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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

December 12, 2013 at 4:03 PM

Guest: Common Core offers promising alternative to letter grades

Joan Tornow

Joan Tornow

As we adapt to the Common Core, our traditional grading system of A-F is on the chopping block, and rightfully so. This system, grading on a curve, has tended to perpetuate the status quo.

Because of socioeconomic factors, students with access to fewer educational resources have made lower grades, and students with greater access to educational resources have made higher grades. There are numerous exceptions, but this method has not championed equal opportunity and upward mobility — at least not in accordance with the American dream we tout.

A bell curve on a graph describes random variations in naturally occurring outcomes. But education is not a random undertaking, so critics have rightfully begun to question whether a grading curve is appropriate. In other intentional efforts — such as building a bridge or removing an appendix — we do not expect or tolerate a bell curve. If a bridge collapses into a river, or a patient dies from surgery, we do not chalk it up to a bell curve. Rather, we examine the situation to determine what went wrong and how we can prevent future calamities.

Our A-F grading system has been built on the assumption that it is natural for only a certain percentage of students to excel. Standards-based education (SBE), via the Common Core, seeks to correct this. With standards-based education, students are not ranked against their classmates — or sorted like so many potatoes or apples. Rather, students are evaluated in terms of progress towards objective standards.

Just as engineers want all their bridges to be strong, and doctors want all their patients to thrive, we want all our students to be educated to a high standard. Implementing the Common Core is a step in the right direction, but it won’t be easy or cheap.

As the standards are refined, educators, students and families need to be included in the conversations. Teachers and principals certainly need a place at the table so they can explain conditions in classrooms while specifying the supports necessary to help each student achieve his or her potential.

It is clear that a higher teacher-student ratio is the key to achieving ambitious new goals. A kindergarten teacher with 27 students, half of whom are still learning English, cannot realistically help all her students achieve the standards specified for kindergarten. Some teachers work 60 hour weeks, spend their own money on supplies, and “work miracles” — before burning out. To maximize teacher potential, and build on their expertise, we need to provide released time for teachers to develop and share curriculum and instructional strategies with their colleagues. Professional development must be vastly expanded.

Paul Tong / Op Art

Paul Tong / Op Art

The above steps can ensure the standards are addressed through an engaging curriculum and not “taught to” as if cramming for a test. The diversity of our community is a resource, and families can contribute much to our increasingly global curriculum. Community volunteers can also play an important role, but family involvement depends on smaller class sizes, so that home-school partnerships can be cultivated.

Standards-based education is not just another system. Rather, it is part of a national vision in which education is more democratic and effective.  The borders between academic and vocational paths need to be flexible as students prepare for careers in an increasingly complex world. And all students should have courses in social studies and technology such that they can participate fully in our democratic society and in an increasingly connected world.

Some students will still have an uphill battle due to poverty or language barriers. But, standards-based education has this goal: Every student, regardless of starting point, or challenges along the way, will successfully arrive at the finish line.

Joan Tornow, Ph.D., is a Federal Way-based curriculum specialist and author of Link/Age: Composing in the Online Classroom (Utah State University) and Every Child is a Writer (Heinemann). Her articles have appeared in numerous educational journals.

Comments | More in Guest opinion | Topics: assessment, common core, guest opinion

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