I talk about grades off and on here. I find grading practices and how grades are used to be something interesting to ponder. For the last day or so, I've been thinking about grades as gatekeepers---and if they aren't used in that manner, who/what should The Decider be (if any) about what classes students are allowed to take?
So here's the problem which generated my recent round of wondering: too many kids are failing chemistry at one of the area schools. The solution? Heavily weed out kids who signed up this spring (for next fall's class) based on their previous grades...and then weed again in the fall based on scores from two tests. I have to say that this kind of thinking really sets my teeth on edge, but I bit my tongue during the conversation because I felt like I needed to think about my reaction a bit more. I don't like the idea of using grades as gatekeepers, because the grades reported for incoming students don't tell you anything more than just a letter. Does the letter represent a kid who attended every day? Frequently "participated"? A kid who knows the material, but handed in all his/her work late and therefore received a C? Is this a kid who is good at memorization and could ace the tests without any sort of real learning? Or, is this a student who really does or does not understand the material? There is no way to tell...and yet if you're going to use this magic letter to determine who will or will not be successful in chemistry---how can you know?
My other problems with this argument are twofold. One is simply that having chemistry on a transcript is a gatekeeper in and of itself. It's something college admissions staff looks for, even if the grade isn't so hot. It means the student has chosen something challenging and rigorous---there is reason to believe that the kid could make it in college. So, in keeping kids from taking chemistry in high school, you're also making it harder for them to get into college. Secondly, the assumption is that all of the kids who are failing chemistry are doing so because it's completely their doing. I have no doubt that this argument will hold up for some of that population. Some kids may not have the facility with algebra to be successful with chemistry. Others have significant attendance issues---and aren't able to learn the material on their own. But I don't think we can paint this entire group with one brush. At some point, is it not also worthwhile to step back and look at the curriculum? Concepts taught? Instruction and assessments? Is it possible to offer some sort of support program for kids who are struggling instead of making it ohsoclear that you don't think they can do it?
I understand wanting to prevent some heartache on the part of a student who is failing miserably. I'm just not convinced that grades are the way to go in order to prevent this. So, what would be?
I'm thinking that the parents and students are the logical choices here. If a kid wants to try chemistry, then why not? Perhaps the kid has been a goof-off in the past and is making a commitment to his/her studies. Maybe there's been some family drama in the last year and now that personal lives are stabilizing, school performance will, too. Only the student can know for sure what s/he is willing to take on. It's true that they need to make an informed decision---look carefully at the pre-requisite skills and topics covered (No, you don't get to blow things up every day) and evaluate that in light of what they know about themselves. Talk to other students and parents about their experiences.
My previous Boss Lady was a champion of getting the gates off of course enrollment. These hurdles schools place in terms of grades and pre-requisite courses are one source of the achievement gap, especially in terms of our children who come from poverty. Schools need to be places that are more associated with "Yes, you can!" than "No, we don't think you can...so don't." In the end, I'm still left trying to balance all of that---the intentions of staff to place students, the needs of kids, and the role of grades. It is easy to think of extreme examples, but I'm looking for any overall gestalt here. What should the policy be about who/what is The Decider?