When I started teaching, we gave students grades four times a year. Of course, everyone knew that only the semester grades really mattered because only they would show up on the students’ transcripts. We would also send out midquarter reports to parents, but those were primarily to communicate (in hand-written words) how a student was doing, especially if there was a chance of her failing.
By the time I retired from teaching, many years later, we gave grades eight times a year, and it seemed to me, at least, that we were emphasizing grades much too much. Today, there is increasing pressure for teachers to enter grades into the computer on a daily basis. I’ve talked to parents who check on their child’s “progress” several times a day. Teachers I talk to struggle to find enough to report – they sometimes translate student behavior or activities into points, knowing that such “data” isn’t particularly meaningful.
We have trained students, parents, and teachers alike that academic success is equal to having excellent grades, or even worse, to having accumulated a lot of points. Every teacher is told that communicating with parents on their child’s progress is important, and so it may be. But making the number of points a student has accumulated, or the percent homework that he has turned in, or the average test score he has at any given moment exactly identical to how well he is performing in school is seriously misguided, and intensely counterproductive.
In fact, that equivalence is the very heart of “doing school”, the often pointless activity that students do to get good grades. It translates into a distorted set of priorities that actively replace learning with something that is much less meaningful or useful in life. Accumulating points ceases to be of any value once a student leaves school, and the skills she acquired in becoming successful at earning points, at being good at doing school, are, in fact, detrimental in most walks of life.
This is not what we should be communicating with parents. We should be teaching them instead that learning is what matters, that student attributes like grit and self-directness, curiosity and self-awareness are much more important than the student’s grade point average. But for that to happen, we must all agree that learning is the central purpose of school, something which often gets lost in the world of daily grade entries in a computer program.