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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