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What does a 60% mean?

The first semester ended on Friday, bringing with it the usual end-of-semester debates, pleading, and teacher boasts about grades. I have already received a weekend email from a counselor asking if there is anything a student can do to earn .05 quality points in class, thus bumping them over passing mark for the semester. I have also heard colleagues boast about how they refuse to round up students' grades when the grade book shows a 59.6%. So it's this time of the school year that really causes me to question what a 60% means (the line designated by my district as a passing grade) and what grades in general tell us about student learning.

A number in a grade book is just that, a number. So why do teachers apply so much weight to that number when it comes to student learning. Any teacher who assesses regularly understands where their students are with their learning relative to the standards. Students may be approaching the standard but not there yet, or they may have shown proficiency or even mastery of the subject and skill. A teacher who uses regular formative assessment can determine that. And yet, our system has put so much value on the number calculated by a grade book that we often can't say what that number means. The result is students that chase a number rather than learning, or fail to see the point of the numbers that determine their success in school.

So what are we to do about this seemingly faulty system? The reality is that school districts still require teachers to give grades, parents talk about school in terms of grades, and students feel increasingly pressured to "earn" these numbers that may or may not actually mean anything. At this midpoint of the school year, it is worth thinking about your own grade book and what the numbers or letter grades you assign to each student actually means. Refuse to let an "A" simply be an "A." Be clear to students, parents, and yourself about what those letters and numbers represent about student learning. Until teachers start getting real about that, a 60% and an "A" will continue to just be numbers and letters that hurt student learning.

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