Recently I read an essay written by Katie Nichols, a student in Ms. Grissom’s AP Language class. Katie posed the question, “Are grades really showing learning?” This is not a new question in education, but it comes at an opportune time for our district as we examine our grading practices.

Ms. Nichols wrote, “In schools today the emphasis has been taken off of learning, and been heavily placed on grades. The cause of grades has negatively impacted learning. This isn’t exactly at the hands of teachers, but just the emphasis that grades have on your future.” As I reflect on this student’s-eye-view of grades, I am thinking of the numerous times parents and educators have emphasized getting good grades to students. We do this in a well-meaning way, understanding that grades are assumed to reflect learning and learning opens doors for students. That really is the crux of the question: whether grades accurately reflect learning.

In considering this question Ms. Nichols delved into a frequently graded practice: homework. She wrote, “What does doing homework prove you know? The only thing that it actually proves is that throughout your years of schooling you have enough self-discipline to complete the paper.”

Now, I am a big believer in self-discipline. One of the quotes I have posted in my office is Harry S. Truman’s thought: “In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves. . . self-discipline with all of them came first.” However, depending on the type of homework assignment, homework is sometimes not a great indicator of learning. In fact, giving “completion” grades is a fairly ordinary practice. Students might get points just for getting the homework done.

Ms. Nichols opines, “Homework doesn’t demonstrate that you are learning anything,” and she shares examples of students who complete all homework and earn good grades but do poorly on tests. She also shares what most people recognize or at least suspect: many students copy other students’ homework, learning nothing (except possibly how to get by without doing the work).

Another problem with grading, which I suspect many students and parents have offered an opinion on through the years, is that it can be subjective. Good teachers take steps to minimize subjectivity in grading, like creating and sharing rubrics to guide students’ efforts. As a former English teacher, I understand the complexity of grading work for which there is not always one right answer, though. In fact, we try to encourage divergent thinking, so the grade becomes more about how well students can organize and support their thoughts sometimes. Ms. Nichols cited a person who knows a thing or two about grading, well known education thinker Alfie Kohn, who said, “Grades are really just a subjective rating seen as objective evaluation.”

In education we stress “assessment for learning,” which really emphasizes the learning process, guided by timely descriptive feedback. Ms. Nichols also sees the value of feedback, and she cited a Duke University study that illustrated the power of students learning for the sake of learning, not merely to earn a grade. The power of feedback, she wrote, is that it “allows more learning to take place because it allows them to correct their mistakes, and know what they need to focus on learning. . .” She concluded her essay with this thought: “With a few adjustments the education system could be greatly improved, and have a more direct emphasis on learning rather than grades.”

American public education is being battered by negative publicity, fueled by the accountability movement and standards movement. We are a nation that keeps score and issues grades for everything. I feel somewhat hypocritical typing this because I have always been a competitive person, and I very much believe in high expectations. I believe in data and that what’s important is what gets emphasized. All of that being said, I would love it if we could put the focus back on the love of learning and on trying to fully develop the capacity each of us has been given. There is power in feedback, and grades are a sort of feedback. The degree to which we can make grades actually reflect student learning determines the true value of a grade. Thank you, Katie Nichols, for helping me to remember that!