What Do Grades Mean?

Years ago, my elementary schools were very fond of Accelerated Reader. Students would read a book from the Accelerated Reader list, and then take an online quiz that measured reading comprehension. If they passed the quiz, they were awarded points for reading the book. When they reached certain levels, they received certificates, awards, and other prizes.

This was much easier to manage than reading logs or other methods that were previously used to get students reading. Students were proud of their reading accomplishments, and everyone celebrated the achievement of their reading goals.

But AR didn’t foster a love of reading. Students worked hard to meet their goals, and then they stopped. They didn’t read books that weren’t on the list, because they couldn’t get credit for them. And when they moved up to grades that didn’t use the program, most of the non-required reading stopped.

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Accelerated Reader encouraged students to read more. That made them better readers. But it failed to make them life-long lovers of reading.

We know from the work of Phil Schlechty that there are only a few ways to motivate students. If a teacher has a strong, positive relationship with the student, then the learner will do anything the teacher asks them to do. That’s very common in the early elementary grades. Those kids love their teachers and will do anything to please them.

As students get older, those relationships naturally weaken. A middle school student isn’t going to do hard things just because a teacher asks them to. So we have to motivate them differently. Teachers at that level create engaging, relevant tasks for students that capture their interest. Students have some choice (within established parameters) to pursue their own passions within the context of the unit goals. Their curiosity and investment in the task motivates them to work hard.

As a last resort, when all else fails, teachers turn to external means to motivate students. If you complete this task, I will give you a good grade. If you don’t complete this task, I will give you a bad grade. You can improve your grade by doing more work. Students generally respond to that model as long as they believe that grades are important.

But when we do that, we make two critical sacrifices. The first is sacrificing grades as a motivational tool. If students’ grades are dependent on what they DO, then the grades do not necessarily reflect what they LEARN. That can create a false sense of accomplishment among students and families. If the grade doesn’t accurately reflect what the student has learned, families may not be prepared for less-than-stellar state test results, or disappointing summative assessment results. How can a student get an A in the class and fail the final exam? How can a student who has never had a B fail the fourth grade state math test? When grades aren’t tied to learning, these kinds of results are very common.

The second sacrifice is making schoolwork compliant. Students who are motivated only by grades stop learning when they’ve reached the grade they want. They no longer feed their curiosity by learning on their own. They’ve done what they need to do to get the grade they want. They’ve fulfilled their end of the bargain. We have sacrificed fostering a love of learning for compliance. The students did what we asked them to do, and then they stopped. They’re done learning now.

If we want our students to be life-long learners, we have to do more to encourage intrinsic motivation. We have to give students engaging, challenging tasks that feed their curiosity. We have to get them to fall in love with learning.

And that has nothing to do with the grades that show up on a report card.

One thought on “What Do Grades Mean?

  1. Excellent article!
    This is so true and so very, very sad: “We have sacrificed fostering a love of learning for compliance.” I am glad to see there are groups like TTOG -Teachers Throwing out Grades, and it is expanding to Higher Ed, too. Supporting students’ love of learning from kinder to higher ed is the only solution I can see.

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