How do we deal with grades when mainstreaming students?

Why Haven’t They Done That Yet

I have had a few thoughts this last week. I had another student “graduate” out of special education! What this means is that I can find no evidence for this student needing special education services at all. This is astounding given they have been in special education classes for behavior their entire educational life.

The first thing that got me thinking was this student approached me in the hall and pulled me aside.

Student: “Dr. H., can I talk to you for a second? I think I am ready to go over to [the general education class this student had been attending 90% of the time] all day now. I am tired of being talked down to and I have good friends in [that class]. I saw you moved [another student that worked themselves out of special education] over there and I want to now, please.”
Me: “Okay, [Student], go talk to your parents and have them call me and we can make it happen.”
Student: “Okay, you can count on me!”
We went our separate ways for the day. I was planning to transition this student over within the week anyway, so I thought no further of our conversation.

That was, until I got a phone call. The student did talk to his parents and demanded they call me as soon as they could. He even told them that the phone number they had was my cellular phone number so they could reach me at any time, unless I was in the bathroom or something (I would have paid anything to see the look on his mother’s face when he shared that little nugget of info to her).

It warms my heart to see a student that has spent their life in special education be hungry for a general education existence. This student worked doggedly to improve themselves, overcome any behavioral challenges they ever had, and rise to the occasion. I put him in a stressful situation (a classroom with 33 other kids) and told him I was there if he needed help. He told me, “Thanks Dr. H., I think it would be better if you do not come in and check on me in class. I do not want the other kids to think I am different.”

We met the day before yesterday and he is now a general education student with only an IEP so I can maintain transportation to our school, since we have been bussing him in all year. This is further amazing because, at the beginning of the year, there were a lot of people that told me this student would not be able to handle it. He certainly showed them.

An Interesting Conversation

When we met to speak with this student’s parents they were thrilled at the growth this student had made and ecstatic our school was willing to embrace him as a general education student. Normally I would focus on this for a blog post, but they said something else that blew my mind. The student’s parents mentioned that the student was crushed by the fact he was getting B’s in the general education class. He was used to getting A’s and he felt like he was stupid or something or was somehow unable to do the work.

Wow. Just wow. I had not considered that this student had academically been at the top of their class for so long that they were accustomed to receiving nothing but A’s on their report card-and that had somewhat defined themselves as an “A student”.

I ensured them that all this meant was that the student went from the material they felt was beneath them to truly challenging material. They should be proud of their B’s because that meant that they were getting 85-90% of the grade level work correct, having never had previous access to grade level material. This is spectacular (or as I tend to put it, Spec-Freaking-Tacular).

What this Conversation taught Me

This student felt like he was failing because he was getting B’s. He thought we were all somehow disappointed in him because he was not perfect A’s. Sadly, and here is the truth, we had given him no reason to not believe that. He was used to getting As and being told he was smart because he got As. Not that he was smart because he worked so hard. We praised the results, not the effort to obtain them.

A quick corollary to this is we often have students love coming to our special education classrooms (especially Resource) because they feel successful. We need to ask ourselves if that is because they score higher marks on the work we give them or if it is because they feel their hard work is better rewarded in the special education classroom.

In talking with my mother over the years I have heard some stories about parents proud of their children in special education that go to an out class and get Cs and even Ds. Those kids did it. They went out and Did. Not. Fail.

I think this is a very healthy approach. We should be proud at our student’s effort, not their grades, per se. We should reward accomplishment, no doubt, but we should reward hard work infinitely more.

What this conversation taught me is that we need to explicitly have conversations about grades, work, and expectations with our students before we alter placements or put them in mainstreaming/inclusion/out classes/etc. They need to know that we do not expect immediate As out of them. We expect them to be challenged. We expect to have to help them. But we expect them to do nothing less than their best.

Are there Solutions?

I think in the short term there are really no solutions to having students potentially feel they are failing if their grades drop when we put them in harder classes. That said, I have a few thoughts:

  • The most radical is we throw out grades all together. We simply give all the students that do the work full credit for turning it in and we move on with life from there. This sounds good, but it can be impractical unless students buy in. The system can be gamed by lazy students to not learn. As much as I like the idea of no grades, I do not know how this one would work. I know some teachers are having success with it, and I hope they can refine it to be more generalizable for broad adoption.
  • A slightly less radical version is to switch the focus from traditional letter grades to specific academic skills or standards. This is facilitated by the presence of the CCSS (Or UCSS in Utah) to provide the different standards we can specifically assess. I do not know of a non test-based method for analyzing these standards. But this still has the benefit of giving a spreadsheet of skills with strengths and weaknesses identified rather than a simple letter to represent how the student is doing. This has the benefit of allowing us as teachers to focus on student strengths rather than nag on weaknesses.
  • My favored system is a growth model. The math is a bit harder to get one’s head around than a simple letter grade, but we have computers to do the math. We can give a pre-assessment to the students that covers what the student needs to know in a given time. We then, rather than give a giant test, give a bunch of little tests called Common Formative Assessments (CFA) that are shared across all classes at a grade level. The results from the CFA are them compared to the protest and growth is computed. If 3-5 CFA are given in a term, one can calculate a growth trajectory. These trajectories can be used to guide instruction, separate students into groups, as well as provide evidence that the student is making progress. That progress can be shared with parents in lieu of grades.

Regardless the methods used, we need to guarantee the following: For our student’s coming from special education into the general education classroom, we need to provide highly specific feedback about their performance. This means if we use a growth model with CFAs, we need to work individually or as a group with the student to collaboratively and creatively apply knowledge so the students get direct, specific, and meaningful feedback. They key to student success is that they know where their understanding is strong or where it is limited. Then we work with the student to help them address their weaknesses and build upon their strengths.

The status quo, students looking at grades and bemoaning. Poor marks suggests we are failing at giving other methods to these students by which to measure their understanding of academic progress.


All that said, I think the most important thing we can do for these students is to talk to them beforehand so they are prepared for the change in expectations. It is the least we can do to help mitigate any depression or emotional disturbances that student feel when overwhelmed by new situations and challenges.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

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