Re-Evaluating Grades

How should teachers measure success in school?

Freshman+Haydn+Gleason+does+homework+at+her+desk+at+home.

Photo: Sydney Gleason

Freshman Haydn Gleason does homework at her desk at home.

As first semester comes to a close, students scramble to raise their grades by a letter or hang on to their hard-earned A. The ABC grading scale is a hallmark of high school, but some, like University Prep Upper School English teacher Christina Serkowsi, believe grades are not the best way to assess student performance.

“A single letter can’t possibly capture the complexity of what happens in teaching and learning and provides a false veneer of objectivity when grades and grading are inherently subjective,” Serkowski said. “Sometimes a letter grade can provide a student with valuable information about how much more attention they should give to developing certain skills, but more often than not, they focus students on achievement, performance and perfection.”

Serkowski incorporates her philosophy about grading into her competency-based curriculum, which emphasizes students’ knowledge and skills.

“Competency-based assessment is the best tool I’ve found that helps us shift our focus from the achievement and perfection of each exercise to what the student knows and is able to do after some time to practice and grow. This system also allows more room to play and make mistakes,” Serkowski said.

Senior Latham Britton agrees with Serkowski that students could benefit from other non-traditional methods of grading, especially during virtual learning.

“Pass-fail could be an option that would take some pressure off students right now,” Britton said. “The only problem with that is it’s not really giving a sense of how you’re doing compared to your classmates, which is the whole point of grades. Knowing that these grades are ultimately being used for college applications, I don’t think it’s realistic to do pass-fail, but I wish we could.”

A single letter can’t possibly capture the complexity of what happens in teaching and learning and provides a false veneer of objectivity when grades and grading are inherently subjective”

— English teacher Christina Serkowski

College is at the forefront of seniors’ minds with the Common Application, the admissions application many universities use, due on Jan. 1. However, Serkowski hopes to shift the focus of grading away from the college process.

“If we could somehow remove college from the equation, then ongoing conversations about teaching and learning would be sufficient for helping students make progress. Keeping an ongoing portfolio of work and feedback that helps to track progress and growth and acknowledges when students have met certain benchmarks in achievement would allow us all to focus on learning instead of the markers of success,” Serkowski said.

Heading into finals, teachers continue to reevaluate their methods for measuring student success. Learning and Testing Specialist Julie Smith believes the types of final exams teachers give should depend on their curriculum.

“Culminating tests and projects can be really beneficial if a class is structured so that it’s been building up to an end goal. But there are just as many teachers on campus that have the opposite view and they don’t treat any sort of final as a culminating test and it’s just the last test of the semester,” Smith said.

Serkowski takes the latter approach as she believes cumulative finals are not necessary.

“A final exam doesn’t capture something more significant about a student’s learning than an end-of-unit project or work product. Because of that, I have never given a comprehensive final exam,” Serkowski said. “Students in my classes this semester will pursue an end-of-semester project that captures their most-recent learning, but not a final exam.”

Junior Gabrielle Pitre prefers the style of final projects Serkowski describes over tests.

“Final tests just aren’t a necessary stressor to be adding into students’ lives, especially when there’s more engaging ways to do finals, like projects. I’m not someone that tests very well and something about the final test, it’s just really stressful for me,” Pitre said.