Grades aren’t the point of school; learning is

November 7, 2013

One of my favorite spectator sports — competitive parenting — seems to have reached new levels in the Washington region.

The Alexandria public school system is the latest to adopt a new grading system that abandons traditional letter grades for one that assesses how kids are mastering skills. In Alexandria’s case, scores of 1 to 4 (for developing, basic, proficient and advanced) have replaced A, B, C and so on.

As my colleague Michael Alison Chandler reported, parents are upset and confused by the change.

Change is hard. Having your children judged is hard. Changing the way your children are judged is a double whammy.

At a recent PTA meeting, parents were told that a 3 (or being proficient) is the goal.

“The way it’s been presented, we are striving for average,” said Mary Ritley-White, a parent who attended the meeting at Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy in Old Town. “We want to know how to help our kids strive for excellence.”

Ritley-White is the parent of a kindergartner and a first-grader.

You see, the new grading system is only for elementary students and is designed to put more emphasis on specific feedback for parents rather than on achieving a specific grade.

But the questions at the Lyles-Crouch parent meeting focused on things such as how children will make the honor roll without GPAs and how competitive middle schools will be able to assess the grades.

When Montgomery County instituted a similar policythis year, there were complaints that second-graders were bringing home too few ES’s on their report cards. (An ES means exceptional, but it came to mean “elusive secret” for disgruntled parents because they couldn’t figure out what Janey or Johnny needed to do to earn straight ES’s.)

I did mention that this angst about GPAs, striving for excellence and admissions decisions comes from the parents whose children still have their baby teeth, right?

As hard as it is to admit in a town where Harvard-educated parents schedule high-stress preschool interviews for their toddlers, what a child receives on a second-grade report card in math or reading isn’t going to cost her a spot in Harvard’s class of 2028.

This new “standards-based” grading system is meant not to judge just what a child has learned but how that child can apply that learning.

Learning. I’m 400 words into this column and that’s the first time I’ve used that word. That’s what education is all about . . . learning and learning how to learn. And for these youngest students, it’s about learning how to love to learn.

Does your child come home with words tumbling out of his mouth, his tongue not able to keep up with the excitement in his young mind? If so, and that same child achieves a 3 (proficient) in reading, I think you should thank your lucky stars, buy him a new book as a reward and move on.

It’s so easy to make too much of whether your third-grader is in the advanced reading group, but here’s the dirty little secret: The grades and the placements just don’t matter all that much at this level.

My boys are in the throes of applying to college. I’ll tell you exactly what they remember about third grade: Their class had lizards named Click and Clack and they had a teacher named Mrs. Celotto, who made absolutely everything seem exciting.

Christopher, in one of his college application essays, wrote the following sentence: “I only came to truly love school when I had teachers who taught me how to think, not what to think.”

That is the goal of standards-based grading. Maybe it will work and maybe it won’t. But teachers and school districts deserve a chance to give it a try. And parents should worry less and focus more on whether their child seems to love learning. That’s the most important lesson any child can learn at the elementary level — and the one that is far more likely to indicate success in college and beyond than an A or a 4 or an ES ever can.

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