Honor Roll? Really?

I look at the 16 students in my classroom. On any other day, 35 students would be looking back at me, but today the other 19 are eating cake and being honored at the morning’s honor roll assembly.

What am I supposed to offer these academic castaways? Solace? How about platitudes about working harder next grading period? Maybe I could use this time to work on these left-behinds’ weaker areas.

Or not.

Disinvited and vividly reminded one more time why they don’t measure up, these students sit, daring me to say something that makes this situation okay. I’ve got nothing. Instead, I silently plan the adjustments I’ll need to make to the second period’s lesson sequence because of the lost time due to the assembly. Then I introduce a new logic game to my remaining students and wait for the period to end.

Let’s Be Honest

Let’s put it out there and let the e-mails fly: Honor roll in middle schools serves little or no purpose, and it actually hurts the progress of some students. It is the antithesis of middle schools’ mission.

This is a touchy subject, so let me make my case.

In a not-very-scientific research survey, I asked 11 high school students of mostly high level academic performance whether being on the honor roll mattered in high school. Did they think about it? Was it important to get on the list? Were students who did not make the list disappointed? Was honor roll motivating in some way?

Every one of them said they never thought about honor roll, quickly adding that they did think about their GPA.

“Making the honor roll doesn’t get you anything,” one of the high school students said. “GPA and high grades in advance classes do. Honor roll is mostly for middle school, and it’s just one more way to sort students.”

This is a telling statement on two fronts: First, students see grades and GPA as currency. Second, students wonder about teachers’ need to sort students into “successful” and, “not-so-successful.”

The former is an unfortunate outcome of currently used but very inappropriate grading policies that create our grade bartering system: If you do this assignment, you’ll get 50 points in the grade book; If you don’t do this assignment, you will not have enough points to pass. Grade bartering doesn’t lead to true student learning. Grades are about communication, not compensation.

Does posting a list of students who achieved straight As or some acceptable mixture of As and Bs actually motivate students to strive for honor roll status in the future?

And, exactly how does an honor roll assembly motivate invitees and their disinvited classmates to learn more or work hard in the future? If we conduct an honor roll assembly with a motivational guest speaker for those honored students and their parents, shouldn’t we also invite the disinvited students because they have the most to gain from listening to the speaker?

Of greater concern is the flimsy nature of the single factor used to designate those worthy of honor roll status: grades. Yikes! As most teachers know, grades are subjective, relative, and inferential at best. They are fragile things on which to base so much celebration and rejection.

Grades are more a reflection of teachers than a reflection of what students know and can do regarding lesson objectives. Some teachers count homework 10%, some count it 30% or more. Some hold students accountable for one level of performance while others give As for far less proficiency. Some allow re-takes for full credit, some for partial credit. Classroom assessments tend to be one-sitting “snapshot” samplings of student thinking/performance rather than clear and consistent evidence over time, which is necessary if they are to be valid.

Considering grades in conjunction with other tools, such as teacher observation, analysis of students’ products, outside and objective testing, teacher recommendation, and multi-dimensional screening devices, gets us closer to accurate marks, but grades by themselves are very suspect diagnostic indicators. They are easily and frequently distorted, so much so they should never be used as the sole criterion for determining a student’s label.

Re-visiting Our Goals

Asking why we do what we do in education is always a good idea. Many educators respond to cautions about honor roll by telling us to ease up, saying that they are just trying to affirm students’ hard work and high academic achievement.

These are worthy goals, of course, but we can provide affirmation without resorting to a printed list of honor roll students in the school newspaper.

Is this really what middle schools aspire to be? Is it legitimate to lift up and recognize only those whose learning capacities and development allow them to function well in conventional classrooms while the rest of our students in varying degrees of maturation, or those whose learning needs are not met by regular classrooms or with teachers who fail to provide differentiated approaches, are told one more time that they don’t fit into our preconceived ideas of what constitutes being smart?

Middle school innovator Bill Ivey at Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Vermont reflected on these concerns in the April 3, 2009, NMSA MiddleTalk Listserve about his school’s decision to not have an honor roll:

“If we are educating the whole child, we need not to be privileging recognition of one aspect of development over another … . When we started our middle school, we decided not to do honor roll, given what we knew of research. One reason was that honor roll at this level has less meaning, given the vastly different developmental levels of kids—someone who’s well into abstract thought will be working at a totally different level than someone else who isn’t there yet, no matter how motivated and hard-working both kids are.

“The other reason (again, research-based) was the potential negative implications to self-concept of separating kids into honor roll and not-honor roll groups … . While I know middle school kids are more resilient than many people give them credit for, some kids apparently really do develop a permanent (or at least potentially permanent) feeling of inferiority when they work hard but don’t make honor roll—again, perhaps due primarily to (temporary) developmental differences … .

“My son’s school (grades 6-9) also doesn’t do honor roll (nor, for that matter, do they do athletic awards). They do have a ‘commendation’ system which is simply recognized with a notation and explanation in the comment, whereby anyone who does something special in some way—finally masters a sticky concept, writes an outstanding paper, basically anything that makes sense to a teacher—can earn special recognition for that fact.”

Affirmation for All

Affirmation is not a bad thing, but we can do so much better. Let’s dismantle our increasingly narrow view of what constitutes student success—single-shot test scores and inaccurate grades­—and let’s find multiple ways to provide positive feedback to all students. Let’s change assessment and grading practices so assessments are authentic and conducted from many angles and categories of measure, and grades are accurate reflections of mastery, undistorted by non-academic factors.

Let’s privately and publicly affirm the most important skills of the 21st century we find in our students: creativity, collaboration, compassion, critical thinking, flexibility, resilience, task analysis, positive social change, ethics, courage, mental dexterity, pattern recognition and manipulation, and initiative. Most of these are not easily transferrable to most current reporting systems but they are just as important as knowing the cubed root of 27, and thereby worthy criteria for celebration.

Affirmation for achievement in these areas and for hard work can come in many effective forms:

  • Private conversation with the teacher in which the teacher highlights the student’s growth and achievements, pointing to specific evidence for each and its positive effects
  • Free time to pursue personal interests during class without having to make up missed class work
  • More independence and personal choice
  • Additional privileges such as access to the computer lab earlier than the rest of students, extra court time in the gym, planning school lunches for a week
  • Letters of commendation from respected members of the community
  • Books of the student’s choice purchased for the school library in the student’s name, including an official bookplate indicating the honor
  • The opportunity to address younger students about life in middle school
  • A one-year subscription to an appropriate magazine of personal interest.

Notice that none of these affirmations involve food. Let’s not add to the obesity issues or eating disorders that begin so often in middle school.

We are creative people, so let’s find developmentally appropriate ways to affirm all students’ growth, including students who are not on pace with others or whose talents aren’t as clearly manifest in standard classrooms.

Let’s avoid programs that purposely sort students for dubious manipulation. Identifying students’ levels of performance is helpful for assigning homework and determining levels of classes they should take, but to sort students for a posted list or invitation-only party makes little sense. To best teach the next generation, let’s be honorable ourselves.

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, February 2010

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and author living in Herndon, VA. He can be reached at rwormeli@cox.net. His latest book, Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching any Subject (Stenhouse, 2009) includes many contributions from NMSA’s MiddleTalk listserve.