Grading in Special Education
Consider the following parable (Gallagher, n.d.):
Statureland is an island nation with one major industry–purple fruit. Since purple fruit picking is essential to the welfare of the whole society, the Statureland schools’ basic curriculum is intended to train effective purple fruit pickers. Because purple fruit grows only at the top of eight foot trees, the most important and critical course within the curriculum has been Growing. All children are required to take Growing and are expected to complete six feet of growth, which is the minimum criterion for graduation as purple fruit pickers and is the average height of Staturelandians, based upon standardized growing tests. The course content of Growing includes stretching, reaching, jumping, tip-toeing, and thinking tall.
Each year, each child’s skill and abilities in Growing have been assessed and each child assigned a grade. Those children who achieved average scores on the standardized Growing tests were assigned C grades. Students who through their commitment to Growing exceeded expected levels received As. Slow Growing students received Fs and were regularly and publicly admonished for their lack of effort and inattention to task. These latter children often developed poor self-images and anti-social behavior which disrupted the school program and interfered with children who really wanted to grow. “This will never do,” said the people. “We must call a wise man to consider our problem and tell us how to help the children grow better and faster and become happy purple fruit pickers.”
So a wise man was sent for and he studied the problem. At last he suggested two solutions: (1) plant pink fruit trees that grow only five feet so that even four foot students may be successful pickers; and (2) provide ladders so that all students who wish to pick purple fruit can reach the tops of the trees.
“No, no,” said the people. “This will never work. How can we then give grades if eight foot trees are goals for some students and five foot trees are goals for other students? How can it be fair to the naturally tall students if children on ladders can also stand six feet tall and reach the purple fruit? However shall we give grades?”
“Ah,” said the wise man. “You can’t. You must decide whether you want to grade children or have fruit picked.”
A consistent question of educators with diverse classrooms is “How do I grade?” How does one assign a comparison physical education grade to a student in a wheelchair, a public-speaking grade to a deaf child, a handwriting grade to a child who has Cerebral Palsy, a reading grade to a child with cognitive challenges? If children with learning challenges need individual rather than class goals, how can one assign comparative grades fairly?
The author of this parable takes the position that comparative grades are inherently unfair to students with special needs. How, then, should we assign grades to special education students? For special education students in separate classrooms, the typical answer to that question is to go with those individual goals, that is, to grade students according to progress on their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).
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