Grading the wrong things in public education

Saturday , December 20, 2014 - 12:00 AM

By LYNN STODDARD, Guest commentary

When I read the news reports of schools in Utah getting graded for how well students performed on standardized achievement tests, I was appalled and very disappointed. We have gone downhill from the recent practice of publishing achievement test scores to compare schools. We have now added insult to injury by attaching a letter grade to those scores. High scores get A’s and low scores get D’s and F’s. Those in between get B’s and C’s. What does this accomplish? We could have saved time, money for testing and teacher and student anxiety by giving schools in affluent neighborhoods A’s and B’s and those in depressed areas D’s and F’s.

There is a fairly large number of people who believe that publishing test scores and giving grades will actually improve education and learning for students -- competition will make teachers perform better and students learn better. We are caught in the assembly line mentality of thinking that schools are in the business of producing products like factories.

Actually, grading schools for doing the wrong things will further demoralize teachers and have a negative effect on students! That’s the bad part. The good part is that we will soon realize what a big mistake it was and decide to take a very different path.

Sixty two years ago, educator and author, Earl Kelley, wrote this: “What we need is not a lowering or a weakening of standards, but a new set of standards to uphold. These new standards would not be oriented to subject matter at all, but rather to human growth… We might call them human standards, and hold them high.” Kelly was advocating a student-centered approach that called for public education to focus on the development of human qualities like curiosity, creativity, character, communication and the development of each student’s talents, abilities and interests.

There is a big difference between subject, standards-based education and human, growth-based education:

Subject-Centered Education is compulsory in attendance and prescribed subject content. Subject matter “experts” predetermine what all students should know and be able to do at each grade level. Teachers are required to impose this narrow, limited curriculum on all students regardless of their many differences. Teachers are not regarded as professionals who can make decisions about what is needed and meaningful for each child. Subject matter content is taught to the end of getting high scores on achievement tests.

Student-Centered Education focuses on perceiving and developing the unique, creative genius of each individual student. Teachers are respected and valued as professionals who can inspire students to develop their talents and seek to make their special contributions to the world. Teachers unite with parents to help students grow as whole human beings. Every child's diversity is seen as a positive factor that encourages him/her to excel differently, and they do, in many surprising ways. We found that the best way to teach reading, and the love of it, is to magnify curiosity and zestful inquiry. Academic achievement is not an end in itself, but simply a means to the larger end of helping students grow into great human beings!

As we look forward to a new year, a golden opportunity and a momentous choice lie before us. We can continue down the path of subject based education with its mountain of useless testing and demoralization of teachers and students, or we can begin a process of changing to a student-centered system that stimulates curiosity, creativity, respect and eliminates the bullying-dropouts-suicides syndrome. What have we got to lose?

Lynn Stoddard is a retired educator with a mission to restore teaching as a profession and respect for the unique differences of students and their unlimited potential. He lives in Farmington and can be reached at

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