For many students, the return of the school year means much more than seeing old friends and excitedly settling into new classes.
It means the return of draining all-nighters, pencil tapping on test day, and anxiously checking School Loop each night. It means frantically cramming the night before a test, only to forget most of the information a few days later. As classes become more rigorous, students come into class bleary-eyed and anxious, minds cycling through a continuous loop that always seems to end up at one little number: the GPA.
In elementary school, gold stars and smiley faces basically make up the grading system. Teachers reward students when they understand something new, and most children learn the alphabet and prime numbers with virtually no stress. But once high school starts, the emphasis shifts from the learning process to evaluation and assessment. Students’ attitudes about school often reflect this shift. Trading gold stars for red X’s, the fear of receiving a bad grade often overshadows curiosity, and increasing expectations of perfect scores for college admissions can further exacerbate this problem.
Regardless of how much study-time they put in, students can often feel like test results are simply a roll of the dice. In order to stay in the game, they try to play their cards right by memorizing facts and only learning what will be on the test. When students see school as a place of anxiety and strategy rather than one of exploration and growth, perhaps it is time to consider the possibility that something needs to change.
Some teachers at M-A are using a slightly different approach to grading: one that is centered on giving students the best chance at demonstrating what they know, through retakes and class activities that focus on individual understanding.
AS and AP Physics teacher Jeff DeCurtins takes pride in his “Skill-Based Grading” system, which he believes better assesses his students’ mastery of material than traditional grading. Students take small quizzes throughout each unit to help gauge their level of understanding, but he ultimately removes them from the grade book after each unit. DeCurtins tailors each test to a list of skills, and students can retake them at the end of the semester. “It all came down to evaluating a student for what they can demonstrate they can do. It didn’t matter when they could do it, as long as it was within the timelines of the course.”
Lisa Otsuka, Psychology and AP Literature teacher, is happy to allow students to retake quizzes and revise their essays, as long as they are learning in the process. She said that while it is different for each teacher, she used to feel that grading in her class was “like a zero-sum game,” where students were constantly comparing themselves to each other. Giving students the opportunity to retake tests allows her to make sure that she awards points only when students really understand the material. “You’re not looking around the class saying, ‘Here’s my competition.’ You’re looking at yourself, saying, ‘My goal is to do better than I did on my last essay.’”
Allowing retakes means students will not have to live with the consequences of one bad day for the rest of their high school careers. The knowledge that it is not the end of the world if students understand material later than their peers allows them to focus on learning without stressing over grades. As well, focusing on skills over memorizing facts helps students retain information and understand it on a deeper level.
Even with tests, Otsuka believes that class should be about much more than grades, and feels that one can learn some of the strongest lessons from experience. For this reason, she includes games such as Lear Pong— an activity in which students throw ping-pong balls into cups while quoting Shakespeare— in the curriculum. She explained, “I have people 10, 15 years later, who still remember those activities. I think emotion is involved in learning too. If you have good memories of the class itself, I think that also aids retention.” Creating exciting activities helps students remember that learning should be a rewarding experience rather than a stressful one.
Of course, both teachers acknowledge the importance of test-taking. However, they agree that it should not be the primary purpose of a class. DeCurtins believes tests should show students how well they are learning the material. “The goal is to figure out what you’re doing wrong and to fix it, not to just tabulate grades all the time.”
It is time for our society to ask itself what assessments should say about students, because the lessons we learn in high school reach far beyond what is taught in the classroom. In the current system, it sometimes feels like we are simply learning to play a game, with the goal of maximizing our scores. As students, we need grading policies with assessments that take a backseat to real learning, so that school can once again become a place for bright-eyed curiosity and expanding horizons. We need to be able to look at grades as a form of self-evaluation, rather than an indicator of self-worth. However, it is also up to each of us to decide what we want our focus to be. While certain grading methods can help to meet us in the middle, we ultimately decide how much we learn in each class. Whether it’s red X’s or gold stars, we decide what we take from our time in high school.