CREDIT: Derrick Chau
Teachers at Los Angeles Unified receive training in how to ensure their grading more accurately reflects students' mastery of the subject.

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.

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Derrick Chau

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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  1. TheMorrigan 2 months ago2 months ago

    Grades have always been about more than a reflection of mastery. Test scores demonstrate mastery, whereas grades reflect all the other stuff. Yes, grades are misleading, but so are test scores and so is a lot of stuff. Most of what we do as a society is about the effort we put into it. Those who end up succeeding in life – that is having a decent home and can pay their bills – didn't … Read More

    Grades have always been about more than a reflection of mastery. Test scores demonstrate mastery, whereas grades reflect all the other stuff. Yes, grades are misleading, but so are test scores and so is a lot of stuff.

    Most of what we do as a society is about the effort we put into it. Those who end up succeeding in life – that is having a decent home and can pay their bills – didn’t come down to mastery but to effort, to not giving up in the face of failure.

    And the last I checked, participation and homework and classwork are all on the syllabi for college, work and life. Mastery is only a small part of the whole. In fact, the way grades currently are now are a better indicator of success than mastery will ever be.

    And if those other items are “minimized” or side-lined, why should the students even bother to do them, especially if that is your view of them? The journey is no longer important, I guess.

    It all adds up and this commentary is just another educational panacea that tries to see the forest for the trees.

  2. Charles 2 months ago2 months ago

    I have been an LA Unified teacher for over 20 years. This is not how things are. The pressure to hand out unwarranted grades originates with school administrators. If a teachers does not hand out enough credits and grades (relative to their peers), they will be categorized as ineffective. Do this a few years of this and you will be out of work, and the documentary evidence against you will be … Read More

    I have been an LA Unified teacher for over 20 years. This is not how things are. The pressure to hand out unwarranted grades originates with school administrators. If a teachers does not hand out enough credits and grades (relative to their peers), they will be categorized as ineffective. Do this a few years of this and you will be out of work, and the documentary evidence against you will be all the F’s and low grades you wrote.

    Administrators succeed by moving students through the system and onto graduation. That is how they define success, and there is nothing wrong with that because that is their job. But, for a senior administrator to say that teachers give out grades too freely because administration has not provided teachers with enough instruction is like the CEO of Blue Cross saying that medical claims are denied too freely because Blue Cross management has not provided claims examiners with enough instruction. If you can believe that, then I guess you can believe this.

  3. Suzanne 2 months ago2 months ago

    Hats off, Dr. Chau. I'm the guardian of a former foster child, who came to our family at age 10. Like almost every older foster child, she has significant learning deficiencies and in USD testing, she was found to have a "specific learning disability," requiring special ed. She is currently in seventh grade at a "good" public middle school. Her current grades are A for math and A for English. However, she cannot pronounce or … Read More

    Hats off, Dr. Chau. I’m the guardian of a former foster child, who came to our family at age 10. Like almost every older foster child, she has significant learning deficiencies and in USD testing, she was found to have a “specific learning disability,” requiring special ed. She is currently in seventh grade at a “good” public middle school. Her current grades are A for math and A for English. However, she cannot pronounce or define the word “criticize,” nor could she tell you that half plus half equals one. At her latest IEP meeting, we were told she was close to proficient and “doesn’t really require special ed services.”

    How long do well-intentioned teachers want to keep struggling kids and their families in a fool’s paradise. Her ability and her efforts in no way match the “A” grades she is routinely getting. I’m not saying that struggling kids should get “F”s either, but perhaps a teacher’s comment – acknowledging effort or lack of effort – as well as positive feedback, when due, would be more effective.

  4. Kennmeade 2 months ago2 months ago

    In thinking about the achievement gap, it is useful to consider national trends in average test performance for students who take an internationally recognized test, such as the SAT, for example. As indicated in the table, below, the All Student average for SAT Critical Reading hasn't changed materially in recent decades— true as well for average scores of groups classified by race/ethnicity – except for Asian-Americans, who have closed the reading achievement gap How did they … Read More

    In thinking about the achievement gap, it is useful to consider national trends in average test performance for students who take an internationally recognized test, such as the SAT, for example.
    As indicated in the table, below, the All Student average for SAT Critical Reading hasn’t changed materially in recent decades— true as well for average scores of groups classified by race/ethnicity – except for Asian-Americans, who have closed the reading achievement gap How did they do it? Quien sabe.

    Table 1. SAT Critical Reading average selected years
    1987 ’97 2001 ’06 ’11 ’15
    507 505 506 503 497 495 All students
    524 526 529 527 528 529 White
    479 496 501 510 517 525 Asian/Pac
    457 451 451 454 451 448 Mex-Am
    436 454 457 459 452 448 Puerto R
    464 466 460 458 451 449 Oth Hisp
    471 475 481 487 484 481 Amer Ind
    428 434 433 434 428 431 Black
    SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.(2012).
    Digest of Education Statistics, 2011 (NCES 2012-001), Chapter 2. SAT averages for
    college-bound seniors, by race/ethnicity: Selected years,1986-87 through 2010–11
    Data for 2015 https://nces.ed.gov/fastfac

    If SAT averages haven’t changed materially for almost 30 years, despite the effort, time and money expended to improve educational programs for all students, it seems reasonable to assume that we shouldn’t expect any meaningful change in average performance in this critically important ability in the foreseeable future. Which leads to the $64 question: what if the achievement gap is here to stay? Of course, the fact that average reading scores haven’t declined, suggests that our schools must be doing something right!

  5. Keen Observer 2 months ago2 months ago

    Homework shouldn’t count? I get that the homework grade should be minimized in a math class, but what about essays in English, Social Studies and other subjects. I hope that this isn’t just “Mastery Grading,” in which students get 50% instead of a zero for work not turned in, that Dr. Chau is advocating.

    Replies

    • Dr. John L. White 2 months ago2 months ago

      Homework should count! Why give it if it does not count! Students readily practice athletics, music, art, and so on outside of the classroom. If the work is integral to the learning desired, it should count. Parents and students need to know this! I am an Administrator, but I never gave up my teaching!!