July 20, 2018 | ° F

Re-evaluating grading systems in education

As members of the Rutgers University community, you are all well aware of how grading works and have been able to successfully achieve sufficient grades to get where you are today.  Unfortunately, the use of grading is something that is currently used as a mechanism of labeling, waste, and abuse in education.

I am not referring to the university's grading policies or even my own high school's grading policies, instead I refer to New York State's use of grading systems to assess schools through an expensive evaluation more commonly known as school report cards or progress reports.

To the untrained eye, many would look upon these evaluations as an objective look into the effectiveness of schools and their ability to educate New York's youth. However, I argue otherwise that systems such as these promote the notion that the solution to America's educational woes revolve around punishing schools by blacklisting, closing, or imposing financial sanctions on schools that never stood a chance to begin with.  Out of the parties involved, it is not the educators and administrators who are punished by these actions, only the students.

In our current economic state, it is irresponsible for a state government to consistently spend hundreds of millions of dollars assessing school efficacy when that money could be wisely invested in after-school programs, professional development for teachers, and enrichment for underprivileged schools.  Isn't it more important that parents know how their students are doing and not the school?  The school grades are a reflection of student performance and progress anyway so how is that any different from a student's report card issued by their school?

You have to wonder why we need these complex grading systems.  What purpose do they serve aside from telling parents that they should avoid certain schools while attracting parents to supposedly higher quality institutions?  Where is the community focus and what effect does report card grades have on the public view of schools?

This is what frustrates me as an educator.  The general public tends to look for the "magic bullet" in fixing these problems but rather than develop a community centered plan of action, we turn to bureaucracy and centralization.  So rather than recruiting families and local communities to help improve schools, we turn our backs on the "failing" schools and give parents "waivers" to go to "better" schools (even if they are located in another borough of New York City).  That's not the solution to this problem.

This is the danger of "data-driven" schools.  It's like playing professional baseball.  We don't necessarily see players for their sparkling personalities; instead we see them for their statistical contributions to the team.  We are swiftly heading into similar waters in education where we no longer look at students or even educators as personalities worth developing, but as players in a game where school-wide or class-wide statistics are more important than the final product — a well educated American citizen.

It is embarrassing to have to remind our politicians and the general public that this is not a game or a sport, these are people's lives!

When it comes to educational reform, you can't look simply at a business model where you attack problems from the top-down.  In essence, schools should not be run as capitalistic businesses, but as socialist communities.  The egalitarian approach would require parents, students, teachers, and administrators to collaboratively work towards a common collective goal of individualized academic development. Without these four groups working together, even a school with infinite resources will manage to fail.

Some will attack this as Un-American since there's a lack of "healthy" competition, and in some convoluted way competition is what drives student motivation… But I argue that when the student population is several grades behind in basic reading and math, competition is not universally "healthy." Again, this is not baseball, this is more like the Special Olympics where it's not about who wins or loses, it's about empowering students to participate under circumstances they never believed they could.

This is where you as readers need to decide on the effective use of government spending.  This is your call to action to promote providing productive school environments rather than turning schools into bureaucratic black holes where students enter but have trouble leaving. Public schools don't need grades, they need resources!

Stephen Lee  is a Class of 2007 Rutgers alumni.  He is also a New York City Teaching Fellow, and a high school biology and physics teacher in Bronx, New York.    



Stephen Lee

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