Karen set high standards for her high school biology students and she expected them to meet those standards. Little did she know that this would be the year of her grade awakening. As a great teacher, Karen went out of her way to help students improve. Everybody knew this about her. Teachers and administrators respected her as a consummate professional. Students described her as one of the toughest teachers in the school, but also fair. Parents saw her this way too. They knew that she would push their son or daughter, and they also knew that Karen didn’t tolerate parent complaints that were really just cloaked tactics to manipulate the teacher into lowering the academic bar or giving their child an unfair advantage.
Yet, Karen wasn’t the sort of teacher who graded on a curve. She was happiest when every student earned an “A”, although that never happened. She wanted every student to succeed. It was just that she was not about to create some sort of false sense of success by adjusting the bar for each student so that everyone could experience the joy of success.
Every day in class, Karen restated her expectations, driving students to work as hard as possible for the next major test, paper or project. It was a relentless focus on improved performance and progress toward earning the highest possible grade on the test or assignment. There were no surprises. She told them exactly when they had to know and be able to do if they wanted to earn the highest grade. Then she worked with students individually and in groups to progress toward that goal.
For Karen, the best measure and motivator was the grade. A high grade means high performance and a job well done. As such, she put a great deal of emphasis upon earning high grades in her class and she took great care to clearly explain what goes into earning the best grades. If you wanted an “A” in her class, then you had to earn “A”s consistently throughout the class, from the graded assignments in the first weeks all the way through the final exam. You had to follow the instructions carefully, turn things in on time, make positive contributions to the class and much more. She carefully designed a grading system in her class to make sure that students did all of these things to earn a top grade. Again, she went out of her way to help students, but she was not about to lower or adjust her standards for anyone.
Because she believed so strongly in the grade as a measure of high performance, she spent lots of time finding the research to support this. She consistently shared this research about letter grades with the students. Students with high grade point averages in high school are more successful in college. They are more likely to get good grades in college and to persist through graduation. She found that grade point average correlated with happiness in life, positive habits and behaviors, even higher annual income after college. She shared these data with students and put posters of these facts on one wall in her classroom.
One year, two students left a lasting impression on Karen that challenged her to rethink her approach to grading and led to her personal grade awakening. It was Michelle and Michaela. Both arrived on the first day of class ready and excited to learn. Yet, they had some major differences in their backgrounds.
Michaela came from a family that loved science. Her mother was a well-respected brain surgeon and her dad was a professor of biology at the nearby state University. Since she was born, family vacations were a blend of recreation and research that took them around the world. She’d swam with the dolphins, gone scuba diving at the great barrier reef, helped her dad collect samples to protect endangered species of birds in the Midwest (he was an ornithologist), and much more. While her parents made sure that she was able to read and do basic math before even starting school, they also treated human anatomy and biology in a similar way since she could speak. Michaela had an impressive collection of knowledge by the time she arrived in this first day of high school biology class. In many other schools, she would have jumped to AP biology, but despite Karen’s lobbying for it, this high school didn’t have it.
Michelle grew up on the poor side of town. Her father passed away when she was eleven from a rare illness, and her mom worked as a waitress in the evenings and on weekends, and for a cleaning service during the weekdays. Michelle’s mom made sure the two of them had everything they needed to get by, but there wasn’t that much more. In face, Michelle had been working a part-time job every since she could legally do so, but her mom insisted that all of that money go into a savings account to help pay for college.
Michelle wanted to be a doctor one day. Initially inspired by seeing the healthcare workers care for her father, she wanted to be there for future families in such circumstances. In fact, for the past year, she worked at the local hospital in the cafeteria. While Michelle and Michaela didn’t know each other well, Michelle saw Michaela’s mom fairly often at work, and looked up to her. Michelle wasn’t always a straight-A student, but she worked incredibly hard, especially since she set her mind on becoming a doctor. Every “A” took maximum effort and focus for Michelle. She didn’t have the same sort of upbringing as Michaela, but both of them were excited for this biology class.
So, when it came to the first day of Karen’s biology class, these two young women were excited and ready to get to work. Yet, as the first couple of weeks developed, it was clear that they had different backgrounds. For Michaela, pretty much everything was a review for the first several weeks. This was easy and familiar, and she didn’t need to do much to earn that “A”. This was far from the common experience in Karen’s class, but it certainly elevated Michaela’s confidence even more, and she finished the first unit in the class with a perfect score. This is something that never happened in Karen’s class.
Michelle devoted hours studying those first weeks. She loved what she was learning and was fascinated with all of the key ideas. Yet, the weekly quizzes and graded assignments were not easy for her, at least not at first. In fact, her grades were not nearly what she wanted or needed to accomplish her life goals in those first weeks. After the first unit test, Michelle had a “C+” and started to doubt her ability to become a doctor one day, but she was not going to give up this easily. She set up a meeting with her teacher after school, explained the situation, and while holding back the tears, asked for advice.
Karen knew just what to do. She spent a couple of hours after school working with Michelle over the next week. It didn’t take long for her to figure out the few misunderstandings and gaps in Michelle’s prior knowledge that kept holding her back. Once they got these figured out, things started to work out much better for Michelle. She still spent three times as much time studying for this class as Michaela, but by the middle of semester, Michaela and Michelle were competing for the top spot in class on each new unit test.
Of course, those first weeks continued to taint Michelle’s grade. She knew that, with a perfect score on everything else in the class, her absolute best grade in the class was a “B+”, but she was committed to making that bets outcome a reality, and she did just that. When it came time for the cumulative final examination, Michaela was the most prepared student in class. In fact, when the grading was finished, she did something that no other student had ever accomplished in Karen’s course. She earned a perfect score, with Michaela earning a 95%, a very respectable second highest grade in the class.
As Karen reflected on the year, she could say with confidence that Michelle was the hardest working and most focused student that she had ever had go through this class. She also demonstrated the greatest level of mastery in the course. Yet, she finished the class with a “B+” because of those early grades. Michaela, on the other hand, was a very good student as well, but just didn’t put in the effort to achieve the level of mastery demonstrated by Michelle. Regardless, Michaela finished the class with a sold “A+” while Michelle did not.
This bothered Karen because she took the upmost pride in two key traits. She wanted to be a tough teacher with very high standards. She also wanted to be supremely fair. For her, this meant that the hardest working students with the highest level of mastery should be the ones with the highest grades, but this was clearly not the case when she looked at these two students. Something was not fair about this to Karen.
Neither Michelle nor Michaela seemed to mind the arrangement. In fact, they both seemed quite happy with it. After all, they’d been through years of a school system where what they just experienced was the norm. They both learned to work within the system and it generally served both of them well.
While your average teacher might have mused about this for a little bit and moved on, Karen could not let go of this. She saw this as a professional failure and began to carefully examine the performance of other students in the class as well. She consistently found that students with lots of prior knowledge coming into the class did better than others, even when those others earned higher grades during the second half of the class and on the final exam. In other words, according to Karen, her class grading system favored the more advantaged students and penalized the students who needed the full timespan of the course to perform at their best.
When the school year ended, Karen dedicated her summer to solving this problem. She read countless journal articles, reached out to assessment experts around the country, and built her own assessment expertise. When it came down to the end, she decided that a key to solving this problem in her class was learning to make better use of ungraded and low stakes formative feedback during the first half of the semester. As the class progressed, she would then add more graded and higher stakes assessments. She also decided to experiment more with standards-based grading, which would allow both her and the students to focus more on mastery of key concepts and less upon simply earning a specific grade. The standard-based approach, as Karen came to believe, had a much better chance of focusing students on what mattered most, the learning.
She spent the entire summer rebuilding her assessment plan for the class, and was excited to test it out during the first semester of the new school year. As she reflected on the summer and her past years of teaching, Karen looked back with pride but also a measure of humility. She was a veteran teacher and had this deep sadness that some of her past students might have finished her class with a false sense of their abilities based upon a grading system that she now considered unfair. At the same time, she was so happy to have made these new adjustments and looked forward to this new year.