Teacher as Lawyer

Every year in 7th grade, this part of the year is the pits as far as academics go.  The social nature of a thirteen year old’s brain has almost entirely taken over and we spend the final stretch of the year trying to regain balance.  I had to have a discussion with my students about this today and thought I’d pass some of these thoughts along to you as well.

Our school has adopted a no zero policy.  There is much debate about such policies and implementation is entirely the key to their success.  If students get the feeling they are “getting something for nothing” and recieve a grade without ever turning in an assignment, the wrong impression is given. By giving a zero for work not completed, we effectively tell students the work is not important for them to do. They get a free out from having to do the thinking we’re asking them to do.  If an assignment is worth giving, it is worth every student completing.  By saying we will not allow them to take a zero for an activity, we take away that free out and require them to learn the material.

What does all this have to do with teachers being lawyers?  That was my analogy to my students today and I think, in some way, the message kind of sank in.  I described myself as their lawyer arguing the case for their promotion to the next grade level.  Like any good lawyer, I need to go to trial with as much evidence as I can possibly gather that points toward the desired outcome.  For my students, that outcome is promotion to the next grade level.  The evidence I collect is based on labs, projects, tests, quizzes, and occasionally classwork and homework.  My evidence needs to be final evidence of mastery, not preliminary evidence.

Not completing an assignment gives me no evidence of mastery or misunderstanding. This is the best way of explaining not giving a zero for a missing assignment.  I do not have evidence that the student understands the topic, nor do I have evidence that they don’t understand the topic. I simply have no evidence.  Our school has an online progress monitoring system where students with incomplete assignments get a grade of INCOMPLETE on their progress report.  This makes perfect sense to me, because there is incomplete evidence for their mastery of the topics we are covering in class.

Taking this idea a step further into standards based grading, I would love to set up a non-standard report card. The report card would be a throw-back to what is still used in many primary grade classrooms. The science report card would show all of the standards for the year. As students worked toward mastery of the standards, certain tasks would be accepted as evidence of mastery.  In this way, students would build their case for promotion throughout the course of the year.

The question then becomes, how does one reconcile this grading idea with the traditional grading system with which parents are so familiar? The report card would simple be a documentation of progress toward mastery of each standard.  Student A might master 8 standards in a 9 week period while Student B masters only 5.  Does that mean Student A is a better science student than Student B?  If they both master all the standards by the end of the year, how does one distinguish between students?  High schools will have a fit when trying to place students into Honors, AP, and regular classes.  What if students work all year and still don’t achieve mastery of all the standards? What would be the final requirement for promotion to the next grade level?

What are your thoughts on this analogy and this interpretation of standards based grading? Would love to hear from you.


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