Thursday, May 31, 2018

There Are No Answers Here, Only Questions

I was grading final exams today. And when I got to Maya's final exam, I felt really frustrated. Maya is a student of mine. Of course, Maya is not her real name. But what happened to Maya is real. Maya failed my class. She got an F. And what made me feel so frustrated is that I'm telling the story of Maya as a math student with that single letter F.

Maya and I had a rough start this year. She was in my 9th-grade algebra class. Maya's behavior wasn't great. Her foundational skills were low. She wasn't successful in previous math classes.

So I used my favorite teacher moves with Maya: I was patient; I was helpful, but not too helpful; I assigned status to Maya when it was authentic and I knew she had taken an academic risk. This came up in group work tasks. I also had to remind Maya of class rules and norms  (we had many, many conversations about appropriate cell phone use). And slowly some of the barriers Maya had created towards learning math came down.

Towards the end of 1st semester, Maya had an incident. One result of the incident was that her learning environment had to be modified. She couldn't take tests and needed frequent breaks. For several weeks, she was only allowed to attend class for 30 minutes. Of course, this set her way back in terms of finding success in my class. Which caused her barriers towards learning math to go back up.

Mid-way through 2nd semester, Maya got back on track. One day, I asked her to stay after class. It was after a lesson where she took several risks by sharing her thinking with the class. I let her know that I was extremely proud of her and that she should be proud of herself. And she was. We talked openly and honestly about both her growth and her struggles. I let her know that even though she was failing, it was my belief that she could still pass. We talked about revising a test she did poorly on together and then having her retake the test. But, unfortunately, those things need to be done outside of class time. She never came in. I found out later she had really good reasons to not come in.

However, she kept working exceptionally hard in class. And she kept demonstrating growth. She would raise her hand and say something like, "I'm not sure if I'm right but I think...". She was usually right, but not always. Her willingness to take that kind of public risk was evidence of growth.

Things weren't always perfect--Maya didn't always get along with everyone in her group. Some days Maya and I didn't get along. And some days she really wanted to put her head down on the desk. But overall Maya demonstrated growth in both mathematics and in herself as a learner.

That's like 2000 letters so far...and I'm supposed to tell Maya's story with only one letter!?

Maya also has some intense stuff going on at home. Given the gravity of the situation at home, she could have easily checked out in class. But she didn't. Even on the days when I got a heads up that Maya was having a bad day, she would still participate, talk to her partner or group, ask questions to the whole class, make mistakes and want to look for her error without my help. Maya did all the things I want students to do.

But Maya failed the final. And the class. Then, I have to tell Maya's story as a math learner with only the letter F.

And then I'm left with a lot of questions. No answers.

What does a grade really mean? I had professors in college that curved the grade for a test. Grades seem negotiable in that situation; other times a grade seems like a final decision and, often, act as a gatekeeper. I've heard teachers talk about rounding grades. But I've failed students that missed a passing grade by 0.5%. I don't share that fact with pride...I share that to acknowledge I'm part of the problem. The point is that letters grades seem easily influenced by bias--conscious or unconscious. How have my own biases affected grades in my classes? I don't know if I can objectively answer that. Can a grading system be a tool of institutional racism--either at my school or other schools? Lots of questions but no answers.

Should I try standards-based grading?  Can I be the only teacher in my department to do that?? Do I want to take on something new when I'm already feeling burned out and exhausted?

In my school, geometry comes after algebra. If a student does not pass my algebra class, does that mean that student cannot do geometry? Maya showed the habits and mindset that I would want for any math student. Frustratingly, there are students in my class with higher letter grades than Maya. But they have worse habits. So what is my grading system really rewarding? Content knowledge? How to do school? Procedural fluency? Does passing my algebra class offer confirmation of readiness for geometry? Or can a student do well in geometry without mastering all of algebra?

Does my grading system honor the complex lives of my students? It would be very hard for Maya to do homework, study, or get extra help outside of the school day. Students like Maya are why I stopped giving traditional homework this year.  But I still give traditional tests. And I still give traditional grades. So does my grading system honor Maya's complex life and growth as a learner or does my grading system honor tradition?

Should I pass Maya? I think I should, but I'm not going to. Why? Honestly, I'm afraid to challenge a system I am part of. Maybe this is how institutional racism and oppression work. If I am afraid to challenge the system I am part of, then my silence is equivalent to complicity. Clearly, the system my school (and many schools) use is incongruous with my own value system. But I still participate in the system my school prefers. So am I ignorant or racist or scared? Or all three? Is there a difference?

How do I present a counternarrative to the current system? How can I tell Maya's story in a way that is authentic and captures the complexity of her life as well as the growth she demonstrated? How do I communicate that she worked incredibly hard in class but had a series of life events that prevented her from doing well? Moreover, even if Maya got an A in my class, what story would that grade tell?

I guess the bigger issue isn't that Maya failed, the issue is the lack of dimension to the grade data that we (schools, teachers, parents, society) put so much emphasis on. When we hear, "that is an A student" it communicates something about that student. Whether fair or not, we are telling that student's story with a single letter. Similarly, when we hear "that student got an F," it communicates something about that student. We are also telling that student's story with a single letter. Something about that feels wrong to me. Sadly, there are no answers here, only questions.


  1. I would investigate dan Meyers SBG system. Students take assessments more frequently but they are shorter and the third attempt is the final score. Allows for study material. My issue is one you mentioned: kids who will not come to you outside of class. Next year I’m going to plan for a retake day at least once per trimester and a review session for the final.

  2. Rick, I just retweeted your post and added this post to the thread. It really changes how we perceive what a grade is, and how we calculate them. It fits with your question of 'What story are we telling with a grade.'

    1. Wow, that is a great read! Thanks for sharing.


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