About ten years ago, my vice principal introduced me to an article that promoted the idea of “mountaintop grading”. The idea behind the concept was simple: Students learn at different paces and therefore, we should give students who need more time the opportunity to have more time to show competency. For me, this opened a whole new door to helping kids succeed in math. From that point on, if a student scored below a C on an assessment, I'd ask them to come after school so that we could work together to get them up to speed. Ideally, this meant finding new ways to teach them the standard at hand and then asking them to prove their growing competency with a new assessment. Then, the grade they received on the second assessment replaced their original, below-satisfactory score. It was a lot of work and, of course, not every student was a perfectly willing accomplice but nonetheless, the results were undeniable. Students no longer had the option to fail.
Mountaintop grading created a classroom culture of high expectations and prioritized learning over grades. Students knew, if they fell behind, they’d have to come after school. They knew I’d be loaded with questions and that they would be expected to communicate their ideas. Therefore, they worked hard in class, collaborating in groups to complete their daily lessons. Of course, some still struggled but our work after school ensured they’d have the time they needed to succeed, and for some, success in math was a first-in-a-lifetime experience. Since I began this system ten years ago, intervention has become a common innovation amongst school districts. In fact, my former district created an X-block period in the school day to allow me to do this work during school hours. As a result of these efforts, my students consistently scored above average in growth on state standardized tests when compared to their peers in the state.
Then in 2016, I moved across the country and began working in a new school district. To my delight, intervention seemed to be standard practice amongst my new peers. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize that things were different. Very different. The mountaintop grading system that had transformed my classroom into a high performing, student-centered model for math education was having a drastically different effect in my new school. In fact, in my opinion, it was completely destroying the school culture.
Wait...What? How could a positive educational innovation go so wrong? Unfortunately, intervention in my new environment had been watered down to a single and very simple task: the test retake. Students who performed poorly on assessments were asked to correct their mistakes and were then allowed to retake the same assessment. How students made their corrections, how well they understood the corrections or if the corrections were even their own work was never investigated. Corrections were made and retakes were given. No additional instruction. No inquiry into student’s conceptual understanding of their mistakes. No thinking involved on the part of the students. Retaking the same assessment only required memorization to improve their grade.
The result of this policy was low expectations all around. Students knew they could score well on retakes with minimal effort so they rarely bothered to prepare for the original test. The lack of reteaching placed grades as the primary concern for retakes rather than competence and a rigorous understanding of the concepts at hand. Thus, students often knew their exact GPA by heart but could barely describe the material they were learning in the classroom. Meanwhile, teachers and administrators could feel good about the lack of failing grades in their grade books due to the retake policy. I know that teachers felt what they were doing was best for their students; creating pathways for struggling students to succeed is great teaching. However, having experienced proven-successful intervention, I could see the pernicious effects and unintended consequences of implementing intervention incorrectly.
Intervention is hard work. It’s not uncommon for me to have to chase kids down after school. At times, it’s taken disciplinary action from administration to support my efforts. (Administrative support was essential to success.) It certainly isn’t uncommon for students to be upset with me for making them do the extra work. On days that I stay with students after school, I leave work physically and mentally exhausted. However, I also leave with the knowledge that I’m giving my students my best by asking them to give theirs. True intervention not only produces powerful academic results but it also strengthens students' grit, their self-esteem and their understanding of what it takes to be successful. So what happens when we short cut intervention? Nothing. Nothing changes...except for a letter in our grade book.