A Search For Honesty and Truth…

It’s easy to confuse the words truth and honesty. Often times we use them interchangeably. However, the two terms are not synonymous. Webster defines truth as something that is real or factual; while honesty is defined as straightforwardness and sincerity. In other words, one can be honest and not necessarily be truthful. Honesty depends upon one’s intent, while truth is often a permanent fixture. What does this have to do with grading? I’m so glad you asked.

Several years ago, I attended a CLAS Conference in Orange Beach, AL. During a breakout session, I enjoyed an enlightening, passionate, and profound group discussion after viewing several Rick Wormeli videos on standards-based grading (Rick Wormeli-SBG). I was blown away! I felt like I had been bamboozled all these years. I could not wait to get back to my school and share my newfound knowledge. I just knew that everyone would be as astonished as I had been upon gaining this new-found knowledge. Although everyone didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of the information, most of us “got it”! The next step was to determine what to do with it.

As leader, I immersed myself in this new way of thinking. In addition to watching the videos over and over, I also began reading books by Rick Wormeli, Ken O’Connor, and others. As the year ended, I began to make plans for our summer retreat. Back in those days, we didn’t get our hands on our spring data until the summer. Traditionally, we would spend the majority of the time celebrating our AYP status instead of taking a deeper dive into the demographics, standards, and sub-groups. That year, after our customary celebration, we began to disaggregate the data. We looked at students by grade who scored within each category (Ready, Close, and In Need of Support). Indeed, we were not pleased. Too many of our students were Close or In Need of Support, and not enough scored in the Ready category. But at the end of the day we made AYP, so we were good right? Not so fast…

Prior to the retreat, I ran a grade report from STI that listed the number of letter grades A-F by grade level for Reading and Math. I wanted the teachers to see what it would look like if we were to compare our gradebook to the ACT levels. Together we decided that A/B’s would equate to Ready. C’s would equate to Close. D/F’s would equate to In Need of Support. Afterwards, we compared the two lists. Needless to say, there was no “real” comparison. Our so-called “honor roll” list was more than twice as long as the “Ready” list. What could this mean? Typically, during those types of moments, I was the silence breaker. That day I remained quiet, as did the rest of the room for what seemed like an eternity. After a couple of minutes, someone spoke up. “Mr. Girtman, are you saying that…” and before that person could finish someone else said, “Yes, that’s what he’s saying.” I chimed in only to mention that our data was speaking, not me. Shortly thereafter the great debate began. We began to have the classic conversations after high stakes results are reported. “We are still getting used to the standards.” “The test was harder than we thought.” “I didn’t have a chance to cover the standards because of the pacing guide.” Sound familiar? There are times when certain concessions need to made, and then there are times when the brutal truth needs to be laid bare.

After some of our rock star teachers debunked those arguments, the silence returned. An uneasiness filled the room. Reality began to sink in. We realized what we had done. We had told ALL of those children, their parents, their upcoming teachers, and the community that they were “Ready” to go to the next grade level. But according to accountability assessment, that was not the case. We absolutely understood that a single measure was not always indicative of the whole, but this glaring contradiction was still right here in front of us. In all honesty, we didn’t need ACT, ARMT, or NAEP to tell us some of the kids weren’t ready. We already knew it. We knew the kids. We knew who did and didn’t know their math facts, and who could and couldn’t read on grade level. But, they had a B/C/D average on their report card so we did what we had always done.

How could this happen? We had earnestly followed the rules. However, as painful as it was for us to admit, our grading system was not reliable. Powerful conversations and quality questioning around our gradebook ensued as a result of the meeting. What was in it? How many grades do you give in your class? What do you count for a major/minor grade? Is that assignment worthy of a grade? These were all questions that needed to be asked. But the BEST part was that I didn’t have to ask them. The teachers asked each other!

Grades are communication, not compensation. They must be accurate reports of quality evidence of student performance towards standards. Our grades were misleading. They communicated a message that was not totally accurate. They included items that were not related to our standards. We were, of course, not deliberately attempting to deceive stakeholders, but true responsibility and accountability are not based on intent. We knew we had to do better. We had to change. We had to own it.

As a result, we began to fundamentally change the way we viewed assessment, curriculum, and instruction. No longer was it acceptable to hide behind the gradebook or current grading policy. After continued research and deliberate conversation we began to challenge the status quo. Answers to our many questions began to take shape. Common assessments, grade requirements, standards-based grading (SBG), peer observations, quarterly benchmarks, school wide intervention, and many other quality practices became the norm.

The overall experience pricked our hearts. We realized that our kids deserved grades that were both honest and true, not one or the other. For years we chased scores and external outcomes. As a result, we learned that if we committed to the process of rich, teacher-involved inquiry, it would not only yield improved test scores, but it would produce long-lasting, intangible habits of scholarship for student and adult learning.

As today’s educators, we need to be bold and courageous enough to start conversations about our grading practices and learn more about SBG in order to give our students what they truly deserve. There is an obvious “knowing-doing” gap as it relates to much of our current grading woes. President of the Learning Policy Institute, Dr. Linda Hammond, recently affirmed, “Much of what we know about human potential, learning, and assessments is at odds with what we are doing in education policy.” Why?

Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” We have everything that we need in order to make better choices and implement better practices. We now know better. Let us do better; because our kids deserve better.

Reeivice L. Girtman
Elementary Curriculum and Instruction Director
Phenix City Schools
#honestandtrue, #bebetter, #acgal, #gradesmatter, #sbg

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