Mind your A's & B's

Posted on March 06,2013 by shansenmspp

The situation for evaluating students at MSPP is in flux. Previously all students received credit or no credit for a class, with “credit problematic” being the only intermediary option. Students had to obtain an average above 84 to pass a class. These vague classifications were supplemented with detailed qualitative evaluations from teachers.

This is changing of late – the clinical doctoral program is now giving students letter grades (A-F), or so I’ve heard. The school psychology program is in the midst of a (somewhat) heated debate about adopting a more traditional grading system. The arguments in favor of it include the ease of transferability of classes to other institutions, and the incentive grades will provide for students to do their best work (rather than merely “passing”).

As a former anxiety-ridden A student throughout my educational career, I am strongly against the implementation of grades in our program – for a number of reasons. First, I believe that a system based on grades fosters competition (perhaps unwittingly) among students, and de-incentivizes taking risks – researching unfamiliar topics, answering a question in class, participating in a role-play, writing a report with a unique style. I also think that students should be focused on participating in a wide variety of tasks at their practicum sites, practicing “people skills” like active listening and reflection, nurturing community among themselves and at their sites, learning new skills (and yes, making mistakes), rather than worrying about whether they got an 89 or a 90 on a quiz. While studying for exams and writing papers are important, and in fact evaluated at MSPP, there’s a broad spectrum of other skills necessary to be a competent school psychologist. A 95 in lifespan development does not guarantee your ability to calm a screaming five-year old, nor does an A+ in collaboration promise your success working with a cranky teacher or a dubious parent. Our classes teach academic skills, but also key professional and social-emotional skills – tools that cannot be measured on a report card.

In addition, as school psychologists, we are trained to understand that no decision about a student should be made based on only one test measure or score. Students are evaluated holistically, with input from the student, teacher, parents, school staff, classroom observations, and other methods. A number or letter score may tell us how a student performed on a specific task at a certain time of day, but does not necessarily reflect true capabilities or performance in other settings. A professor’s qualitative explanation of a student’s behavior, attitude, style of learning, writing style, performance, capacity for compassion, collaboration, and affect tells far more than a simple letter A.

In graduate school, we are ostensibly here because we like learning and want to gain knowledge and experience – not because achieving a certain GPA is a value in and of itself. I have found it liberating to be evaluated under a different system than what I experienced in my previous 18+ years of public schooling, college, and graduate-level courses. This is not to say that we should not be held to high standards or pushed to put forth effort in school and at practicum, but rather that we should be encouraged and supported in acquiring a range of skill areas and not merely assigned a simple letter grade. Maybe we should do the same for our students? Promote their academic and emotional well-being rather than a higher GPA? Sounds like an A+ idea to me.