Thursday, February 19, 2009

What Is That Grade Worth?

I noticed this morning that there were several references to No Child Left Behind tests in the national media.  The test scores of one school in one state that would indicate that school's failure might well be a passing score in another state.  This is the problem with tests--what do the scores (and grades) mean?  And who makes that judgement?  

I've always had a thing with tests since I was a little kid myself.  For example, "if a road is twenty feet wide and a forty foot tree falls across the road, how much of the tree is not on the road?"  If memory serves me correctly this was a question in a New York Regency examination.  As a kid I wanted to know if the tree fell ninety degrees across the road or did it fall in a diagonal manner of say, forty-five degrees.  Another thing that I wondered about was if the road was crowned or curved in such a way that would produce less tree on the road.  Well, it could also be more if the tree was thin.....  Of course you could not ask questions like this.  "Pencils in hand?  Turn test over and proceed."  "Times up, put your pencils down."  Oh lordy how I hate those words.....and the tests.

I taught tests and measurements for teachers at the local university.  In the graduate class whether I wanted it or not they always seem to be a section on horrors of tests.  "A kid transfered into my class yesterday and had to take the test today and it counts against me!"  Or, "we had a major outbreak of lice and the children and I could not keep our minds on the test."  There are so many variables to consider.  Testers have two things to consider--one is validity, that is, does the question measure what you are trying to find out and the other is reliability, does it always measure the same thing with different subjects.  Those are very difficult to achieve.

And no, I am not going to write a lecture on tests and measurements.  And I'm not going to point out the flaws in NCLB and WASL, at least not now.  Rather I need to tell you about my early grading practices.  I was a new fifth grade teacher and all of a sudden it seemed to me I was required to send home grade report cards for the first quarter.   I don't remember any of my undergraduate education courses even touching on this subject of grading students and none of my new colleagues ever warned me that the report cards were about to be due.

Talk about the rubber meeting the road, I was just this side of panic. I hadn't collected enough work from each student to made a diagnoses for a grade and I didn't have enough grades in my grade book to do any sort of averaging.  Talk about being up a creek.......

My first grades were purely subjective, that is, I would think about the student, do a zen bit and then come up with a grade.  How accurate I was I have no idea.  Let's say it was a bad job at least from my point of view.  I signed all the cards and sent them home.  Most of the kids in my class thought I was pretty "easy" and several parents thought I had done good--they agreed with my assessment of their child.  Amazing.  But probably more amazing was the fact that very few parents came to talk about their child's work.  I was the teacher and must know what I was doing.

But there was one couple waiting at my classroom door the morning after I had sent home the report cards.  Jenna (not real name) was a very quiet slightly overweight student in my class that was about as average as one can get.  She always got a "C" on her papers. If you had asked me to pick the most average child in my class I would have picked Jenna.   She even dressed average.  It was probably the one report card I was comfortable with.....

As I said, the Mr. and Mrs were waiting for me along with Jenna and her younger sister.  Mr. C was about my height but looked like he had twice the muscle and his facial expression indicated he'd like to use a few on me.  He was upset.  Very upset.  His daughter was NOT average--she was an "A" student and I was an ass not to see this.  He thought I was the worst teacher he had ever met (this was our first encounter).  He let me have it for a length of time and suggested I learn how to teach.  The family left without me saying much.  I didn't get a chance.  But it was a scary experience for me.  

So for the next few weeks I watch Jenna and her work carefully.  She was average.  I was by then collecting more work from the students so that I would not be blindsided by the next report card session.  And I compared Jenna to others in my class.  She was average.  Jeeeez, what to do.

The next report card date approached and I was better prepared--not well prepared but I was learning.  I filled out the report cards with a bit more confidence but when I cam to Jenna I really didn't know what to do.  I did not want a repeat of the last session with Mr. C and the family.  Trust me I ponder this one for quite a while.  Finally, I threw honor to the winds and gave Jenna "B's" in all of her subjects.  There was no basis for this reporting except that Mr. C scared me.  

As I walked around the edge of my building the next morning after I had sent report cards home for the second grade report, there were the four of them waiting for me.  Mr. and Mrs and the two girls......He didn't even wait for me to unlock my classroom--he started in.  While he acknowledge I was doing better, Jenna was an "A" student and I should know better.  When Mr. C talked, muscles rippled and I didn't say much.  Talk about grade rage, this was it.  I manage to survive the talking to and they finally left.  

But a strange thing happened in the days to come.  As now was the norm I kept students work in a folder for grading purposes and I watched more carefully what each student was doing on their assignments.  Jenna was doing "B" work!  Really!  I even got out old work of hers and compare it.  She was obvious doing better work.  I asked her, "Is your Dad helping you at home?"  "No, Mr. Blackwell, I'm doing it all myself." I complemented her and she was pleased.  I thought about sending a note home praising her but I also sense the less said the better.

The third report card session was approaching and I thought hard and long about Jenna.  By now she was doing solid "B" work and I had data to support her grades.  But when it came to her report card I threw caution to the winds and gave her all "A's".  Yes, Mr. C scared me and it influenced my decision.  I signed the report card and sent it home.  I hated grading.

The next morning I almost danced to my classroom until I saw......Mr. and Mrs. C and the two daughters.  Gee, what had I done?  But this time they greeted me as an old friend.  Mr. C. said something like he knew I could be an excellent teacher if I tried.  They were pleased with me and I will admit the meeting went well.  My blood pressure didn't rise as it had in the past.

Well, this could be the end of the story except for one minor little point.  As I collected work from the students for the fourth and final report card session, I noticed that Jenna was doing "A" work and was helping other kids in the class.  She still was terrible quiet, almost shy but she was still helping some of the other girls.  She was an "A" student.  I had data to back this statement up.  What was going on?

Jenna was one of my first students who worked at their school work up to, in this case, my expectations.  At first I thought she was average and perhaps I treated her as such so she did average work.  When I "gave" her "A's", she did "A" work.  Some kids I found out can be motivated by a lower grade and they work harder.  But some children see the expectations of them and do that type of work.  Jenna responded to me and I responded to her.  We became good friends.

Did her Dad really know that Jenna was capable of doing "A" work?  I don't think so.  He and his wife were hard working Boeing people (I think he lifted up the whole plane with his muscles) but knew that education was necessary for being successful and he wanted his daughters to be successful.  He wanted the best for his daughter.  I can't fault him on this--I would want the same thing.  But I hadn't ever seen this phenomenon before.  I wonder how many other children are out there in the schools that only need a positive report card.

Not the end of the story.  Some of my fellow teachers were teasing me the next year as school started.  Apparently, the principal had placed Jenna's little sister in a different classroom and Mr. C. was doing his thing in the office. He wanted the "best teacher in the school" for his youngest daughter.  He would accept nothing less.  Yup, Jenna's sister was moved into my class. And, yes, I gave Janet all "A's" the first report card session.  Just like her sister, she did "A" work.

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