Two schools of thought on new Metro Nashville grading policy

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on August 29, 2013)

A new grading policy in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools that raises the baseline on failing grades from zero to 50 has been rankling grading traditionalists. Also under the new policy, when students don’t take tests or turn in assignments, teachers are directed to find ways to reassess them to determine real achievement or to record incomplete assignments with an I. Critics believe that in such situations zero is the appropriate grade to give.

Two schools of thought are at work here. On one side are those who see grades as a system of rewards and punishments. Students who excel receive A’s, the satisfaction of knowing they have done well, the esteem of their teachers and families and the prospect of future benefits like admission to college or receipt of scholarships. Those who fail receive an unpleasant reality check — hopefully one that stimulates them to do better next time.

For many who prepare teachers, grades are seen as part of an ongoing conversation about student progress. My colleague, Marcy Singer-Gabella, says, “The point of grading assignments is to provide some usable feedback, a teacher’s perspective on how the work stacks up against learning goals. Usable feedback should help a student determine where she ought to productively focus her energy.”

Kathy Ganske, who directs Peabody’s elementary education program, similarly places grading in the context of expected outcomes and helping students succeed. “It’s easy to assign a grade. The hard part is analyzing what went wrong and determining what needs to be done,” she says.

Kathy also points out that when a student gets a percentage grade that is especially low, it may take away any incentive for the student to try to bring the overall grade up. In fact, a grade of zero on a test or assignment may make it mathematically impossible for a student to bring up a failing grade by the end of a term. Proponents of the new plan also have made this argument.

“As a teacher with a pedagogical perspective, I would want to do what encourages kids to stay in the game and what acknowledges what they do know, not just what they don’t know,” says Barbara Stengel, director of Peabody’s secondary education program. Barbara sees grading as, at best, an approximate measure of student learning. Because grades depend on who is asking the questions, the questions being asked and a multitude of outside variables that come with each student — by definition, grades cannot be wholly objective.

“The more interesting question is whether students are able to do (think, act) what we expect they should at the age of 6 or 16. And oddly, we can get a pretty good level of agreement about that just by asking folks who teach them, raise them, or coach them,” Barbara says.

No matter which side of the debate you come down on, it is important to remember that under Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools’ new criteria, failing students will still fail, excellent students will still excel and A-F grades will continue to provide a snapshot of their performance — even if the picture remains stubbornly fuzzy.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.

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