Mid-quarter progress reports were handed out at the end of the day today. When I mentioned them at the end of one of my classes, one of my students looked a little sad. I asked if her progress report was going to be a little disappointing, and she nodded. I said, “You know what? You’re better than your progress report. In fact, I want you to look at me and say that back to me.” So she looked at me and said, “Mr. Bigler, I’m better than my progress report.” Then she thought about it for a second and her face brightened into a big smile. “Yeah! I am better than my progress report!”
I always enjoy situations where I can turn a student’s perspective around in a way that makes the student feel better about him/herself, but this got me thinking…if I hadn’t had that chance interaction with this particular student, how long would she have gone on thinking that her progress report was evidence that she was somehow inadequate? Most people’s perception of teachers is that we teach kids facts, give them homework and tests, and assign grades. We’re supposed to be expert judges of our students, and our judgment of them (in the form of a grade) defines them as people. My students are often shocked to find out that I like them (and that goes for pretty much all of them) regardless of their academic standing.
It’s sobering to think that out of the 120 students I see every day, 110 of them probably incorrectly assume I don’t like them very much because they’re not among the top 10% of my students. It’s even more sobering to think that out of the 1600 students in my school, 1500 of them probably think that none of their teachers like them, for the same reason. This is one of the intangibles that bothers me most about the over-emphasis on high-stakes testing. The more emphasis we place on a single grade or score, the more kids believe that this one score defines them, and the more they think that if they don’t measure up on the test, it means they’re no good.
Much has been written about self talk and academic performance: positive self talk improves academic performance and negative self talk reduces it. This correlation has been observed at all levels, from elementary school through college. Therefore, if over-emphasis on grades produces negative self talk in a significant number of students, it would create a feedback loop in which the negative self talk and the reduced academic performance reinforce each other, sending these students into a downward spiral. I would be interested to see data that look specifically at the self talk that follows from grades and test scores. In other words, I would love to know how few students actually believe, in the absence of any outside influence, that they are better than their test scores.