book on history or pedagogy to see the uselessness of testing," the author writes. (Photo: Alberto G/flickr/cc)

My daughter probably would be shocked to discover what I truly think about grades.

They don’t matter all that much.

The other day she brought home a pop quiz on sloths from her third grade class. It had a 40% F emblazoned on the top in red ink.

I grabbed the paper from her book bag and asked her to explain what had happened.

She smiled nervously and admitted that she had rushed through the assignment.

I told her I knew she could do better and was very disappointed.

Then we reread the article in her weekly reader and found the right answers to the questions she’d missed.

But if my little girl would be stunned, my students would probably be even more gobsmacked!

As a 7th grade Language Arts teacher, it’s my job to hand out grades. And I don’t give my students too much slack.

Just this morning, I turned to one of my kiddos placidly drawing a Spider-Man doodle in homeroom and asked if he had given me yesterday’s homework.

He wasn’t sure, so I pulled up the gradebook and surprise, surprise, surprise – no homework.

So he took out the half-completed packet, promised to get it done by the end of the day and promptly began working on it.

Don’t get me wrong. No one would ever confuse me for a teacher obsessed with grades and test scores.

I’m way too laid back for that. But my students know I will penalize them if they don’t hand in their assignments. And if it isn’t their best work, I’ll call them out on it.

The way I see it, grades and test scores offer an approximation of how well a student tries to achieve academic goals.

In Language Arts classes like mine, that’s reading, writing and communicating.

After a year of study, I want my students to leave me with an increased ability to read and understand what they’ve read. I want them to form a thoughtful opinion on it and be able to communicate that in multiple ways including verbally and in writing.

An overreliance on testing and grading can actually get in the way of achieving that goal.

According to a University of Michigan study from 2002, a total of 80% of students base their self worth on grades. The lower the grades, the lower their self-esteem.

Common Core fanatics like Bill Gates and David Coleman probably would say that’s a good thing. It provides incentive for children to take school seriously.

However, I think it transforms a self-directed, authentic pursuit of knowledge into grade grubbing. It makes an intrinsic activity purely extrinsic.

Learning no longer becomes about satisfying your curiosity. It becomes a chase after approval and acceptance.

We already know that measuring a phenomena fundamentally changes that phenomena. With a constant emphasis on measurement, children become less creative and less willing to take risks on having a wrong answer.

That’s one of the reasons I prefer teaching the academic track students to the honors kids. They aren’t used to getting all A’s, so they are free to answer a question based on their actual thoughts and feelings. If they get a question wrong, it’s not the end of the world. It hasn’t ruined a perfect GPA and put valedictorian forever out of reach.

Too much rigor (God! I hate that word!) creates academic robots who have lost the will to learn. Their only concern is the grade or the test score.

It also increases the motivation to cheat.

According to a national survey of 24,000 students from 70 high schools, 64% admitted to cheating on a test.

But if the goal is authentic learning, cheating doesn’t help. You can’t cheat to understand better. You can only fool the teacher or the test. You can’t fool your own comprehension.

If you find a novel way of realizing something, that’s not cheating – it’s a learning strategy.

I know this is heresy to some people.

Even some of my colleagues believe that grading, in general, and standardized testing, in particular, are essential to a quality education.

After all, without an objective measure of learning, how can we predict whether students will do well once they move on to college or careers?

Of course, some of us realize standardized testing doesn’t provide an objective measurement. It’s culturally and racially biased. Those test scores don’t just correlate with race and class. They are BASED on factors inextricably linked with those characteristics.

When the standard is wealth and whiteness, it should come as no surprise that poor students of color don’t make the grade. It’s no accident, for example, that American standardized testing sprung out of the eugenics movement.

Yet you don’t need to crack open a book on history or pedagogy to see the uselessness of testing.

High stakes assessments like the SAT do NOT accurately predict future academic success.

Kids with perfect scores on the SAT or ACT tests don’t do better than kids who got lower scores or never took the tests in the first place.

Numerous studies have shown this to be true. The most recent one I’ve seen was from 2014.

Researchers followed more than 123,000 students who attended universities that don’t require applicants to take these tests as a prerequisite for admission. They concluded that SAT and ACT test scores do not correlate with how well a student does in college.

However, classroom grades do have predictive value – especially when compared to standardized tests. Students with high grades in high school but middling test scores do better in college than students with higher test scores and lower grades.

Why? Because grades are based on something other than the ability to take one test. They demonstrate a daily commitment to work hard. They are based on 180 days (in Pennsylvania) of classroom endeavors, whereas standardized tests are based on the labor of an afternoon or a few days.

Yet even classroom grades have their limits.

I remember my high school graduation – sitting on the bleachers in my cap and gown listening to our valedictorian and salutatorian give speeches about the glorious future ahead of us.

Yet for each of those individuals, the future wasn’t quite so bright. Oh, neither of them burned out, but they didn’t exactly set the world on fire, either.

In fact, when I went to college, I found a lot of the highest achievers in high school struggled or had to drop out because they couldn’t adjust. The new freedom of college was too much – they partied and passed out. Yet a middle-of-the-road student like me (Okay, I was really good in English) did much better. I ended up in the honors college with a double major, a masters degree and graduating magna cum laude.

And it’s not just my own experience. The research backs this up.

A Boston College study tracked more than 80 valedictorians over 14 years. These high school high achievers all became well-adjusted professional adults. But none of them made major discoveries, lead their fields or were trailblazers.

For that, you need someone willing to take risks.

The folks the researchers followed admitted that this wasn’t them. Many confessed that they weren’t the smartest people in their classes. They just worked really hard and gave teachers exactly what they thought they wanted.

So what’s the point?

Some people will read this and think I’m against all testing and grading.

Wrong.

I give tests. I calculate grades. And I would do this even if I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. (Though I would throw every standardized test right in the garbage.)

I think grades and testing have their place. But they aren’t the end, they are a means to an end.

They are crude estimations of learning. They’re an educated guess. That’s all.

We need to move beyond them if we are to modernize our public schools.

Don’t get rid of grades and testing, just change the emphasis. Put a premium on curiosity and creativity. Reward academic risk taking, innovation and imagination. And recognize that most of the time there may be several right answers to the same question.

Heck other countries like Finland already do this.

For the first six years of school, Finnish children are subjected to zero measurement of their abilities. The only standardized test is a final given at the end of senior year in high school.

As a result, their kids have some of the highest test scores in the world. By not focusing on standards and assessments, they counterintuitively top the charts with these very things.

There’s a lesson here for American education policy analysts.

And that lesson is the title of this article.

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Steven Singer

Steven Singer

Steven Singer is a husband, father, teacher, blogger and education advocate. He often writes at his own blog here.

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