The Failure of Grades (Part 2 of 2)

Failing Grades
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

I took the Masters program in Educational Leadership and Management at De La Salle University around 8 years ago. One of my most memorable experiences then was visiting a school that had successfully done away with grades. I expected this school to be one of those new and innovative small schools.

I was surprised to learn that this school had already been existing since 1972, is PAASCU-accredited, has over 7,000 students, and whose graduates go into mainstream colleges without any unusual problems. This was Angelicum College, founded by the Dominican visionary Fr. Rogelio Alarcon, OP.

I was so enamored with this system that I eventually enrolled my eldest daughter into the school. The non-graded system is summed up in 5 statements (Alarcon, 1975):

  1. The school will not use a graded structure. Grades one, two, three etc. will be done away with. Instead, there will be levels of learning. The difference here will be in the time limit. While a grade refers to a set of skills programmed for learning within a span of time, level refers to the same set of skills to be acquired without time limit. As a student completes one level of work, he goes right on to the next, regardless of the time of the year.

  2. There will be no marking system. The usual 75’s, A’s, or other rating systems indicating if achievement is satisfactory, failing or is considered without credit, will not be used.

  3. Positive motivations will be the rule. Scolding, ridicule, embarrassment and punishment in any form will not be considered as disciplinary measures.

  4. It will be important for the teachers to know their students well because teaching will be done at the child’s individual pace and level.

  5. Teachers will be free to do what they think is best for the child. There will be no checking, no supervising. The school will rely mainly on the teachers’ sense of responsibility although when inevitable, they will be free to approach the administrators.

(Those interested in reading the full text can download a PDF version of The Angelicum Experience from http://www.angelicum.edu.ph/index.php/pistang-bayan/199-the-angelicum-experience-by-fr-rogelio-b-alarcon-op.)

Where traditional graded education fails is this — students are expected to learn their lessons in lock-step with each other. They usually go at the pace of the rest of the class, or the pace of the teacher. They are then given marks based on how well they are able to cope.

Child A knows just enough to pass the subject (pasang-awa) and is promoted to the next grade. Child B, however, keeps pace easily, gets high marks is also promoted to the next grade. Child A clearly lacks some knowledge, skill or mastery as compared to Child B, yet they both start the next level on equal footing. This is like putting an Olympic-class runner side-by-side with an amateur and expecting them to reach the finish line at the same time. As the years pile up, the gap widens and you are left with many students unmotivated and even despising school. Is it any wonder then why so many teachers are frustrated today, especially those high school teachers who wonder why their students cannot add simple fractions? The answer is simple. They were not given enough time to master and appreciate the concepts in elementary school because they had to finish the curriculum whether or not they had sufficiently learned the lesson — because the teacher needs to submit the final grade.

Alarcon notes that this system “disregards the characteristics of individual growth. The process of growth – whether physical, intellectual and emotional – is not constant. It may be rapid at one time, slow in the next. If a child picks up a rapid rate at a certain point in his growth, he is likely to slow down at a certain period. Neither does a child progress all in one piece. He tends to spurt ahead more rapidly in some areas than in others. He may be fast in Mathematics but slow in Literature.”

In my experience as a teacher, I have come to loathe grades. I see them now more of a hindrance than an indicator — the grade only indicates how much they are able to conform to what I teach, but not really how much they learn. Much of education these days is about the practice of teaching — how well-prepared is the lesson plan, the content of the lecture, the variety of activities, classroom management, test-construction, and so on.

But that is not what real education is all about. Education is not about the teacher, it is about the learner. It does not matter if the teacher has mastered teaching, if no learning has taken place within the student, then education has failed.

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. Share to me your thoughts and stories about school and education at andy@freethinking.me.

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