By Dennis D. Munk, Ed.D.
Grades are important, and it can be very upsetting when your child consistently brings home low grades. Especially when your child has a learning disability, you may be concerned about the impact that low grades have on her motivation and self-esteem. Or you may feel that low grades don't reflect the huge amount of effort she puts into her school work. Although there's no magic formula for "fair" grades, there are guidelines for grading practices for learners with Individualized Education Programs (IEP) that can help you advocate for your child.
When parents, teachers, or schools raise issues of grading fairness and equity, it is often the result of confusion regarding the purposes for grades, and whether a "one-size-fits-all "grading system can work for learners with special needs, including those with learning disabilities. For a grading system to be fair and equitable, it must have as its philosophical basis a belief that fairness is defined as maintaining equity and meeting individual needs - not necessarily as "equality," which is treating all students exactly the same. According to one expert:1
This article will discuss several aspects of grading that parents should be aware of as they advocate for their children with learning disabilities, especially when low or failing grades are the concern. Next week, the second article in the series, "Individualized Grading for a Student with LD Who Has an IEP," will provide a more detailed description of the process of developing a grading system for a particular student.
While classroom instruction and assessment have undergone decades of change, grading has remained largely the same. And, to date, no one has produced the type of research and discussion that could lead to a nationwide consensus on what is best practice in grading. Nevertheless, new models or strategies for grading have been proposed. The most current of these focus on grading systems that measure performance on assignments that correspond to a state's grade-level learning standards.
Ongoing debate regarding grading practices stems in part from the fact that legal, pedagogical, and philosophical perspectives all converge when a school or district decides how to establish a school-wide or statewide grading policy or grading system — or how to individualize a grading system for a particular student with special needs. In addition, schools and teachers may use grades for different purposes, including making decisions about who is eligible for special programs and who needs special help, or as a general indicator of how well students as a whole are performing in the curriculum.
Research suggests that grading practices vary considerably among schools and among teachers in the same school, despite attempts in many schools to build in more consistency and predictability. Thus, teacher judgment is always a factor in grading, and parents should ask questions about the teacher's approach to grading before engaging in problem solving regarding a grading issue. Parents of students with special needs, including learning disabilities, often desire a grade to reflect how much progress or improvement their child has made during the marking period, or how much progress was made on IEP goals. The school can provide parents such information if its grading system is individualized, a topic to be discussed later in this article.
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