Grade. It’s the bad five-letter-word for homeschoolers. No matter where on the homeschool philosophy spectrum you lie — from rigorous classical to laid-back unschooling — you likely hate grading.
I do, too.
I don’t grade my elementary students on most subjects. Like you, I recognize that education is about mastery, and it is easy to tell if an elementary student grasps the materials. We move seamlessly from the simple (you’ve either colored inside the lines, or you haven’t) to the straightforward (it’s a complete sentence, or it’s not). And like you, I gradually move my students through the sticker-and-checkmark phase to the pass/fail evaluation of work. It’s quick and easy and relatively painless for everyone. Let’s spend more time reading fun books than calculating how many letters were or were not written on the line.
Except when it comes to math. Math is so cut-and-dry that the papers beg to be graded. And corrections beg to be made. Who can stand leaving a long division probably incorrectly worked on the sheet? I, for one, cannot! But before we dive into those corrections with an eraser and a red colored pencil, we simply must figure out what percentage of problems were completed right the first time, right?
By the time students make it into the messy middle school preparation, they need some practice being evaluated. The hard high school comes next — when the grades count and the transcript is critical. So my students start taking tests and exams in their more demanding classes like history and science and even grammar while continuing to track their math grades.
Then high school is all-out grading all the time. Papers, quizzes, tests, exams, projects — it’s time to break out the red pen and tissues, because grades are a comin’!
But come to find out, the word grade means different things to different people.
Some moms rarely grade and at the end of the year assign an effort-award grade for how much they feel the student achieved. It’s a purely subjective standard that of course churns out straight 4.0 students.
Some parents take mastery to mean 100% always, so they keep giving the same assignment back to the student until he gets all the questions right. That’s right, continual re-tests until the desired outcome is achieved. I told my daughter about this method, and she laughed, then cried. “You aren’t serious, are you? If you would give me the same test twice, I would KNOW what the questions were and I’d always get A’s!”
Some homeschoolers only ever administer open-book tests.
There is a world of difference — I can’t overstate this enough! — a great chasm fixed between handing a student a test and saying, “You can keep trying until you get the answers right, by any means necessary,” or “Study hard, you only get one chance and it counts.”
Which test would make you work harder?
I’m not overstating this. I can’t count how many teachers, parents, and curriculum writers have told me in private how troubled they are by the state of grading in homeschooling. It’s becoming an epidemic problem because it speaks to the very heart of how and why we are teaching our children. Are we honestly interested in teaching our children and helping them see where they need to grow and improve, or do we just want a particular grade, a pre-defined outcome?
Do we really want outcome-based homeschooling?
We have to fix this. It has to start with you and me.
So while there are many reasons to avoid grading elementary students and even to grade gently in middle school, there are many more reasons we need to step up our grading game in high school. Let’s you and me and our honest, fallible teens turn the tide and set a new culture of strict, honest, vigilant grading for this generation of homeschool graduates.
Why We Must Grade High School Homeschool
There are so many reasons our high schoolers need to be graded. Here are a few that come to mind and that other homeschool teachers have brought up to me, as well.
1. Grading forces the student to master the material.
It’a human nature — we all settle to the least effective effort for a task. Even on activities we enjoy, after a time we’ll revert to the smallest amount of work needed to finish the task.
Of course, this applies to teens when they study. There is very little reason for a teen to spend hours studying the significance of the ancient Indo-Chinese civilizations. Very little. But if he knows there will be several short-answer questions and two essays required on Friday, that he will be judged by the number of specific facts he uses to bolster his thesis, and that he can’t use any outside resources, you bet he’s going to spend some serious research time. The insignificant suddenly becomes significant.
2. Grading teaches the student accuracy.
When we constantly correct until we get 100% and then move on, we never learn to get it right the first time. And THAT, my friend, is the point. I’m all for math corrections. You should have seen the piles of math corrections I had to do as a homeschooled high schooler. From prealgebra through calculus and college-level statistics, my father first graded the accuracy of the paper then made me keep trying until I got the answer right — for no additional credit. I remember times getting bogged down in Trig and I would have days and days and days worth of corrections I had to keep doing over and over until I could find the right answer. I was still stuck with that bad grade, regardless. But I learned!
So I’m right with you on the corrections. My students correct their papers, not only math, but also grammar and writing and science and everything. But they don’t get another grade for it. They merely get supper that night (ha!). Corrections are part of life. Getting it right the first time is the job.
3. Grading enables the student to learn from mistakes.
Now, in spite of making the student own that less-then-perfect grade, he will benefit from the mark and the correction process. It seems counter-intuitive to some homeschoolers, but we need those low marks to learn.
Pain teaches. I don’t lean onto the stove because burns hurt. I drive slower in town because traffic tickets hurt. My little boy obeys me because talking to his father about it hurts. And my daughter studies her science for hours because F’s hurt.
We don’t learn from A’s. We want to, we like to think that all A’s mean we have mastered the universe of knowledge. But conversely, all A’s usually mean we have not yet been challenged to learn.
The teachers who are brave enough to show us red are kind enough to point the way to growth. And we, humans we are, will only listen if the red means something.
4. Grading instills in the students accountability
By holding true to the line — the grade scale and the deadline — we hold the student accountable for his own learning. We know in our hearts that is the point, don’t we? We want our students to be independent learners and to take responsibility for their own education. If that is true, we’ll hold them accountable for the results.
So we must have a firm measure of how they accomplish those goals. If our boundaries are nebulous — no deadlines, no firm grade, no failure possible — then we have not given the student the tool he needs to succeed in the education. When we hold him accountable with these things, when we let him fail, we let him achieve next time and enjoy the fruits of his labor.
5. Grading builds character.
Nothing brings out the true character of a student — and of the teacher and of the parent! — like a bad grade. An F is the real test of what we value. Our students need the opportunity to fail honorably to test their honesty. They need the chance to struggle through a difficult course to develop a strong work ethic. They need an obstacle to learning to exercise perseverance.
6. Grading prepares students for college.
College is hard. Well, not all of college. There are some cake classes, especially if a homeschool student has practiced rigorous studies in high school. But there is no way he will get through a four-year program without some hard, hard classes with hardened professors.
And all the classes will be graded. The first time.
We do our students a grave disservice if we don’t give them years of practice studying and demonstrating first-time accuracy on academic material. Regardless of our homeschool philosophy, that is a basic benchmark our students are expected to achieve.
7. Grading prepares students for life.
Not much of life allows do-overs. Not the big decisions. You get one chance to get it right, and rarely do you get advance notice on tests. Any do-overs are called grace because it’s completely undeserved.
We want hard-working, conscientious, inquisitive, knowledgeable, honest, forthright young people who will change the world. Let’s not short-change them by not grading their learning.