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Student Access to Grades at Northwest

Last updated on November 1, 2019

Tula H., Junior

Have you ever been surprised by your grade at the end of the trimester? Have you forgotten a missed assignment or misjudged its effect on your final grade in the class? These problems have one clear solution: Northwest School students need continual access to their grades in all classes. This may sound drastic to some—Northwest policy around viewing grades has always been lax, based on the individual preference of teachers. However, I believe that there should be a concrete policy dealing with students seeing their grades.

I had been hearing discussion of these policies within my peer groups and in my classes, with varying perspectives on the situation. In hopes of finding some consensus, I formally gathered my classmates’ opinions about this issue. I did this using an email survey which I sent to the entire Upper School. Of the 93 respondents, 41.3% said they could not independently access their grades in any class, while 39.1% said they had access to grades from just one class. Additionally, 17.4% reported access to grades in two of their classes, while only 2.2% said they could see their grades in four or more classes. These uneven responses reveal the lack of policy surrounding NWS grade access, opposite to the 24/7 online grades provided by most other Seattle schools, including Seattle Public Schools. The response to my survey question, How do you feel about the current access you have to your grades? was shocking. The option “I want more access to my grades” was selected by 93.5% of respondents.

As a college preparatory school, Northwest must do everything in its power to prepare us for higher education. Since it is standard that grades be provided online to college students, this system will be a part of most Northwest students’ future studies. Northwest already integrates many aspects of college education into Upper School curriculum: lectures, homework, and tests are all systems used in postsecondary education. Why then, if it is a normal part of college life, are we not able to independently access our grades?

It is clear that Northwest values more than students’ letter grades—learning to deeply analyze material and communicate with others are two values highly championed by the school. However, we will be dealing with letter grades for the rest of our academic careers. The American grading system may have flaws, but if it isn’t changed nationally it is in the school’s best interest to teach us how to learn with it. This, of course, brings up the question of “fighting the system.” By giving Northwest students access to their grades, will they be sucked into the monotony of American schooling? The answer is no. Giving us access to our grades won’t make us hopeless pawns of the education system—it will just give us a set of tools that we need to learn how to use wisely. It would actually be invaluable to use this system in Upper School, since we would be taught to fully utilize our access to grades in preparation for college classes. We could also learn ways to manage grade-related stress and anxiety while modeling college scenarios.

This leads to another survey question I posed: is your current access to grades causing you any anxiety? The overarching answer, chosen by almost three-quarters (73.1%) of respondents was, “Yes, because I can’t see my grades easily enough.” This is clear evidence that limited access to grades is heightening NWS students’ anxiety levels, which is, according to The New York Times, exactly what restricted access to grades is trying to prevent. To gain further perspective, I asked my friend Lucia, a sophomore at Garfield High School, her opinion on the connection between grade access and anxiety. Lucia, who can see her grades whenever she wants, replied: “For me it actually relieves anxiety because I can see my grades and how tests and assignments impact them. I get stressed when there is no transparency about grades and I am left in the dark about what my grades are.”

So why does Northwest have an alternate system around gradebook transparency, and what exactly is our policy? I decided to talk to the Head of School, Mike McGill, about Northwest’s stance. “It’s always been up to the teacher. We don’t have an official policy on grade book access.” He explained that most teachers held the same opinion: “that minute-access to grades is emphasizing the wrong thing—product over process.” Though I can attest that most Northwest teachers I’ve had share this belief, Mike was very clear that teachers are allowed the freedom to choose how to run their class, and that the policy of gradebook transparency is “neither required nor forbidden.”

Since teachers are given the ultimate decision, I realized I needed to get both opinions: why teachers choose to post grades online or restrict access. I had a chat with Isaac, my previous humanities teacher who makes his gradebook accessible online for his students. “Coming from a college background, I know the importance grades have for you [a high school student]. I know you’re going to ask about your grades, so the path of least resistance is having them out there.” Isaac developed the habit of posting grades for his students at a previous job, and the practice carried over to his position at Northwest. As we talked more, it became clear that this issue was not cut-and-dry in his mind. “[Constant access to grades is] more anxiety-inducing for you than me.” Isaac understands that grades and learning are related but not synonymous and identifies this as the “fundamental tension of teaching at an elite private preparatory high school.” There is ultimately a pressure placed on students no matter the school’s attitude, and Isaac believes that “grades are one way in which pressure presents itself.” Since gradebook transparency boils down to a teacher’s philosophy, he gave me insight into his: “what annoyed me most [in high school] was when my teacher assumed I wasn’t capable of handling certain information.” Informed by his personal experience, Isaac provides his students with grades, or rather, information he believes they are capable of handling.

Next, I talked with Lisa Blodgett, my Spanish teacher who doesn’t post grades online. “I’m not convinced that instantaneous access motivates students. I think it creates a lot of anxiety where there doesn’t need to be.” After a brief pause, she added, “It’s a philosophical thing for me. More and more work is being put on teachers and all students have to do is press a button. It’s better for kids to engage with their teachers.” Lisa provides a mid-trimester grade to each student as a way of checking in and is open to conversations about grades when approached by a student. This method is commonly used by teachers at Northwest—written records of grades are occasionally handed out instead of online access. I also know some teachers who show students their percentage in the class after each test, if tests are weighted highly in their class.

This leads to another important factor of class grades at Northwest: grading scale. Many students are aware that there is also no clear policy on what point percentage constitutes an “A” in any given class. I interviewed both eleventh-grade chemistry teachers, Clare and Olivia, and this discrepancy became apparent: Clare’s students receive an A with a 90 or above, while Olivia’s students must score a 93 for the same grade. Even though this is only a three-point difference, it reveals a shocking truth: the same student could receive a different letter grade in a different section of the same class for producing the same quality of work, depending on the teacher they are assigned to. This could happen anyway, since it is impossible and should not be expected that all teachers teach and grade exactly the same way. Clare, who also teaches tenth-grade biology, spoke to this in our conversation: “Different subjects have different requirements for success. In Chemistry it’s harder to get a 95% than in Biology. [My] grade scales are tailored to these levels of difficulty.” She later added, “My 90% for [an] A might be the same as Olivia’s 93% for [an] A, as we grade differently and give different assignments.”

While teachers’ freedom should be enforced, I believe it is important to standardize Northwest’s grading scale. There are certain things like the weighting of assignments that can be left up to teachers’ decision, but the percentage scale on which students are graded should be the same school-wide. Olivia mentioned her opinion on this when we talked: “I think we should definitely have a school-wide grading policy. Northwest is respectful of teachers and how they teach, and I get both ways, but it’s probably easier for you guys [upper school students] if it’s all the same [system].” A school-wide grading scale would give Northwest students a better sense of how they are doing in every class, since they would be able to associate a certain level of focus and engagement with the same results, regardless of teacher.

The root of both grading scale and gradebook transparency is a continual, unsolvable struggle: freedom of teachers versus equity of policy. I believe that a highly successful educational environment requires a balance—autonomy guided by some protocol. Everyone in the Northwest community knows that too many protocols result in a stifled environment, which is why these protocols must be few and far between, chosen carefully and deliberately. It is in the best interest of both faculty and students that two of these protocols should be gradebook transparency and a school-wide grading scale. These methods are used in nearly all forms of postsecondary education—Northwest cannot claim to fully prepare students for this unless we are exposed to these two standards.

What’s a common argument against transparent gradebooks? Later in my conversation with Mike, we both agreed that a major potential stress factor of online grade access is parents. The New York Times article, “The Downside of Checking Kids’ Grades Constantly,” warns “there is plenty of research to show that extrinsic motivators, such as grades, as well as parental surveillance and control, are detrimental to kids’ long-term motivation to learn and undermine their relationships with teachers.” This is a valid point. Imagine coming home from school after an exhausting 80-minute math final, ready to fall asleep on your front steps—then imagine your parent bursting through the front door, test score in hand, obsessing over the fact that your class grade dropped .47%. While this concern may be explicable at schools that use different gradebook software than Northwest, our fear of increased “parental surveillance and control” is entirely unjustified. If Northwest students were to receive their grades through OBA, the online networking program Northwest currently uses, parents would have no access. Students would be able to independently look at their grades, which would eliminate parental anxiety, and, according to my survey results, drastically reduce Upper School student stress levels.

oba grades

But here’s the hard truth: grades are always going to cause a little anxiety. No matter the policy around gradebook access, students are trained to see these letters as a prediction for their future. No matter how unfair and misleading this stereotype is, popular culture and the college education system have placed a value on these numbers that isn’t going away anytime soon. Mike and I also talked about alternate grading systems altogether—it turns out Northwest is a member of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, which according to their website, is “a growing network of public and private high schools who are creating a high school transcript that reflects the unique skills, strengths, and interests of each learner and that supports educators in facilitating the kind of learning that they know is best for students.” In other words, this organization is trying to replace letter grades with a “mastery system”—students’ transcripts would be in the form of pie charts. Slices correspond to different areas of academic skill such as “analytical and creative thinking,” and “leadership and teamwork.” Though the design of this transcript has not been finalized, the organization plans to implement this system in many of its supporting schools to force the hand of American colleges, which have until now used standardized testing requirements to snub any changes in the country’s grading system. The idea is that if enough schools use the same alternative system, universities will have to recognize several grading policies in order to admit students.

Until this change happens, however, we are stuck with letter grades. And to make our high school education as enriching as possible, students should be given access to a transparent gradebook. Here is my proposition: middle schoolers are given no online access and must use these three years to gain understanding of what good work and class participation feels like. Upon entry into freshman year, students are given an online gradebook, required weekly or biweekly—instantaneous entries are unfair to teachers’ time. Along with this gradebook comes a supportive environment that encourages communication between students and teachers about grades and classwork—think the Northwest environment currently, minus the “can I please see my grade” chats.

I have been a student at Northwest since sixth grade. One of the things I value most is the student-teacher relationship found so commonly within our walls. A policy ensuring Upper School students’ access to their grades would not only arm us with lifelong stress-management skills, it would inspire a deeper dialogue and culture of self-advocacy throughout our community.

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