Sacred Classrooms Desecrated by Rubrics and Drive-Thru Grading, not just Standardized Testing

In loving memory of Dr. Robert Kastelic

My mentor teacher was the most radical cutting edge bizarre brilliant educator I’ve ever known. He was beloved by students and hated by many colleagues and most administrators. My first teaching job was replacing my mentor’s position when he went on to become a professor of education after he earned his PhD. from Columbia University. I think I ended up with a lot more latitude in that classroom than I otherwise would have because I appeared a little less strange and eccentric than my wild eyed red-headed predecessor who looked more the part of a radical.

And it’s a good thing I appeared deceptively moderate because by the time I finished my teacher education, which I loved, and by the time my mentor was through with me, I had a fire in me to be the best teacher I could possibly be by trying to live the philosophy that I had been pushed to develop and internalize. My mentor pushed me to have a thorough philosophy of education, grounded in theory and research. Every day I showed up to student teach, he had a new stack of articles and journals for me to read, and I devoured them all. Each day, he would ask me some strange open-ended question or he would tell me some zen koan-like story, and he would make me grapple with it each day until my brain hurt, and I was completely confused. One day, my thinking prompt was even a piece of music. Days would go by, sometimes weeks that I was so lost, trying to understand all these ideas and emotions and puzzles he was throwing at me, then like lightning bolts, incredible episodes of understanding jolted me when I least expected- pieces of the puzzle appeared, or even better, the big picture became clearer. And these electrical waves of understandings kept coming, more and more often through out my tutelage with this brilliant and caring man. So by the time I had my own classroom, I was far more radicalized than I looked, and I needed that cover to avoid attracting negative attention straight out of the gate. And by radical, I don’t mean extremist or to the left or to the right. I simply wasn’t looking to what everyone else was doing around me to guide what I would be doing. I had my eye on following what I’d painfully and wonderfully grown to understand to be good teaching.

To me, walking into a classroom was magical because I knew that this was a sacred place where miracles happen, where minds are opened, lived are transformed, and change is created. It was the early 90’s, but I had the idealism and energy of an activist straight out of the 60’s.

One aspect of that philosophy I was pushed to develop was grading, assessment, and evaluation. As I recall, Alfie Kohn, John Dewey, Maria Montessori, William Glasser and Paulo Freire come to mind as influences in this domain. In my first year of teaching, just like my predecessor, in this upper middle class conservative large high school, I eliminated grades. The students ultimately would tell me what grade they earned at the end of the year in a narrative self evaluation based on their own criteria that they developed early on in the year. I asked the students, What is quality? at the beginning of the year. We spent two weeks exploring the idea in-depth, but I never mentioned it being applied to their evaluation of their school work until later. In terms of formative assessment, they were required to make three appointments with me throughout each semester before or after school for 15-30 minutes, but they usually lasted longer. We looked at their portfolios and discussed their progress as we got to know each other. Rarely did these kids ever evaluate themselves inaccurately. If anything, they were much harder on themselves than I would have been. And that was it. That was my evaluation system.

If only I had the guts to go back to that practice now. If I could, I promise you I would. Ever since that first year of teaching, my grading and assessment practices have become increasingly more complicated, detailed, multi-faceted and convoluted every single one of my 23 years of teaching. I filled my syllabi, my filing cabinets, my time, my mind, and most tragically, my students’ minds with evaluation and assessment crap, at the expense of learning, the irony of which I have always been painfully aware.

Another irony is how I got started down this slippery slope of assessment obsession. In my second year of teaching, a brand new high school had been built in our district, and they were advertising that they would only be hiring progressive cutting edge teachers for a new kind of school. I believe they were patterning this school after Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools. We went to conferences to hear about integration, team teaching, “untracking”, schools within a school, advisory, student led conferences, Socratic seminars, cooperative learning, project and problem based learning, senior projects, and much more. I remember some of our required reading was Heidi Hayes Jacob, Deb Meier, Howard Gardiner, Marion Brady, James Beane, and Susan Kovalik. I simply had to teach there, and lo and behold, I made it through a competitive screening process, and I was hired. I thought I had died and gone to heaven that such an opportunity presented itself to me. I would be among like-minded people, as my mentor always encouraged me to try to do.

I was in for a terrible disappointment. This was the first but it wouldn’t be the last time that administrators have told teachers to do one thing, all of those amazing practices listed above, but they really wanted us to do another. Most of the teachers there ended up being moderately to extremely traditional in their approach to teaching, and I was expected to behave that way, too.

That disillusioning phenomenon in itself deserves more attention another time, but I think it’s significant to note that one of the few aspects of our “innovative training” that they did expect us to do was “authentic assessment.” And since it was one of the few skills I could actually strive to be good at it that seemed to be in alignment with my philosophy, I tried very hard to get it right. Authentic assessment, for them, though, was less about portfolios, performances, authentic experiences, self-evaluation or individualized assessments based on learning styles, interests, and skill levels. No, authentic assessment was all about rubrics. So, by God, if this was the only progressive thing I was allowed to do here, I was going to do it all the way. I had a rubric for everything.

Over time, I came to the grudging conclusion that rubrics were neither gratifying or productive. I wanted them to be. I wanted those rubrics to quantify and qualify, clarify and identify, instruct and motivate and guide. I remember spending hours and hours stapling rubrics to assignments and making checkmarks and scoring and averaging analytic scores. It wasn’t long before I figured out that I was the only one reading the damn things. The kids weren’t reading them. They didn’t read them before the assignment or as they did the assignment, and they didn’t read them after I gave them back with all the scores and checks and “feedback.” It seemed like the more determined I got to define levels of proficiency, the more the life was being sucked from what ever assignment or project I was assessing.

As the years went by, I started breaking away, once again, from the cookie cutter prototype that had held me hostage in the “new” school. I never went back to the extremes of that first year, but I was stepping out of the norm enough to attract negative attention from administrators and a few parents. But one of the parts of my teaching that kept me from really being targeted was my rubrics. Boy, did I ever impress people with those rubrics. They praised me for “measuring” and documenting skills and growth and holding students “accountable” and letting kids know what was expected. I knew it was all a bunch of horse shit and it didn’t do any of those things.

I hung on to rubrics, though, for far longer than I should have. I wasn’t keeping my practice aligned with what I thought was the right thing to do. I think did this for two reasons. First, those rubrics salvaged my reputation from being considered a complete dissident. And second, slowly, part of me just didn’t trust my own judgment like I once had, like I was mentored to do so many years before. I had started second guessing myself because I no longer had my mentor at my side, and I hadn’t found enough like-minded people to mirror similar ideas or to reinforce my own thoughts and doubts and concerns. I remember taking a graduate writing class, and we had to write a reflection about rubrics, and I dared to question their fundamental value, and the response from my peers and the professor was a lot of awkward silence, and they clearly thought I had lost my mind and committed blasphemy to question rubrics. Who was I to question all the increasing rhetoric about data, formative assessment, clear expectations, and so on?

Years went by, hanging onto my tangled web of checklists, scoring guides, and rubrics, each year, daring myself to throw them all away but never following through, but then suddenly, the assessment and evaluation dysfunctionality got even worse, much worse- which I really didn’t think was possible. Two phenomena hit at about the same time, online computer grading programs and high stakes testing tied to student graduation and teacher evaluation. These two events put two of the last remaining nails in the coffin of that magical sacred place called school I was so privileged and humbled to be a part of not so very long ago.

The perils of standardized testing are almost self-evident these days, and far more intelligent people have articulated them better than I can here, but honestly, if I were allowed to choose to eliminate either standardized testing or online grading, I would be hard-pressed to decide which one to pull the plug on.

I call our grading system today McDonald’s drive thru grading. The objective is for teachers to enter as many grades as they can as fast as possible so that parents can tell their kids to go to school and fix it, then students try to do something as quickly as possible to fix it and request the teacher to revise the grade as quickly as possible then print out the change in grade so the kids can run home and show their parents so they can be ungrounded from playing video games that night and the parents don’t have to worry about their kids’ having a bad grade. And then it starts over again, not on a quarterly basis but on a daily basis, and not with a few kids but with most kids. If that isn’t three hamsters on a wheel, teacher, parent and student, I don’t know what is.

McDonald’s drive thru grading might be somehow worth the time and energy and stress if the grading had any inherent meaning, but it doesn’t. I can’t believe people actually try to assert that their grades or grading system is somehow objective. There is no such thing. The big meaningless mess of points, percentages, weights, and letters measure nothing. For a few years, our curriculum director told us to enter 50% for all 0’s. I think he got that idea from a Marzano article. Nevertheless, when we did that, the grades would go way up. Some teachers were angry because it rewarded kids for doing nothing. Some were relieved because they were getting in so much trouble from parents and administrators for having too many kids failing because of 0’s. Another administrator had us weigh the final exam 20% of the grade. Another had us weigh participation 10%. Another had us eliminate it. Some teachers grade assignments so high, they never make waves, and everybody is happy. Some teachers weigh their assignments 10% and their tests 50%. Some weigh all assignments equally. Some teachers let kids re-do work. Some give open note take home tests. Some adhere to a late policy. Some don’t. Some assign complex projects that require initiative and research. Some stick to worksheets and unit tests based on the worksheets. Most of those teachers, though, will claim that their grades are objective.

McDonald’s drive thru grading pits parents against teachers, students against teachers, parents against students and visa-versa, administrators against teachers, and teachers against teachers. Students often help out in pitting teachers and parents against one another to avoid getting in trouble at home. They feel cornered and afraid because they had no time to resolve the problem themselves since their parents are getting grades virtually in real time. Usually, it involves something about the teacher losing their work or refusing to help them or not grading the work that they turned in days ago. Kids often regret manipulating their parents against their teacher, who they often like, or who they often grow to respect, but they can’t undo the damage. By that time, the adults have taken it too far, and trust and relationship building is permanently compromised.

Because we have to grade so fast, we tend to assign work that can be graded more quickly ie. less writing and more multiple choice. And in an age when we are trying more and more to differentiate instruction for each student, that is impossible to convey on a standardized grading spreadsheet.

Basic math must have changed in recent years because I vividly remember a time when kids never had to ask me what their grade was. They knew by using basic math. They would jot down their grades inside their notebook as they get them back, and if they didn’t turn in an assignment, they jotted down a zero, then they divided the number of possible points by the number of points they earned. Voila, that’s their grade. Now, kids feign complete ignorance unless we provide constant progress reports. They ask daily, sometimes more, what their grade is. We, as teachers, press print for progress reports constantly. And if we don’t, we’re being uncooperative or uncommunicative about a child’s grade.

As obsessed as kids are about their grades, and as little as they seem to know about figuring them out on their own, they are even more disconnected from any learning that may have occurred from an assignment or the level of quality of their assignments. Meaningful conversations with students about their work are few and far between anymore because all they can think about is what the grade is. If it’s good, they tune out. Their job is done. If it’s bad, they can’t hear any feedback because all they can think about is getting the grade changed. And it’s not the kids’ fault. We did this to them. We taught them to be helpless. We taught them that all that matters is a grade. And we taught them that if you put numbers in a spreadsheet that calculates percentages, the grade is more accurate and objective than ever before.

I used to think that the longer I taught the clearer things would become to me, but the waters in education just keep getting muddier. A monk continued to overflow a student’s tea cup until the student finally became anxious enough to tell the monk to stop for there was no room for anymore tea. The monk said, you must first empty your cup before you can fill it with more tea. I know it’s time I empty my cup. Does public education need to, too?

I mourn the fact that I wouldn’t keep my job for five minutes if I did a fraction of what I did in my first year of teaching. I feel trapped that I can’t align my practice to my philosophy and my conscience without serious consequences. But I’m grateful, too, because I think I was one of the lucky ones. I was so very lucky to have that wild eyed red headed brilliant mentor to help me to see what could be- what should be- so while I’m in the midst of all this insanity of drive-thru grading and rubrics and testing, at least I know that’s not all there is. There is something better for kids. We can still make schools a sacred place where miracles happen, where minds are opened, lived are transformed, and change is created.

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