What’s in a grade? Valuing growth and instilling confidence in a high-stakes environment

We are entering the home stretch.

With the conclusion of spring break and with one round of standardized testing in the books, the time for students to demonstrate their growth is now. For any supplemental out of school time provider worth their salt, this time of year can bring tremendous highs, or lows that make you want to reconsider your life.

Generally, the return to school from spring break marks the end of a grading period, the next to last for most Indianapolis students attending various school types, including traditional public, private and charter. From a provider’s standpoint, this particular period can offer enlightening information. It not only highlights the current marking period’s efforts, but it offers an excellent indicator of the trajectory which will determine a student’s ability to progress to the next level.

A program that has served 112 public school students to date this school year, the Edna Martin Christian Center Leadership and Legacy program, approaches this point in time with confidence in our effort to enrich students socially and academically, but with the sobering reality that sometimes our best efforts have not yielded the performance for all students we hope to see.

Still, this most recent marking period was different. In the aggregate, a majority of our students are on track to demonstrate growth in the primary areas we evaluate: math, reading and science, followed by standardized assessments at the conclusion of the school year, when available. Overall, school day attendance remains high for a significant majority, and school suspensions were on the decline from the previous period.

But, a particular and unexpected anomaly was also observed: a high concentration of students from one traditional public school was exceeding our expectations in terms of collective performance. I’m pleased to say that in particular cases of students whose behaviors lead to poor performance, marking period outcomes far exceeded expectations to the point of near hubris. One first grade student who generally visits my office regularly for punitive reasons even received one of the biggest hugs I’ve afforded any student, which was honestly weird for both of us.

To what to do we attribute this growth? Perhaps it is the implementation of a comprehensive, individualized strategy in which all stakeholders work together for common benefit. It could be that students simply have decided to buckle down to realize the potential we know to be inherent. Even still, it could be the adjusted approach from dedicated school leadership and educators or greater understanding and participation among parents. Whatever the reason, the outcome feels good!

Now here’s where it gets tricky. In this high stakes environment where schools’ collective performance mean the difference between a ‘high quality’ or ‘failing’ designation, the difference between charter renewal versus closure, we have to ask if good grades are devalued for high performing students in low performing schools? What’s in a grade when it’s generated from a school whose majority fail to meet minimum standards, as is the case for the previously mentioned traditional public institution.  

Tell a student beaming with confidence in their first honor roll designation their grade is somehow less significant because of their school's performance over time. Tell a parent that has chosen for their students to remain in these schools their child’s demonstrable growth is not as legitimate. Tell the licensed teacher, school leader or community partner the positives are grossly overshadowed by systemic challenges for which none are happy but we collectively own.

With two months and much work remaining, this period’s snapshot offers hope, optimism and continuing confidence in our student’s abilities. These students may not have chosen the school’s in which they learn, but they’re choosing to try.