Tag Archives: grades

Educational Fantasy #1: The Gradeless Classroom

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This spring I have the good fortune of having a competent and enthusiastic teacher intern who is taking responsibility for a number of my classes. It has afforded me some time: some time to do especially good work for the students that remain solely my responsibility, some time to write a poem or two or thirty, some time to get my student growth goals done nearly a month before they are officially due, and some time to THINK, reflect, cogitate. This morning, for example, I thought to myself, as I remembered how many blog entries I have written about the things that are not right about public education, why don’t I, instead, write a series of entries describing fantasies I have regarding education in its best pie in the sky kind of light. In other words, why don’t I do a thought experiment: if things were perfect in the land of public education, how would things look, according to me, that is, and some of my friends? I don’t promise that this series will be especially academic or super serious or practical, but I hope at the very least it will be honest.

It is likely that much of what I propose will seem impossible to some. That’s okay. That would not surprise me. We are all creatures of habit and habits in the realm of educational practice and policy, as we have seen, die hard. But what would have become of us if people did not dream the impossible? See? Some of that shit actually got done. So here we go with Educational Fantasy #1.

I’ve written about this before at length, but it’s worth repeating in the super short formGrades suck. Despite the fact that I have graded students my entire career and continue to do so and even sometimes argue with myself and others about the validity of such antics, I still believe in my heart and soul that grades suck. So my first wish for an educational utopia is the gradeless classroom.

Again, don’t take my word for it. Read about it. Look it up. The research will tell you (at least some of it), (at least the research that I prefer), that grades create anxiety, that grades do not accurately measure, and that grades do not motivate.

What should motivate? Learning. Okay, how do you motivate kids to learn for learning’s sake and not for a grade? Well, if you eliminate grades, what’s left? Learning. Or no school. Most of us would prefer the former to the latter for our young people. Young people may have a different opinion.

I have had several experiences in my life as a student in a gradeless classroom, and you have probably had some as well, and maybe your kids have had some, even now. Let me tell you about a few of these.

Elementary School.  That’s right, at least in my experience as a little tike, I do not remember bringing home letter grades. My son, in his first 6 years of public schooling, has never brought home a letter grade. Don’t get me wrong, elementary school kids are measured, but they are not graded. Instead, teachers report progress toward certain standards or expectations for which kids are something like “in progress,” “meeting,” or “exceeding.” Did we learn stuff in grade school? I think we did. Were we, for the most part, motivated and relatively happy with school? I remember that we were. My son, except for a moment now and again where he complains about a “mean” adult or some level of grade school ennui, is, generally speaking, a pretty happy camper. And he’s learning gobs.

As far as I can tell, grades are introduced to young people in Middle School and continue onward forever and ever. Something wicked this way comes, but I don’t want to talk about that now. Pie in the sky, remember?

My second experience in a gradeless classroom was as an undergraduate at Lewis and Clark College. I took Modern English Literature from the late, great Vern Rutsala. The course was offered pass/no pass, an unusual move for a professor to take during that time, I think. I worked hard. I learned a lot. I read and discussed great books. I passed! It made no difference to me whatsoever that I did not receive a grade. It had no bearing on my perceptions of the value of the class or the rigor of the work, and it had no effect on the level of energy I exerted or invested in studying.

Most profoundly, perhaps, I was accepted, I enrolled, and I completed a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Warren Wilson College, the most significant educational experience of my life-time thus far, without ever reporting or receiving a single grade.

And continuing through adulthood and professional life, I have taken countless courses and workshops and attended conferences taught or presented by all sorts of people and institutions, none of which attempted to give me a letter.

In a perfect world, middle school and high school and college students would not be graded in their classes. They would pass or not pass based on evidence of their learning, learning that is individually appropriate and growth oriented. Did the student learn? Did the little cherub grow? Can he move to the next phase or level of difficulty?

And if he didn’t or can’t? Educational Fantasy #2: Real and Effective Interventions and Alternatives for Students Who Do Not Function Well in School.

 

 

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#136: Again, The Last Teacher Out The Door

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Every year,
this is what it’s like.
I can’t get my grades
in on time because
instead of a multiple-
guess scantron test
I ask my students
to make things or
write things,
things which I must
then look at and think
about; and there’s
never enough time
to look and think
properly, so I turn
up the music and I
look at things and think
about things and I
dance. And finally
when I submit my
grades a half an hour
late, students are
still attempting to
send me more things
to look at and think
about and I just can’t.
Eyes buggy from
looking at a computer
all day, legs tired from
dancing, heart aching
a little bit for students
suffering or failing
and colleagues leaving,
I make a lame attempt
to clean up my room,
I pack up the things
I need for the summer,
and I get on my bike
and ride, the last guy out,
leaving behind
a mess for the end
of August.

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Of English Teacher Math: Teaching 200 Students How To Write

Here are some numbers to consider for the end of the semester.  I asked 140 IB English students to turn in their logs, into which they have composed over the last 4 weeks anywhere between 20 and 30 pages of response to the readings we’ve done out of The Best American Essays of the Century. Let’s just take the lower number for shits and giggles, do a little math, and say that my IB English students turned in at least 2,800 pages of writing for me to peek at.  I also asked that same group of 140 students to write their own 1000 word essay on a topic of their choice inspired by one or more of the mentor texts from the anthology. Let’s say, that at 12 point Times and double spaced, that’s about a 3 page paper. So there’s an additional 420 pages of student work they have gifted me.  And let’s say, for a final exam, students will be writing a draft of what will become an oral presentation in the first weeks of second semester about their growth as writers during our first semester course in Creative Non-fiction.  I imagine that over the course of an 87 minute final exam that these go-getters will be able to carve up another 140,000 words, or another 420 pages of text, which brings my whopping total number of pages of student work that I must now DO SOMETHING WITH up to an impressive, daunting, fever-inducing, gut-wrenching, weep-worthy 3,640 pages!  And guess what?  Those 140 students producing all of that beautiful prose represent only 4 of my 6 classes.  What are the 60 kids in those other two classes doing for a final? Well, of course, they’re writing!  And grades are due in about a week’s time.

Hello, my name is Michael Jarmer, and I’m a complete idiot for assigning so much written work at the end of the semester.

No.  I can’t let that stand.  I would only be an idiot if I read every single word and every single page and tried to comment on all of it.  That would be ludicrous.  That would be physically, logistically, humanly impossible.  That would drive me certifiably insane and wreck my life.  So I am writing this little blog entry today to articulate finally a philosophy of teaching writing that might help my students or their parents or anyone who’s interested understand why I do what I do. It might also help colleagues in the profession, especially teachers of English, survive the math that has become the central most difficult aspect of working in an underfunded public school system.

I believe in the deepest possible way, at the core of my core, that human beings become better writers by reading and writing.  Beyond anything I could ever tell a student about their writing in the margins with my little red pen, their learning about what great writers do (and what they as emerging writers can do) will ONLY come through close attention to the very best writing they can find, and through repeated, concentrated, sustained, uber-conscious efforts to practice those moves.

You may have some questions.

What do English teachers do, then, and why do we need them? We’re tour guides, essentially.  And we all know how great the tour can be in the hands of a really great guide.  We try to be really good at that.  We model inquisitiveness and curiosity and enthusiasm about the written word. We introduce readings to young people that they would not likely ever find left to their own devices.  And we trust students to find their own way after we’ve led them down the path. There are some English teachers who cart papers home with them every weekend.  I’m not one of them.

What about bad writing or persistent errors that never get corrected?  There may be some of those.  Oh well.  When the writing REALLY matters, however, and when the reading is careful and close, those errors will diminish over time. I don’t know that in my own personal experience as a writer I ever improved as the result of some punishment meted out (in the guise of a depleted grade or a smattering of red marks) for errors I made in my writing.

What about bad writing that ends up earning a passing grade or better? This may also happen from time to time, or even often.  But this is what we have to understand.  Writing is hard.  Writing well is really hard.  Some students, to say nothing about their intelligence, struggle mightily with the written word.  We take them where they are and we push them as far forward as we can with lots of practice, experiences with masters of the craft, and lots of encouragement.

Doesn’t this make it easier for students to cheat? Because I did not read every page of those 2,800 pages in their response journals, it is highly possible that some students copied their entries verbatim directly out of another student’s log.  First of all, what a pain in the ass that would be.  And how embarrassing, too, to say to a friend, in essence, I’m a tool, I can’t do my own work, would you let me “borrow” your log?  And how embarrassing for the friend, to give in to that kind of pressure, to lower herself by giving her hard work away.  For what?  Out of what impulse?  Guilt?  Kindness? Desperation for approval?  All are shams.  The parties who collude in the cheating–they both lose.  They are both cheating themselves out of learning.  They’ve been punished already by the stunting of their brains, whether I’m able to catch them or not.  Plagiarizing an essay is exceedingly more difficult.  I make them write these babies in class.

Would I do things differently if I did not have nearly 200 students on my roster? Hell, yes.  It’s not that I believe that teacher feedback is never useful, only that it’s not the most useful, and in our current climate nearly impossible. The kind of feedback from teachers that is most helpful to a writer is the kind of feedback that’s most like a conversation.  Once upon a time I taught 125 students.  I could sit down with them and talk.  I could write them a note and I often did.  I’ve never been a fan of line-editing student work, but sitting down with a student one on one and addressing a few key issues in their writing was a real boon; or being able to write individual letters to students where I could get beyond technical issues and talk about big ideas–that was phenomenal.

My school had a visit last week from an Oregon State Legislator who represents our district.  It’s the first time that’s ever happened, at least in my sometimes fuzzy memory over 24 years of teaching.  And he wanted to chat with us about our current state of the school.  Teachers in my building shared thoughtful and sometimes carefully prepared descriptions of their professional lives.  He listened respectfully.  Most everything that was said made me sad.  And nothing he could say to us provided much comfort or hope.  I didn’t speak, but others spoke eloquently for me about concerns I share.  But what I’ve explored in this rather long blog entry, I think, is really about this:  I’ve managed to make some sound pedagogical decisions about how to grow stronger writers, but I also know in my heart that I’m not giving them the attention they deserve. I understand, coupled with the idea that students get better at reading and writing primarily by reading and writing, that if I had the time to look at their work more closely and have meaningful conversations with them about that work, things would be much better, perhaps infinitely so.   Class size matters.  Student load matters. It matters, if not immediately and measurably in student performance, most definitely and palpably in the work environment or conditions for the teacher.  I don’t read all or even half of what my students write because it would not be humane to expect me to do so.

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No Grades? No Carrots or Sticks? Then What?

Not cookies and pokes in the ribs, I presume.  No, we can’t just replace one set of rewards and punishments for a different set, although, most people would rather have a cookie than a carrot and would like even less to be poked in the ribs than slapped with a stick.  I don’t know about that one.  Pokes and slaps seem equally unpleasant to me.  How about cookies or ten minutes on the rack?  Yeah, that’s better.  It’s better on the one end and worse at the other, but still really really bad no matter which way you go, because, as I’ve already established, rewards and punishments are bad in education–as they are bad in most other arenas: child-rearing, workplace motivation, innovative thinking, creativity, and relationships.  And, please, for crying out loud, don’t take my word for it; do some reading, look at the data, visit a school, or talk to some kids.  This is all a long preamble to answer the question, if no carrots and sticks, no grades, then what?

Full disclosure:  this is a thought experiment.  I cannot claim to have solved this issue in actual practice–only to have come to a conclusion philosophically, long ago, that grades, high ones as carrots, low ones as sticks, do not work, are, in fact, detrimental. I award grades because it’s part of my job expectation–and I suppose, although I have not tried it, that if I refused to award them I might be disciplined somehow–ten minutes on the rack, maybe, or worse.  So, my goal might be to come up with an alternative that would satisfy me philosophically and satisfy administrators, parents, and students that they weren’t somehow being short-changed because the carrots and sticks disappeared, but rather, felt like they had been finally presented with something like the way education ought to go, forever and ever, amen.

There was a comment to my last blog entry from another blogger named momshieb, and it was brilliant.  Here’s what she said about grade schoolers, but I believe it applies to all schoolers: “In a school with no grades, kids would recognize and measure their own progress because they would take pride in what they are achieving. They would NOT do the “bare minimum” because they wouldn’t know what that is. When children are studying or thinking or creating because they are curious or interested, they keep going until they are satisfied. When children are not being presented with external judgements about everything that they do, they stop trying to do just enough to please the judges.”  So this is just more strong argument against grades and what might happen in their absence–which seems to me obviously and infinitely better than the hoop-jumping and grade-grubbing that goes on when kids and their parents are addicted to external motivators.  And parents are often the most culpable parties.  I can count on maybe one hand how many parents have called me over the course of my entire career to ask what their children are actually learning in my classroom and not about what they’re getting.

One of the things teachers can do immediately, even if they have to award grades in order to avoid the rack, is to do everything they can to deemphasize grades.  They shouldn’t talk about them.  They shouldn’t  dangle them.  They shouldn’t use them as a threat or as a treat. They should avoid putting point values  on assignment sheets.  After awhile students will stop asking.  They start thinking instead about what they’re doing and why, about the learning, and ultimately, they will do the work because it is meaningful work.  And if they can’t find meaning in the work, teachers can help them as long as they are looking. If they want to “pretend” to find meaning and fake their way through, they might be successful, but are nevertheless TOOLS, and this behavior will some day catch up with them.  No skin off their educator’s nose.  Another group of students will refuse to look for meaning, will be unmotivated no matter what kind of dancing monkey you place in front of them, will not do anything that is asked of them.  And these are the ONLY kids, without serious intervention that is beyond what a classroom teacher can do, who will either FAIL or be forever IN PROGRESS. Our public schools do not serve these kids well and something should be done about it–but that’s another topic and another blog. But here’s another possible perspective on those kids who will not play.  Perhaps, they find no meaning in what they’re being asked to do because there is, after all, no meaning to to be found there.  I suspect that classes in which grades and points are heavily emphasized are classes for which meaning and purpose might not be clear or even existent for students and their teachers.  Recalcitrance in these situations is likely a kind of silent protest against a dumb curriculum.

I know my colleagues often worry about rigor, they are loath to think that students might think their class is “easy.” If grades go away, and a whole range of work then becomes acceptable for a PASS, from the mediocre to the truly brilliant, why should students at the top end work hard, and why wouldn’t kids doing mediocre work just become satisfied with their own status quo? First of all, we have to accept as a given the inherent differences between individuals, differences in interest level and in readiness for particular kinds of academic work.  Kids who truly love and excel in a particular discipline will continue to do so whether grades are given to them or not, and kids who hate a  particular discipline may warm up to it or at least feel less threatened by it if the fear of failing is removed and they are allowed to work towards excellence in their own way.  We never let them off the hook and we don’t poke them in the ribs.

So would it be possible, though, Mr. School Smarty Pants, to eliminate grades altogether?  In short, yes.  Read Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards or The Schools Our Children Deserve.  He’s done his homework in a big way, and he can give you names of schools that are doing it and he can tell you that it has had no adverse effect on the futures of children–that colleges accept them, businesses hire them, and people love them. No negative effects.  What are the positives? The ultimate goal is that they become intrinsically motivated, curious, healthy, balanced, joyful, critical thinking, independent, interdependent, fearless young humans.  They’re not afraid to fail because they know that’s where the learning happens and that they won’t be punished for it. Can you see it?  I think I can.

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No More Carrots, No More Sticks: A Classroom Without Grades

You might think I’m crazy. After all, things (and people) must be measured. And they must be measured against other things and other people. Only this morning in a staff meeting our school’s principal talked about how the only way to improve a thing is to be able to measure said thing.  And while my principal was talking about system goals and not individual humans, we’ve been acting (forever) as if the same thing might be the case for our students.  We must score them, grade them, award points, measure them up.  Otherwise, how can we ever distinguish the good from the bad, the exceptional from the mediocre, the mastery from the failure, the outcome from the starting point? Without a system of measurement, how would colleges know who to admit? How would companies and businesses know who to hire? How would men and women know who to date? You’d have pure chaos, that’s what you’d have!

I’ve written in earlier blog entries about the distasteful nature of how our public schools tend to sort human beings–through activities, through classes, through tracks, through grades, through standardized tests, through a series of hoops to be jumped into or at or through towards a diploma and towards the next step, be it college, a job, or prison.  And I’ve talked about my discomfort with all of that while working in a system that seems to require it of me. I must give grades.  I must have some “meaningful” way of determining grades.  Thus, I measure.  Is it wise? Is it, in fact, meaningful? Is it humane?

My colleagues complain all the time about incoming freshmen from middle school not having been fully measured, not having been accountable to grades, having been socially promoted regardless of skill or knowledge level.  It is true that students come to us unprepared for high school, but I am not so sure that social promotion is to blame.  I don’t have a ton of knowledge about how middle schools operate; I know little about even the one that feeds my high school, which is sad, I think.  But I do know that what happens inside the school day for any particular student is only a tiny factor in a multitude of variables that shape their intellectual, interpersonal, motivational, and emotional health.  The fact that we grade them or not I believe is a minuscule factor in the equation.  If social promotion were to stop forever at the lower levels, the reality is that no program exists for remediation and services for recalcitrant 8th graders–and they would come to us anyway, as unprepared as ever.  If you could throw gobs and gobs of money at the lower levels for interventions, then maybe we’d be in a better place–but still, in the end the grades kids get would have little to do with how well they would do later.  What would matter is whether or not they have the knowledge or skill and the proper motivational mindset for academic success.

I guess my beef is not with measurement itself, but in the way we measure, ultimately, by letter grades. And grades are bad, as I’ve said before, because they are often arbitrary, inconsistent, unreliable, and never revealing in a specific, meaningful way.  They are extrinsic motivators, carrots and sticks, that coerce students into compliance.  I have a colleague of mine in my mind’s ear right now, and he’s saying, “What’s wrong with carrots and sticks? They’re everywhere!”  And I would say, sure, they’re everywhere, and most of us have been conditioned to think this way.  But that doesn’t make it good, it just makes it ubiquitous.  Especially in the realm of education, the life of the mind, and in relationships with other humans, wouldn’t it be infinitely better if people acted a certain way for its own sake, because they understood its worth and value and inherent goodness, and NOT because they were going to get a cookie?!

So I’ve started a little thought experiment that I’d like to share in this blog (which might become a series) about what a carrot-less and stick-less classroom might look like. And I’m realizing that in this particular entry I’m only about 300 words away from my self-imposed 1000 word limit.  So even before I say the next thing, whatever that might be, I would extend the invitation to whoever is listening out there to chime in on the subject.  Whether you are a teacher or not, I’d invite you to imagine with me how a class without grades could possibly work.  Any takers?

Okay, let me begin.  It has to start with the premise that the learning is the thing at the center, and that WHAT we are doing and WHY we are doing it is infinitely more important than HOW WELL we are doing it.  And so, in the spirit of moving forward with this, the WHAT and the WHY are from the beginning ever-present, super-explicit, never fuzzy, so that no student at any time could possibly be confused about what they’re doing and why.  So, simply enough, it begins with a shift in focus.  And then, secondly, to eliminate the distraction, and because, ultimately, there does have to be some kind of performance benchmark, we eliminate grades altogether and replace them with two marks: Pass and In Progress. In the one-hundred and eleven words I have left I will, rather than continue with this initial description, instead anticipate some questions: Wouldn’t a system like this just encourage kids to do the bare minimum to “pass”? If we’re not supposed to obsess about how well students are doing, how will students ever improve? How would one determine what level of skill or knowledge earns a “pass”? How would the really motivated or highly skilled individuals distinguish themselves? Isn’t it important to have a hierarchy of a certain number of marks, let’s say 5, to effectively sort our humans? Is the writer of this blog some kind of communist?  More on this stuff later.

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An English Teacher Doesn’t Do The Math: The Trouble With Assessment

It’s Friday and I’m not at work. It’s a furlough day, one of the 14 days cut from the school year in our district’s belt tightening regimen. I’ve got grading to do, but I’m not going to do it. Hell no. Instead, I’ll write about doing it. I want to conclude this part of my blog series about the difficulties of teaching English in a suburban public high school by talking about the king of all difficulties, the crowning glory of obfuscation and muddle, the most mysterious of mysteries regarding classroom practice, that is the problem of assessment. I know I’m doing it wrong. With the best of intentions, I think I’ve been doing it wrong for twenty years. Let me see if I clear this up. First of all, there is, has been all along, as far as I can tell, fundamental differences between what I DO and what I BELIEVE. Cognitive dissonance abounds on a massive scale with regards to measuring student achievement.

I give grades to students. I am expected to give grades to students; giving grades is, as far as I can tell, part of my job description. I hate grades and if I could abolish them, I would.

I believe students should be motivated because a thing is worth doing or knowing, not because some teacher is giving them ten points or a hundred points for an assignment. I give students an assignment and, while I try to communicate to them as clearly as I can why the assignment is worth doing for its own sake, I give them ten points or a hundred points for doing it.

I despise standardized tests, and yet, I routinely sacrifice a couple of weeks of instruction every year to administer these bad boys.

To wit: I know the only way students get better at reading and writing is by reading and writing. So I ask them to read and write. I think I should know what they’re reading and something about what they’re learning and thinking, so I ask them to write about their reading. Let’s say I get two pages a week from each kid about his or her reading—that’s about 360 pages of student work every week that I have to do something with. Then they’ve got to learn how to write by writing so I ask them to do some formal written work, say, a paper or two, between 3 and 10 pages—that’s potentially 1800 pages of student writing for each paper I assign. Let’s just pretend that in a good year I ask all of my students to do three or four formal pieces of writing in a year. Okay, I’m an English teacher—you do the math. It’s a hell of a lot of reading. I’m embarrassed to say it, but there’s a little bit of giddiness that bubbles up from deep inside me when they don’t all turn in their work. There’s something wrong with the picture when a teacher is made happy by the non-performance of a group of students.

My belief is, again, though, that if the work is worth doing, it’s worth doing, not because it’s worth ten points or a hundred points or because the kid will get a “good job” note or a gold star from the teacher, but for its own sake. I don’t even have to look at this stuff and there would still be value in the endeavor for a student, provided that the work is meaningful. But teachers, parents, administrators (and students too) are conditioned to believe or at least practice in such a way to suggest that no kid in his or her right mind would ever do an intellectual job because it was worth doing, without any kind of extrinsic reward for the doing of it at the end. I know it’s not true, but we all buy into this error and I sit several times a year at my desk buried in 1800 pages of the worst writing in the known universe. I don’t mean that as a disparagement, only a statement of fact. My students are, most of them, in varying degrees, beginners all. There are moments of sheer joy at reading competent or highly creative or immensely improved pieces of writing, but the tonnage of work I get from students reveals a dearth of these characteristics. Perhaps I would find more reasons to celebrate if I were not so heavily weighted down. Then, maybe I could look for the best stuff in even the worst work and that would likely be well worth it for all parties involved.

So how do I assess this mountain of stuff? By necessity and for survival and sanity, I do it quickly, so quickly, in fact, that in many cases, the end result, in terms of its value to a student as feedback, is so minimal as to make my intensive labor completely superfluous and ineffectual. Ouch. I can see my education professors wincing and squirming. I don’t blame them. I’m wincing and squirming myself. Why would you DO something you know to be ineffective? Well, here’s my quick response. The following is true: effective assessment, just like effective planning, takes time and careful consideration. And the realities of the public education work place are not conducive to these things. Zahir Wahab, a professor from Lewis and Clark College, planted this image into my head more than two decades ago and it stuck and seems absolutely appropriate here, and frightening, that public educators are sometimes no more than intellectual worker bees. I’m betting the bees are more efficient and effective. But teachers are busy. Like the bees, we’re very busy.

I believe students should be met where they are and a teacher should take them as far forward as he can while they’re in his classroom—forward in skills, knowledge, thinking, awareness of self and others, general humanity. Achievable goals should be agreed upon. Improvements and epiphanies should be measured and recorded. A conversation should take place about barriers broken and territory explored. Evidence of the learning should be gathered and shared. There should be much rejoicing. And I think these kinds of things could be, and sometimes are, achieved without stacks of paper. And the results would be so much more powerful and meaningful than the scores received on a standardized test, which my district has kids taking again and again and again, every year, often more than once, so that maybe, one day, on one test, they may reach the benchmark of one point above passing. These results would be more meaningful than where a kid falls on some rubric, which, more often than not, measures at once too broadly and too narrowly and never personally or individually. And these kinds of results would also blow points and grades out of the water. Here’s a portfolio of evidence. This is what has been accomplished and learned. Who needs ten points, a hundred points, or a grade? You do the math.

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