Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

Most of Radical Nation knows that I am the proud father of a beautiful, funny, curious girl named Reece.  I love darn near everything about her — the sweet notes that she’s taken to leaving on my nightstand, her excitement about riding bikes or learning to hit a baseball, the fact that Who Was history biographies are her favorite things to read, the constant questions that she’s asking in an attempt to understand the world around her.  “Tell me something about science Dad,” or “Tell me something about our Presidents” are the most common conversation starters in our home.

Need proof that she’s something special?  A recent homework assignment asked her to generate a survey question to ask others that had three potential responses.  The example on the classroom handout was, “What color eyes do you have – Blue, Brown or Green?” Reece’s question:  “Who was your favorite person in history — Clara Barton, Einstein or Picasso?”


But she came home from school broken the other day.

She’d gotten her progress report for the fourth quarter and it was full of low scores for things like her ability to sound out letters and to fluently read text.  She was also in a panic over her weekly spelling test — which she always struggles on because letter sounds really aren’t her strength.  “Dad, I’m dumb.  Everyone else is smarter than me — they don’t have any ones on their progress reports — and my friends say they are better than I am because I have ones on my report card and they have lots of fours and I don’t have any fours,” she said while crying her way through her bedtime routine.

Her tears tore me up.  I felt like I had failed her somehow by not finding a way to help her master her reading and spelling just as fast as her classmates even though I know that reading is a developmental skill that takes some kids longer to master than others; I was angry that progress reports had turned into an “I’m better than you are” competition in her social group; and I was panicked about the realization that my daughter was falling behind academically simply because I know what “falling behind” can mean for her long term future.

Mostly, though, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness that anxiety over grades — which continue to define everything about the work that we do in traditional schools — has creeped into the back of my daughter’s  joyful, unpredictable mind.  Instead of seeing the scores on her progress report as nothing more than evidence that we can use to spot areas where she needs more practice and polishing, she sees them — like most students and parents who have spent their lives being ranked and sorted by the public school system — as a judgment of her self-worth as person.  In her mind, her progress report is proof positive that she’s “not as good” as her peers.

And she’s only six years old.


Now don’t get me wrong:  I don’t hold my daughter’s school, teacher, or classmates accountable for any of this.  Progress reports are required by our system and grades are “just how we’ve always done things” in education.  What’s more, there’s nothing inaccurate about the marks that Reece has earned.  She really does struggle with letter sounds, she really hasn’t gotten as far down the road to being a reader as her peers, and she really is still spelling phonetically.  If I were filling out her progress report, she would have earned the exact same marks.

But it leaves me even more committed to the notion that the kind of feedback that we provide to students in our classrooms needs to change.

Students — especially those who struggle to master expected outcomes — should be gathering and recording evidence of the progress that they are making on a daily and weekly basis.  More importantly, they should be actively comparing their own progress against examples of mastery and setting individual goals for continued improvement.  Finally, they should have as strong an understanding of what they’ve mastered as they do of the skills that they are struggling with.  Evidence of learning has to mean something more than “here’s what you haven’t learned yet.”

If that kind of ongoing student-involved assessment were the norm in our classrooms, progress reports would be a source of celebration and continued reflection — instead of embarrassment and shame — for kids like Reece.



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13 thoughts on “Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

  1. Pingback: In My Future Classroom… – HonorsGradU

  2. Emma

    All that you say is true. As a teacher I hate giving the standardized assessments. We are required to give the test on the computer 3 times a year to grades K-5. Central office staff tells us that children learn at different rates and should be taught on their level, but then insist that they be tested on the same level and that all should be at the 50th percentile or higher, or we are labeled as failures as teachers. We can tell these powers that be how much progress we see in our students, but they don’t believe it unless the scores show it. How insane! So now teachers are failures and so are the students, no matter how far these students progress!

    I also hate watching these little ones (grades 3-5) test on the end of year Standards of Learning tests (Virginia) and to see the tears in their eyes as they realize they are not able to do what is expected of them. We are not even allowed to tell them it is OK, or to skip a question and move on. I would like to hold these students and hug them for a few minutes, but I don’t dare even touch them. If we do this we are doing something illegal and could lose our teaching licenses! People who make up these rules (legislators) have no idea the harm they are causing. When we tell them, they just think we are making up excuses for our own failures.

    Time to retire!

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      I definitely think, Emma, that we’ve stripped more than a bit of the humanity out of our schools in our quest to quantify everything.

      What bugs me now as a father is that my daughter goes to school in the same system that I’ve spent my whole career working in. Does that make me complicit in creating something that I don’t even want for my own kid?


  3. teachmoore

    Thanks for sharing this Bill, for many reasons. People often forget that many of us who are teachers are also parents and have the same struggles and concerns about public education as other parents—possibly more since, as you point out–we know where some of these things may lead in the systems we currently have.

    As a parent/teacher, one of my longstanding complaints about grade levels, grade reports in general, particularly the state test data we got for our own children and for my students, was how worthless these things are in terms of guiding instruction. Most of the reports were generic, and did not help student, parent, or teacher. Several times, the information they purported to present was just plain wrong. The actual answers to the really important questions: What does my child know? What does my child need to learn?– had to come from the teacher, based on a more detailed, comprehensive analysis of my children’s growth, performance, and individual qualities. When my children had teachers who were capable of making those types of evaluations and sharing them with my children, my husband, and me, we all benefitted.

    Over the years, I have taught my children (who are now teaching my grandchildren) to take grades, progress reports, test data and the like with very critical eyes. The difference between “low performing” and “proficient” on a test could be one answer. Those A’s could mean my child doesn’t give the teacher any trouble in a class that’s otherwise hard to manage. I for one, was highly suspicious when any of our 11 children brought home a straight A report card….not because our children were not intelligent, but seriously, who is excellent at every subject, every day, and never needs to work at or on something? According to his state test math score reports, our son was outstanding in math. In reality, he did not understand math concepts, and has always struggled. He can guess answers on tests; however, very well.

    Our middle daughter was dyslexic and nobody at her schools recognized that or gave her any support as she struggled to learn, they only sent home report after report of how “behind” and “slow” she was. At the age of eight, she sat weeping on the sofa and insisted she might as well not even go to school since she couldn’t learn anything. Finally, she had a teacher who took the time to help us figure out her challenges, and help us learn how to help her. Today, she is a health professional; she and her husband are raising three very different, very beautiful children, and they’ve had to learn how to make school assessments make sense for them.

    I share these stories to encourage you and Reece. Help her to grow into confidence about her own abilities, growth, and goals. Each of the children we raised developed their academic and other skills at very different rates. How much more true is that in a classroom or school? But they all grew and learned and continue to learn (why the timetable?).

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Renee wrote:

      I share these stories to encourage you and Reece. Help her to grow into confidence about her own abilities, growth, and goals. Each of the children we raised developed their academic and other skills at very different rates. How much more true is that in a classroom or school? But they all grew and learned and continue to learn (why the timetable?).


      You know what, Renee: I’m SO grateful for your comment! Given that you’ve raised more kids than I have, they give me great comfort. Everything that you’ve written is something that I feel in my heart, but it’s hard to hold onto as a truth when you’ve never been there or done that before! Knowing that my gut reactions mirror your experiences is awesome.

      Hope you are well and happy! You know how much I appreciate you.

      Rock right on,

  4. Gerry Varty

    Hey, Bill –
    Once again, you have peeled back the layers of a scenario we’ve all observed, exposing the real questions, lurking beneath the surface.

    Why grades? Why the ‘report card’ format? Why do we see ‘standards’ as finish lines and not waypoints?

    Your description of your beautiful daughter tells a story of a child that is inquisitive, observant, and alive with a sense of wonder in a world filled with amazing possibilities. Her questions, her creativity, and her courage in seeking answers to everything are hallmarks of an engaged learner, busy taking the dots and making pictures.

    But her progress report tells none of that, and I think we all see the problem… It’s not so much that grades are wrong, but that they are inadequate for the task

    Why do we see grades as measurements rather than descriptions? We take something as nuanced and complex as learning to read, and only report on a few narrow slices … Or we try to reduce the subtleties of numeracy to the number of basic facts a child can reproduce in a set time.

    Cynics see calls for grading reform as a ‘watering down’ of standards, and describe attempts to answer your questions in practice as a shift toward a ‘participation ribbon culture. What they don’t see is that you are calling for MORE, not less accountability and utility in grading.

    If we adults went to the doctor complaining of shortness of breath, we wouldn’t be satisfied with him only checking our weight and height.

    Why do we settle for less when it comes to our kids?

    Thanks for sharing, my friend; as always, you help me to see.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Gerry wrote:

      It’s not so much that grades are wrong, but that they are inadequate for the task


      This, Gerry. Totally this.

      I think we ALL know that grades are inadequate and yet they still define our learners.

      That sucks.

      Thanks for the comment. You are pushing my thinking!

      Rock on,

  5. erika

    Agree with everything. Would also add that students who may not appear to struggle in the areas that we measure also need the same approach with feedback to develop good habits and work ethic. Parents need support to have the right conversation at home. And students need the 5th C of compassion so that empathy overtakes the need to shame a classmate.

    Keep advocating and thank you for sharing. You’re a fantastic teacher and a phenomenal dad.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      You know, Erika: One of the other thoughts rumbling through my head is how hopeless/inadequate I feel as a parent right now. I don’t even know how to help Reece improve — and that’s coming from a guy who has taught for a long, long while.

      It makes me realize that while communicating with parents is important, relying on them is unprofessional. That’s driving my thinking around what I ask of the parents in my classroom right now.

      Anyway…thanks for your kind words,

  6. Robert Schuetz

    Hello Bill,
    I’m at my gym jumping up and down and fist pumping, because you nailed it!
    People are looking at me like I’m crazy, but what else is new?
    I harken back a few weeks when Will Richardson asked if trying to do the wrong things right makes any sense.
    Are our grading practices perpetuating a culture of teaching, or supporting a culture of learning? Unfortunately, Reece already knows the answer to this question.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Bob wrote:

      Are our grading practices perpetuating a culture of teaching, or supporting a culture of learning?


      And what drives me nuts, Bob, is that I’m not sure that anything will change in time for Reece to experience something different. I see another ten years of grades in her future — and that drives me nuts.

      As much as we talk about the need for grading/assessment and evaluation to be different in schools, nothing much happens differently.

      Maybe I’m being a pessimist — but I’ve got a decade worth of reasons to be pessimistic!



      1. David Cain

        Your daughter does not “master expected outcomes,” she does much, much more as she already demonstrates mastery of unexpected outcomes. Her own genius shines through the narrow parameters of a grading and assessment system that was poorly able to meet the needs of twentieth-century learning, let alone 21.5-century learning.

        She and students like her–I have a six-year-old daughter of my own who is a kindred spirit–are shortchanged each day as their exceptionalism is overlooked as the system grinds ahead, destroying their spirits in the process. Rather than looking at what makes each one so special, the systems work to herd them toward mediocrity as it strips away their creativity and critical thought.

        The solutions of focussing on progress and metacognition/reflection are exactly what are needed in every classroom for every student–learning happens only when we think about learning. This starts in all of our classrooms, today, as Reece and Ella don’t have time to wait for the next educational shift.

        1. Bill Ferriter Post author

          David wrote:

          Your daughter does not “master expected outcomes,” she does much, much more as she already demonstrates mastery of unexpected outcomes.


          Holy smokes, David. This could be the greatest quote of all time — and I am going to remember it in every interaction that I have with parents from this point forward in my teaching career.

          We need to celebrate the unexpected outcomes that our kids have mastered as much as we do the outcomes that we expect them to master. Only then will we create the kind of system that feeds every learner.

          Thanks for pointing that out….I needed it!


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