It is a lovely evening, one of the last good ones of the fall.  We are sitting around a large table outside on the deck, drinking wine and talking.  Inevitably, the conversation turns to schools.  It never ceases to surprise me how often people want to talk about education.  Sometimes I think I am involved in these conversations because of my own preoccupation with the subject, but tonight I decided to not bring it up and see what happens.  These are total strangers at a surprise party for a mutual friend, and it turns out they are preoccupied too.  To be fair, everyone there except me and my wife have children in high school.

At first, one of the men at the table expresses his frustration and bafflement at his own students.  He teaches a graduate level course in biology at a nearby university, and he sees his students as having serious limitations.  

“They simply can’t think for themselves,” he says.  “These are some of the best educated people in the world, and after sixteen years of school, they remain passive, sponging information and lacking curiosity.  I just don’t see any originality in them.”

I explain my notion of “doing school”, and he responds, “That’s it.  They are still doing school, even in graduate school.  How can they become good citizens, good doctors, if they don’t have the ability to think critically.  They fit right in, they do good work, they meet expectations.  They just don’t think for themselves.”

“My theory is that doing school is actually a simulation of learning,” I say, “and that students become preoccupied with their grades and doing what is required of them.  I believe it actually prevents students from becoming actively engaged in their own learning process.  What you’re experiencing is the direct result of how students do school before they get to you.” 

“That makes total sense.  The question is what can be done about it.”

“Well, I remain hopeful.  I had enough experiences with high school Juniors and Seniors who had had a decade of doing school rise to the occasion when they were given the opportunity to take real responsibility for their own learning process.  It can definitely be done.”

We continue talking about grades and how important they seem.  I mention that when I first started teaching, we gave grades four times a year, but it was understood that the first and third quarter grades were basically progress reports, snapshots of how they were doing mid-semester.  It was only the two semester grades, the ones that determined the student’s grade point average and the ones that colleges looked at, that really mattered.

Then, six years ago, we were required to produce grades mid-quarter, or eight times per year.  And then, as the grades were increasingly put into the computer, we were encouraged to let students know their grades even more frequently.  Some teachers began posting grades every week, primarily to encourage students to make up missing work.

But the big leap occurred when the technology improved enough to put grades on the internet so that parents could, (and were strongly encouraged to) see a detailed grade report at any time.

The professor’s wife says, “I have to admit it - I used to check my son’s grades once a week, but now I’m looking at them at least once every day.  Last week, I asked him why he had missed an Algebra homework assignment.  I know I’m getting too much information, but I can’t seem to stop myself.”

“I have to tell you that the two issues you and your husband have been talking about, the lack of critical thinking skills he sees and the addictive lure of grades, are actually two sides of the same story.  Let’s say you could monitor every aspect of your son’s academic life, and you could somehow get him to get perfect grades, accumulating every possible point in every class.  My question is whether that is actually a worth-while goal - your husband is talking about the problems he sees in students who are living with the results of a lifetime of that kind of success.  What I’m saying is that being good at doing school may not ultimately be a worthwhile goal at all.”

Grades are often considered an important mechanism for communicating with parents about their student’s level of academic success.  Increasingly, teachers are coming to believe that there is a moral obligation to post grades as often as possible, preferably on a daily basis.  That way, parents will know if any work is missing or a student’s grades have been slipping, and will be able to take prompt action in keeping the student on task.

Grades by themselves aren’t a very sophisticated way to do that.  A poor quarter grade may be due to low test scores, which may due to too much incomplete homework, which may be due to a drop in motivation, which may have to do with the student’s social life or sleep deprivation or any one of a number of psychological or physical problems.  Sending a “C-” home doesn’t inform the parent what the problem is in a subtle enough way to be truly useful.

Now that grades are entered into computers and are readily available to students and parents, everyone in the system, students, their parents, their teachers and administrators are being actively trained that the purpose of school is to improve the student’s point count.  

When teachers, and students confuse grades with feedback, learning takes a back seat.  When students are doing school, feedback through grades tells them how to do school more effectively, and in particular, how to raise their grades.