By Brian G. Ricca, Ed.D.
Occasionally, friends of mine bring me “educational questions” about their own children’s experience of teaching and learning. Recently, I was asked what I thought about a kiddo being given a zero for a missing assignment. I followed up with several questions about the project, the teacher’s grading system, and this zero’s impact. This entire conversation brought me back to my own educational journey with grades, both as a student and as a teacher.
Long ago, when I was in elementary school, grades were distributed by envelopes that we brought home to our parents as students. We would bring our report cards to my dad. He would pull the paper out and cover my grades with a different piece of paper. He was more focused on the effort column. In my home, any grade was acceptable as long as the effort was “E” for excellent or “S” for satisfactory. Once the effort grades were scanned, and after reviewing the comments written by my teachers, only then did he look at the grade I earned in that class. That has stayed with me to this day.
As a first-year student at Holy Cross, I was overwhelmed with the workload. So much so that I earned a “C-” on my first blue book exam. I was crushed and sure that this meant I would not be successful as a student there. With my tail between my legs, I went to the office hours of Professor Jim Powers in the Department of History. He was an intimidating individual, and I barely knew what to ask. Fortunately, this was not his first rodeo, and he started the conversation by saying, “I’m thinking this is one of the lowest grades you’ve seen in your academic career.” When I confirmed that indeed it was, he took out a legal pad and started to sketch out how he conceives of his exams, how it relates to the way he teaches the course, and finally, how it connects to the reading he assigns.
I was grateful for all this and said as much. But when I stood to leave, I was stunned by what Dr. Powers said next: “Mr. Ricca, I will make a deal with you. If you ensure that all your grades for the remainder of this class are better than this first exam, I’ll forget about this grade since it was your first college blue book.” I continued to go to office hours with Dr. Powers regularly, kept all my remaining grades above that C-, and he kept his word. That C- was never factored into my final grade for that first semester.
Despite the lessons from my dad and Dr. Powers, when I first started teaching, I was utterly ridiculous about grades. I harped on my students about them. I was thoughtless about calculating percentages. I recorded zeroes if students did not turn in assignments. If I could go back to my early years of teaching, I would tell that baby teacher to keep grades in perspective. They’re not the be-all and end-all. They have their place, of course.
Fortunately, I did evolve in my thinking as an educator. When I taught high school, I often asked my students what they thought I earned when I took this course on the first day of classes. A handful would offer “an A,” one or two would suggest I failed it, and after a few minutes, every letter grade was mentioned. I would then lower my voice and say, “Do you really want to know my grade when I was in high school.?” After an affirmative answer, I would whisper, “OK, if you want to know what my grade was when I took this class…” and then, in a regular voice, say, “Ask my mom, who has all my report cards in a shoebox in the attic!”
Finally, I reflect on the fact that I’ve been in educational leadership since 2003, and as a result, I’ve been hiring people for twenty years. In twenty years of hiring people, I’ve never, not once, looked at a transcript when trying to determine whether or not to hire someone. Other than verifying that the academic record is authentic, I’ve never looked further at the details. Even once, in another district, when we were hiring a teacher for Irish Literature, which is very specialized, I did not look to see what the final candidates earned in that class.
So, back to my friend. I was honest and shared that giving a zero for a missing assignment was inappropriate. It’s more appropriate to enter a failing grade instead because the impact of one zero is almost irrecoverable in the course of a semester, especially if you are being graded out of 100. Giving a numerical “fail” (perhaps a 60) is reasonable but not a zero.
Fortunately for me, I serve in East Greenwich Public Schools, and our Vision of a Graduate aligns with my professional views on grading. Our graduates will be knowledgeable, skilled, connected, and reflective. It does not say our graduates will earn top grades. It does not say our graduates will have high GPAs. It does not say our graduates will have all As.
When it comes to grades, they are only meaningful if they reflect what our students know. To that end, we must work diligently to ensure that our students, all our students, can show us what they have learned. Not just on a quiz or a test. Not just in a five-paragraph essay. Not just in any of the traditional means we have to assess. We have to work to make certain that our grades demonstrate the growth, learning, and content we hope our students have mastered.
So I ask you, how important are grades?
Brian G. Ricca, Ed.D., is the superintendent of East Greenwich Public Schools.
Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash