Grading First Graders, Seriously?

Published in ChicagoNow, December 6, 2013

On December 3, 2013, the most recent scores from the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA), an exam given every three years to 15 year olds around the world in reading, math and science, were released. Despite the relentless and narrow focus on testing and accountability, American teens’ scores have not improved since 2000. In fact, they have declined relative to other countries. If we were grading the educational reform movement like we now grade all of our children, we would have to give it an “F.”

My 7-year-old granddaughter has a wonderful, young, enthusiastic first grade teacher. The classroom includes children with special needs who work and play alongside her. The teacher works hard to differentiate the curriculum for 26 children who spend time at learning stations rather than stuck in rows of desks. Too bad the teacher also has to grade these kids every six weeks.

That’s right, a report card based on testing is emailed home for each child on a schedule that must take up every moment of the teacher’s spare time. She shares with the parents she wishes she did not have to do this. She tells them not to be overly worried about these grades. But what parent of a 7-year-old child receiving a “D” in math would not be concerned? Does this mean, in addition to 7 ½ hours in school and nightly homework, it’s time to hire a tutor?

The first report card was comprehensive (there are four of these during the year) and based on incoming standardized testing. My granddaughter received grades A-F in math, reading, and writing. She was also assessed E (excellent), S (satisfactory), or U (unsatisfactory) in art, music, gym, library, and participation/conduct. Six weeks later, there was a shorter report card with letter grades in math, reading, and writing.

The inconsistency of these grades so far has my daughter scratching her head. On the initial report, my granddaughter received a “C” in math, but 6 weeks later, she received an “A.” Speed learning? More likely, she didn’t understand she was supposed to answer all of the questions the first time around. Or perhaps she decided to choose “8” as the answer whenever she could because she had just perfected her “lazy 8” and was fond of the number.

A former teacher shared her dismay about a test given to her first grader. Her son took a test (Are you ready for this?) on how fast he could fill in bubbles on a mock answer sheet. The point of this exercise was not to get the right answer because there were no questions. The children were being timed to see how many bubbles they could pencil in neatly in a minute. Meaningful lesson, right?

Vicki Cobb, author of children’s nonfiction for 45 years, wrote last month in the Huffington Post about Putting the Joy Back in the Classroom. She describes attending a school without report cards or grades. Somehow, she learned well without these things. I attended a high school without honors classes or published class rankings. I am certain I was as well prepared for college as my peers who came from more highly pressured schools.

When I became a high school English teacher upon graduation, I was shocked to learn the numbers next to my students' names on the attendance roster were their IQ scores. Even sadder, I was told it was impossible for a student to whom I had given an "A" to deserve this grade due to his average IQ score. LOL — he became a doctor. Take away lesson: grades do not measure drive, determination, and sheer grit.

Diane Ravitch, author of Reign of Error, stated in a recent blog post,

“If they mean anything at all, the PISA scores show the failure of the past dozen years of public policy in the United States. The billions invested in testing, test prep, and accountability have not raised test scores or our nation's relative standing on the league tables. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are manifest failures at accomplishing their singular goal of higher test scores.”

I point out in past blog posts that "good teaching is partly intuitive and cannot be constrained by time limits or reduced to learning facts. Teachers need to be able to use those teachable moments and diverge from their lesson plans when the children’s interests and enthusiasm carry them in a different direction. They need to nurture children’s creative thinking, wide-ranging interests, and unique styles of learning."

The educational reformers have created stressed out teachers delivering a one-size-fits-all curriculum where much learning time is wasted testing children. I have to wonder if my granddaughter’s enthusiastic first grade teacher will stick with a profession that piles meaningless tasks like grading such young children on top of the hard work of being an educator who creates what Vicki Cobb calls “joy in a well-ordered classroom.”

Seven year olds are creative, playful, and excited to learn new things. Do we really want to be grading them?

by Laurie Levy
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