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Why Grades Don’t Matter to Me

November 14, 2011

If I ran a school, I’d give the average grade to the ones who gave me all the right answers, for being good parrots. I’d give the top grades to those who made a lot of mistakes and told me about them, and then told me what they learned from them. – R. Buckminster Fuller, inventor and former Mensa International president

If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not working on hard enough problems. And that’s a big mistake. – Frank Wilczek, Nobel laureate in physics

Many times when I state that I advocate for advanced and gifted education in the Rochester Community Schools, I get a response like “Why should we provide extra education?  Your child will get A’s and ace standardized tests.  What more could you want?”

I won’t deny that there is some joy in being the parent of gifted children.  You know their academic struggles will be few and it is fun to see your children succeed.  But having a gifted child also raises questions and creates dilemmas.

The primary question when it comes to school, and it is really a question every parent should ask, is “Is my child learning?”  And it is here that grades not only aren’t a reliable indicator, but actually can be misleading.

Imagine you went back to school.  No, not college.  Fourth grade.  You pay your $10,000 for a year of education and sit in the classroom with the other students.  Did you get an A?  Probably.  Ace the MEAP?  Most likely.  Did you learn much?  It was probably at least half review.  It wasn’t an appropriate class for you.  For students that are gifted and a year or two ahead of their classmates, these classes aren’t appropriate for them as well.  They will ace the tests, but fail to learn.

What if the fourth grade class was studying a subject you had little knowledge on?  For example, you might be learning economics, Mandarin Chinese, or music theory.  Would you get an A?  Probably.  Ace any exams?  Most likely.  Would you have learned as much as you could have?  Probably not.  Your mind is more developed than a nine year old’s and capable of learning at a faster pace.  It wasn’t an appropriate class for you and it wouldn’t be an appropriate class for many gifted students.  Again, they will ace the class, but fail to learn all they could have.

How would you have felt during these classes?  Restless?  Bored?  Would it have been a waste of your time and make you want to drop out?  Could you have learned the material better on your own?  Would you have wanted to be in an advanced or accelerated class?  Would getting an A make up for not learning at the level or rate appropriate to you?  Would an A be a proper reflection of how much you learned?  Would you have rather been in a class with people of your academic aptitude even if you received a C?

Did you learn any study skills in this class?  Did you learn to work hard and overcome obstacles?  Did you learn to work with other students?  Did you put in an A effort?  Did you take this class to get an A or to learn as much as you could even if the material was harder?

Gifted children feel much the same as you would.  They aren’t adults, but they are academically ahead of their classmates.  They become bored while they “sit the bench” waiting for the rest of the class to catch up.  They become restless and many zone out, chat with their classmates during instruction, or become disruptive to the class.  The drop out rate among gifted students is high.  They don’t learn many of the soft skills taught in schools – hard work, study habits, teamwork, and overcoming obstacles.

I am sending my children to school to learn, not to get A’s.  I want them to learn what they are capable of, no matter what their IQ or academic prowess is.  When a pre-test at the beginning of the year shows that some students already know the material, they should not have to sit there while it is taught again.  They should receive a curriculum aimed at them through acceleration tactics such as cluster grouping, partial acceleration, full-year acceleration, and magnet classrooms.  An A when they already know the material is meaningless and misleading as it implies they have learned something they haven’t.

Grades aren’t completely useless.  They can be a good reflection of if a student knows the subject matter.  But if they are to be used to hold a student back who has not mastered the material, they should be used to advance students ahead who already know the material.  Students should be placed in classes where they will be taught at the level and pace where they learn the most, regardless of physical age.  Until gifted students are being graded on material appropriate to them, grades won’t matter to me.

Thank you for reading Rochester SAGE!  Together we can make a difference for gifted children!

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The Importance of Gifted Education Series
I. Why I Am Passionate About Gifted Education
II. Why Is Gifted Education Necessary?
III.  Is Gifted Education Equal Education?
IV. Is Gifted Education Expensive?

V. How Does Gifted Education Help Everyone?

VI. What Are Characteristics of a Gifted Child?

VII. Why Grades Don’t Matter to Me
VIII. The Procrustean Bed of Education
IX. The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations
X. I Want My Kids to Fail

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. homeschoolpharm permalink
    November 14, 2011 2:42 PM

    So true. Last year, the near our home had a brilliant young man for it’s valedictorian. His average for his four years of high school was 99.8%. Imagine! So impressive. But I have to ask, when in those four years was this young man challenged while at school? I really think, that his four years were wasted.
    He was involved in many extracurricular activities, and travelled internationally, competing in physics olympiads. But his high school experience? I think he must have been bored out of his mind.
    I have a 13 year old who is being educated at home. Her average “marks” are somewhere between 90 and 95 (because unless she knows 90% of the material, she isn’t permitted to move onto the next lesson). But she’s studying grade 11 and 12 and first year university material. She’s being challenged. She gets frustrated. Knows she has to work hard in order to move on.
    So when she “graduates”, she won’t have a 100% average, or something skirting that. But will she have learned? I think so

    • November 14, 2011 3:40 PM

      homeschoolpharm, it sounds like you have a wonderful system set up! When schools speak of differentiation, this is the ideal. Unfortunately, the implementation usually falls way short. Because your daughter has the knowledge combined with important work habits, you have equipped her to succeed in all facets of life!

      • September 13, 2015 3:07 PM

        Joshua, I have to wonder about that gap between ideal and realistic. As a general elementary teacher, certified in gifted/talented, I struggle to find time to support my gifted students. homeschoolpharm, your child will be academically well-equipped for college, as I assume you are preparing her for! That’s great! However, I wonder how you would simultaneously assist 26 other students at different levels… The issues with the school system are often presented, but rarely given a solution of practicality. Ideas?

      • September 14, 2015 10:16 AM

        KW, you rightly point out the difference between ideal and realistic. I see this frequently in school districts that use differentiation. The ideal is that a teacher can provide lessons to special needs, struggling, and gifted students, and every student in between! The realistic is that even top-notch, hardworking, veteran teachers struggle to do this. (Jim Delisle addresses this at http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/01/07/differentiation-doesnt-work.html )

        In behavioral game theory, scientists often look at what choices benefit the group vs. the individual. If your principal asks if you have met the ideal of being able to teach all students at every level, what do you say? It benefits the group if every teacher says that the ideal is unrealistic and they have not been able to. It benefits the individual to claim that you can and thus are a highly effective teacher. Privately teachers have told me that they simply cannot provide differentiation for top learners due to time and resource constraints. District administration tells me that teachers are doing great and say differentiation is successful.

        The longer I’ve been on this journey, the more I’ve realized much of the responsibility lies with the district. They have the ability to reduce the numbers of academic levels in a classroom or provide appropriate resources. But as a parent, I’m not viewed as a reliable source as to if the teacher can differentiate appropriately. I also do not want to get my child’s teacher into trouble with the district. We need teachers willing to speak out – anonymously or through their union leadership if need be – and state that it is not realistic to meet the ideal that the district demands.

  2. Shari permalink
    November 14, 2011 8:48 PM

    I was lucky enough to find a small charter school that agrees with your statements and exercises free will when determining what classes my son needs. He is accelerated 4-7 years but grade level is never part of the discussion when determining what classes come next. He has learned to step up and work hard. Most importantly he has learned that making mistakes is necessary to advance and doesn’t dissolve into a puddle when it happens.

  3. March 6, 2012 8:12 PM

    Unfortunately I can’t work out how to turn the URL above into a link, but it is a fantastic lecture by Sir Ken Robinson about education. In it he talks about the problem of dividing students into grades and how it is based on an industrial model. It changed my thinking as a teacher.

  4. March 7, 2012 6:35 AM

    Reblogged this on 12vanblart and commented:
    Everyone should read the quotes on this one!

  5. March 9, 2012 11:47 AM

    Thank you! I’m teaching at a college without grades, but teachers write prose evaluations of students, and students write ones for themselves and the professor. I was skeptical at first, but then came to realize that the focus is more on evaluating what was learned, rather than on record-keeping. As Dolores Umbridge said, learning is for the sake of getting a good grade on your OWLs–not if you can actually defend yourself.

    I tell all my students I want the smartest kids to sweat. My goal is to be hard–and to teach students how to meet these challenges. This approach arises from my own boring time in school. My philosophy certainly benefits the smart kids. But guess what? The ones who are “less smart” (and I’m wondering more and more about this category) are studying for their lives–and thanking me for it. One student (a freshman) said he had taken more notes in my courses than all of high school put together–and he was grateful. He told me he learned he doesn’t have to be afraid of hard work.

  6. Steve-GA permalink
    January 21, 2015 11:10 PM

    Comments on Mark Barnes guest post in Education Week: “How Eliminating Grades Changed Everything in My Classroom”

    As a retired teacher in a gifted/talented program spanning grades K-12, your experiences with grading mirrored my own. My personal experiences with traditional grading where I received A’s but learned little vs. F’s where I learned a ton, but not enough obviously, made me question their validity as a student. Later as a teacher in the, then, new gifted program (70’s) and being given free rein to develop my own curriculum and methods, traditional grades were the first thing to go.

    Students were skeptical at first that I meant what I promised, so certain fears had to be relieved. The foremost one that the high-achieving students questioned was that without grades how would they know who were the top students? They were fully aware of their necessity to calculate those coveted class rankings leading to valedictorians and scholarships.

    And as with you, the system required a numerical grade at the end of each term so I agreed to give everyone a “blanket A/95”. Even this was suspect though it met the system’s requirement some still wanted the opportunity to earn a higher grade, while others complained, rightly, that the slackers would be getting “something for nothing”.

    And most assuredly, some took full advantage of the opportunity to do as little as possible. But I also gave feedback on assignments that were highly personalized only after two other students had personally written a critique of the work. Boy was I surprised at the depth of their critiques and the harshness they displayed with this peer-review process when the quality and quantity of the work was found to be inferior. Of course when the work was superior, they were just as thoughtful in their praise and frequently admitted their own work was not as good. Being teens in a traditional junior high, inner-city setting, peer pressure can be a marvelous catalyst. As the program was new, many had never been exposed to others just as able as they, so in that way this method produced an awareness and appreciation that many found humbling, inspiring, and exhilarating.

    And as you found, after goofing off, many admitted that they had not “earned” those A’s, which I then reminded them was one of THE most important lessons of all. Having the good fortune of working with these special groups for many years was a privilege that is denied to many teachers and, though grown with kids of their own, many keep me abreast of what they’re doing and we remain good friends. So it’s true that though most teachers are poorly paid, we are richly rewarded when we see the fruits of our labors of love.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences as I found them to be inspiring and daring, as we both know, change is sometimes met with disdain.

    Steve-GA

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