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by Erica Fischer on Apr 15, 2013

The Tyranny of Grades: A World Language Perspective

The #langchat twitter feed was explosive on Thursday night as teachers from around the country shared their feelings on the effects that standardized grading has had on their classrooms. Even though many teachers realized that removing grading from world language classrooms is unlikely, many were passionately advocating for a serious change away from emphasis of current grading practices.

ACTFL Proficiencies and Language Learning Levels

The evening’s conversation started out as a discussion about how the ACTFL proficiency standards correlated with individual learning levels. Many teachers shared their frustration with the leveling system, especially as it is perceived by students. Many world language students believe that they should be at a higher level, even as first year students. @jas347 said, “They know from state testing jargon that novice is a no-no…so I tried explaining that for experience, you’re a distinguished novice!”

Other teachers expressed frustration with the whole leveling system. In one of the more retweeted comments of the night, @tmsaue1 said, “Just going to go ahead and say it: would love to see us getting rid of levels all together.” Many teachers agreed with this statement, and offered some interesting solutions. @dr_dmd said, “I would like to see levels go away! I would love to advance students forward as they achieve proficiencies.” @Vines_TOY10 said, “Me too! What if they were placed by the proficiency guidelines?!”

Although a proficiency-based leveling system seemed to be the fantasy of many #langchat teachers, it is difficult to implement. @alenord said, “I think that frustration is why we have to continually teach just above their comfort level so they will stretch to higher level.”

World Language Learning: A Fading Value?

One of the key concepts discussed was a perceived inability for students to understand the value of learning of its own accord. Many world language teachers made the point that students have been so inundated with standardized tests that they have begun to see world language courses as just another hoop that must be jumped in order to get to graduation. @km_york said, “My Ss are motivated (mostly) by credit, not by proficiency. Trying to change!”

The answer? Teaching students the value of learning without the pressure of assessment or embarrassment. @sonrisadelcampo said, “I think we can change that. Educate them in what real learning looks like. No ‘cram and drop’ allowed in my classes.” Other world language teachers mentioned leveling students individually in order to take the pressure off the grade and put the emphasis on personal understanding. @alenord said, “Keep it real – kids don’t care about assessments. Kids care about gaining fluency.”

Teaching to the Test

But, world language teachers aren’t the only propitiators of this type of grade-focused learning. #langchat participants discusses some of the social structures that are creating this emphasis on grades in world language classes. @hawleylaterza said, “Actually, I think students are OBSESSED with grades. We have done that to them with standardized tests.” @SECottrell responded, “Students aren’t obsessed with grades by nature – parents and admins are. They transfer it.”

@km_york said, “I think it’s just ingrained in our culture. My 4-yr has lots of games that give her “grades” already.” Other teachers agreed that the “hyper-competitive” nature of many schools, as well as society in general has increased students’ focus on an external mark of accomplishment rather than an internal understanding of concepts. @alenord said, “We have to address the fact that students aren’t concerned with LEARNING anymore. Just fill in blanks, turn in work.” @Vines_TOY10 responded, “So true…proficiency takes work not a worksheet…”

Many world language teachers shared their dreams of having a classroom in which there were no grades at all. @jklopp shared an appreciated perspective: “I am visualizing my world language class with no grades whatsoever. ‘Oh, I don’t give grades. We just communicate.’ Our creativity is smothered by grading.” @sonrisadelcampo agreed: “I start each semester by telling kids that if their goal is a grade then their goal and mine clash.”

@cforchini said, “I would love to see grades taken off the table, students hate them and I hate giving them.” @jklopp said, “I don’t want to have to even think about grades when I’m teaching – and don’t want students to, either.”

Turning the Grading Tide

@mweelin asked, “How do you make the shift in a grade-driven school culture (both ss and tchrs)?” This brought up a very hot-button issue among the world language teachers: how can we create communication-based language experiences in a school system where grades are of paramount importance? @jennahacker said, “We are in the process of applying standards-based grading to a system that still requires a grade. I am curious to see how it will work.”

A number of ideas were shared that would help school districts turn away from a grading focus and implement proficiency-based progression in the world language classroom:

Change the Way You Teach. Students know when you are stressed out about their grades, so it is vital you make communication your number one goal. @sonrisadelcampo made a bold statement that many teachers agreed with: “Students sense when teachers themselves are zeroed in on grades; [so we should] step back and enjoy conversing w/ them in the target language.”

Incentivize the Learning Process. Although grades are an incentive for students to attain knowledge, they are not necessarily an incentive for learning and growth. Some teachers suggested that there should be a local or national incentive for schools that move from grade-based leveling systems to more proficiency-based systems.

Become a Linguist, Not an Editor. #langchat participants agreed that focusing on communication is key, and that teachers shouldn’t get caught up in the “details” of world language learning. A focus on finding mistakes in grammar, spelling or accent can de-motivate students and rob them of communication experiences. @alenord said, “The real evil is the teacher who is looking for those mistakes!”

The AP Test is Not The Goal. A number of teachers spoke about the need for the world language community to stop emphasizing the AP exam as the end result of a language education program. @mosspike said, “A 5 on the AP doesn’t always correlate with comprehension. I worry that too many students view the AP exam as the end goal and don’t want to continue language study later.”

Focusing on Can-Do. Utilizing the Linguafolio “I Can” statements can go a long way to promoting positive learning experiences that are communication based. They can be incorporated into assessments, syllabi and individual lesson plans. @Vines_TOY10 puts the “I Can” statement at the top of assessments to maintain accountability. She also cautions world language teachers that the statements need to be used for communication goals. “’I can’ statements need to be communication based….not I can use the verb ‘to be’ in four separate tenses.”

Real World Instruction. Students want to be able to learn world language that they will be able to use immediately, which is why so many are frustrated in the lower levels. Many teachers suggest making sure that even low level courses give students the ability to communicate in small ways. @alenord said, “Kids need to leave class w/something they can apply immediately to real world. They look for opportunities.” @crwmsteach said, “We must remember that student motivation is a factor of proficiency. Setting personal goals and periodic self evaluation is a must.”

Thank You!

Thank you so much for your participation in this amazing #langchat! There were so many great ideas, we couldn’t write them all down. For a complete transcript of this world language chat session, please visit our online archive.

Again, thank you to our wonderful moderators who let us go off on an important tangent. We are glad to have this forum to be able to share our thoughts about world language teaching. If you have a specific topic you would like to see discussed this Thursday at 8pm EST, please share it with us!

Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

2 Comments

  • Megan King

    Thank you for sharing! I appreciate how you have organized and highlighted key ideas!

  • Shari

    Unfortunately, not all teachers and students are self-motivated. Hence, accountability testing and grades, but nice dream. 🙁

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