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Editorial: Grades should measure what kids have learned. Too often, they don’t

Occasionally, public school students will come across a teacher who allows them to take a test a second time if they performed poorly on the first round. The idea is that it doesn’t matter so much if students didn’t understand the material to start with as long as they ultimately learn it.

It’s a forgiving way to go about education, and one that makes sense. For the most part, modern public education is based around the idea that everyone in the class should be able to move along at pretty much the same pace and understand the material in time for the test, or get all assignments in on time. It suits our job-oriented way of life, in which we meet deadlines or risk becoming unemployed.

Fair enough. But the objective of school is different. It’s to leave at the end of 13 years with certain skills and knowledge that enable you to move on to jobs or to gathering more skills and knowledge. Each year is a marker toward that end. And as long as students are progressing well enough to learn what they need by the end of that time, does it really matter whether they learn it by November or March or even over the summer?

During this difficult school year of online learning, the Los Angeles Unified School District is holding off on giving failing students a grade of F for their first-semester work. Instead, they’ll automatically be shifted to an “incomplete” and given until late this month to make up the work. Far more students are getting D and F grades this year, and it’s no surprise that Black and Latino students, who have especially suffered under remote learning, are falling the furthest behind. The percentage of failed courses is nearly twice as high for Latino high school students as for white ones.

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Though computers have been handed out to virtually all of them, their access to the internet is inconsistent and often glitchy. Office workers who have relied on Zoom meetings are certainly familiar with the phenomenon of conversations that flicker on and off and people talking over one another. Imagine having to absorb lessons, ask questions and participate in class discussions that way.

Giving students extra time to learn — and chances to retake or make up tests and assignments they failed — is a much better approach than what the district did last spring. Back then, students weren’t flunked at all, whether they’d learned anything or not. Admittedly, the conditions then were even tougher. Now, students have to actually do the work. They just get more time.

This raises the question: Why reserve this extra time and these extra chances to succeed for disastrous circumstances like a pandemic, rather than giving students more flexibility wherever feasible? Offering retests has been a more popular trend nationwide in recent years, as teachers saw that students studied harder for the second test.

Those who object say kids learn from failure, or that giving extra chances makes the course too easy. But on the website We Are Teachers, Grand Rapids high school English teacher Derek Boillat points out that students learn far more from figuring out how to do things the right way after a failure. He likens it to putting a piece of do-it-yourself furniture together. People end up with an unusable dresser if they put the handles on the wrong side of the drawers without a chance to correct their mistakes.

And unlike many other dictates designed to keep students from failing, students still need to learn the same amount of material and do at least as much work if not more. They would graduate just as educated.

Witness the San Diego Unified School District, which is revamping its entire grading system to one of so-called standards-based grading. The idea is to grade students on how well they’ve mastered the necessary skills and knowledge by the end of the school year, not on whether they handed in all their homework on time.

Beyond that, students who fail a course have to retake the whole course. It would be more efficient and productive just to have them redo the parts they failed. This is common practice at universities when students receive an incomplete in a course.

This approach isn’t always workable. Math skills tend to build on one another; a student who doesn’t understand an important math concept early on will be lost when the class starts a new unit. And retakes and extensions require more work from teachers, who would need the help of additional staff.

But for the most part, it shouldn’t matter whether a student gains the required knowledge by mid-December or early March. The lesson should be that learning is a work in progress, not an exercise in “If at first you don’t succeed, take an F.”


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