Recently, I attended the Eggs & Issues Breakfast hosted by the Public School Forum of North Carolina, which featured the release of their top education issues of 2020 and a panel of education-adjacent leaders speaking to those issues. Contrary to previous years, in which 10 distinct issues were chosen, this year featured one central, overarching topic with five key priorities:
Top Education Issue: Take immediate and intentional actions to meet our constitutional obligation to provide each child a sound basic education.
- Redesign our school finance system to dramatically improve adequacy, equity, and flexibility.
- Overhaul educator compensation, recruitment, and professional development strategies.
- Revamp our school accountability model: Eliminate or revise the A-F school grading system.
- Support a major state investment to fully fund North Carolina’s $8+ billion school infrastructure needs.
- Establish a plan to monitor progress toward Leandro compliance.
Reading through and thinking about these priorities, they all seemed imperative to public school success, but only one felt immediate and accessible to me—eliminating or revising the A-F school grading system. Though I can certainly impact the other higher-level priorities in indirect ways, as a former teacher, current tutor, and dedicated educator, my focus is typically at the school-level. The key priority mentioned here is in reference to school grades, as in, the evaluation of individual public schools based on a variety of factors, including standardized tests. While fascinating and important, it made me consider if letter grades in any venue, like those given to students, are effective in their purpose?
After the event, I reflected on what grades meant to me growing up in a public school system, what grades mean to our NC public school students, and what they mean to our teachers. What do we want grades to signify for students, and in what ways might the A-F grading system be hitting or missing that mark?
Before working at the WELL, I spent the prior four years working for the NYC Department of Education, monitoring processes and communicating information about the teacher evaluation system. The controversies of teacher evaluation aside, I appreciated the evaluation system’s stress on student growth over student achievement. I spent many afternoons sending emails to school administrators explaining the difference in layman’s terms—growth being the difference in performance at several points over a period of time, and achievement being based on performance at a single point in time, like a test score. However, this led me to wonder, if we value growth in the realm of teacher evaluation, why aren’t we measuring growth more closely in student evaluation?
By its nature, the A-F grading system measures average achievement—how well did you do at different points in the quarter, semester, or school year. It fails to recognize the gains that students make from point to point, assignment to assignment, and test to test. One who receives several poor grades at the beginning of a course may have very little chance to redeem oneself, and for some students, that can be the catalyst for discouragement and disengagement. For slower learners, this system can set unfair expectations and cause self-esteem issues. For higher achievers, letter grades can serve as a distraction to learning and a source of anxiety. Disengaged with the critical thought teachers hope to facilitate in students, high achievers sometimes focus too intensely on finding how to get those high letter grades, and less on the meaningful, purposeful learning experiences teachers mean to impart.
Moreover, if we consider what we want education to accomplish, the central focus should be to send our youth out into the world equipped to be successful, productive, caring adults. In many ways, values like resilience, empathy, responsibility, and citizenship, are neglected by As and Fs. While some make the case that teachers are already indirectly including those values and growth considerations in the A-F grades they give out, this is almost certainly not the case across the board. Even where that is the case, the indirectness of those measures may not actually be reaching the student.
Unfortunately, I feel a small amount of guilt for writing this, because as my father often quipped, lamenting a problem before you have a solution serves no one. In this case, I don’t have a concrete solution, and perhaps the A-F grading system would work fine with a couple small tweaks. After all, the gargantuan effort of changing a whole evaluative system from middle school to college would be a vast and confusing undertaking, but I don’t like avoiding problems because they are difficult to fix. Some school systems have tried other systems, like standards-based grading, in which a student receives a status in each individual standard, like “ability to compare two stories,” but none that I’ve seen really get to the heart of the issues brought up above. Though I have no applicable solution, bringing this problem up will help more of us think through the issue, and at the very least, be critical of the systems we have in place to ensure they are working. In our ever-changing world, every aspect of public education needs to be malleable, inventive, and open to improvement.