Long before I became a district leader in Los Angeles, I had a transformational experience as a first-year principal that has driven me ever since. I had a student I’ll call Maria, a ninth-grader who’d made almost straight As in middle school. Imagine my surprise when I asked her English teacher how Maria was doing after the first month of school and the teacher responded that Maria wasn’t able to write a coherent paragraph.
I had run into one of the most pernicious secrets in education: Students’ grades on assignments and report cards too often are based on the effort they make in class, not the mastery of what they need to learn by a given grade.
This problem exists at every level of race and income and academic level, including in honors classes, but is by far most prevalent and pernicious with lower-income kids of color.
Over and over, in the years since, I’ve seen teachers award grades — sometimes Bs and even As — to students not because they met any reasonable standard for quality work, but because they had made some effort, completed the assignment, done the homework. Indeed, I’ve heard colleagues argue it’s wrong not to award such credit.
The roots of the problem can start from a place of compassion. When kids are way behind but come to school every day and try, teachers worry that giving them low or failing grades will frustrate them and lead them to drop out. I had the same concern as a high school teacher in inner-city Los Angeles.
But the patronizing path of deceptively high grades, often for low-income children of color, does them no favors. It lowers the bar for students and contributes to the achievement gap. For many students, the reality of that gap comes in college — where about 40 percent of four-year college students nationally end up treading water in remedial courses. It’s one reason only about 12 percent of students from low-income families earn college degrees.
Instead of lowering the bar, why don’t we educators expect more of our students, and our own teaching, and provide the support students need to meet higher standards?
This challenge really isn’t teachers’ fault. I recently surveyed about 2,000 L.A. teachers and more than 80 percent who answered said they’ve never had a course that included research on how best to determine students’ final grades.
We’re now providing training and support to help Los Angeles Unified teachers improve grading practices. Teachers learn to align grades with students’ performance on classroom assessments and reduce the emphasis of grades based on classwork, homework and non-academic factors like attendance and participation. Some teachers resist at first, but usually come to see what’s possible for students.
The report “The Opportunity Myth” from The New Teacher Project shows that virtually all high school students have high aspirations for the future, including some type of postsecondary education. But classroom observations and reviews of instructional materials show that most lessons lack the rigor students need for their next steps in education and careers. Students of color commonly were found to have lower standardized test scores than white students with the same grades.
Parents should demand better.
I’m a father of children in third and sixth grades, so I’m also able to discuss this issue with teachers as a fellow educator. Not all parents may be comfortable raising questions about their children’s grades, so here’s my advice:
- Speak with your child’s teachers on what’s happening behind the grade. If you approach teachers with an authentic concern about whether your child is performing at grade level, most will welcome the opportunity to partner with you. You might ask: How was my child’s grade determined? What evidence did you use? How has my child demonstrated that he/she can meet grade-level standards?
- Discuss your child’s future. It’s OK to ask teachers, principals and counselors for evidence your child will truly be prepared to enter college or rigorous career training.
- Support teachers if they’re trying to implement higher standards and issuing grades accordingly. Your child’s opportunity for higher-level skills and knowledge is worth risking somewhat lower grades. You might ask: On which standards or topics does my child need to improve?
Mostly, solving the problem of misleading grades isn’t on parents. It’s on us as educators to set higher expectations for every student and to be more truthful with families about students’ progress.
As an educator, I never again want to tell a parent their child is doing worse in school than their grades show. This is one of education’s most serious problems, but through collaboration and hard work, we can overcome this challenge.
Dr. Derrick Chau is the Senior Executive Director of Instruction for Los Angeles Unified School District. He’s a member of the Chiefs for Change Future Chiefs program, which is building a pipeline of talented, diverse future leaders for America’s school systems.
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