Some Recent Thoughts on Grading

So as part of an yearlong effort, my high school is trying to examine grading practices. I am not entirely sure where it is all leading, but I thought I would post some of my thoughts from a recent online discussion that our school is having regarding the question, “How do you ensure that students’ grades are an accurate picture of their learning in your class?”

I am not terribly sure I like the question, or at least I think it is a weak question that obscures a path to an much deeper answer that is far more worthy of a stronger, more fundamental question. That being said, I have been giving a lot of thought to the nature of questions lately, how they are formed, how they shape the thinking that follows, how to craft better ones. Nevertheless, here were my initial thoughts.

On a fundamental level, I think that grades are deeply flawed in their ability to provide an accurate picture of learning in a class. They are far too abstract and are unsystematically abstracted from student learning. So from that standpoint, I am not convinced that the systems that are generally in place, both here and elsewhere, can actually accomplish this aim at all. The common grading system is far too laden with competing factors that render it Byzantine at this point.

Yet, the only way that I know to provide an accurate picture of learning through the use of “grades” is by engaging in consistent and rigorous conversations with students about goals and objectives, means by which those will be assessed, and always providing opportunity for the student to remediate those assessments in some way. Without those three elements I would challenge the accuracy and validity of any grade.

There will always be some measure of subjectivity or bias, but the assessor can take measures to limit or control them in an effort to be as objective as possible. Often it is not easy, nor is it nearly as scientific or coldly mathematical as we might like. There is an artificiality to grades that belies the spectrum of understanding or the potential for learning. Yet we, as the institution of education, continue to try and make the best of a bad situation, with highly questionable results.

Interestingly, I had a colleague read this before I posted it, worrying that it might seem too wonky or inaccessible. For some reason, I felt a bit more tentative about declaring some of my deep-felt thoughts about grading. Truth is I hate grading. It is absolutely the worst part of my job as a teacher. Most fascinating is knowing I am not the only one that feels that way.

I have written about grading in the past, some experimentation that I have tried and the results, and I even recently discussed some of my thoughts about all this with my classes. While I am still delaying a lot of grading this year, I am not making as big a deal about it with the students. Amazingly, there have not been as many outcries or much visible frustration yet. Yet, I made an effort to reassure all my students that they needed the opportunity to make mistakes in order to learn and that grades tend to get in the way of those efforts. They seemed to get it on the surface, at least.

Quite simply, I wish there were only three grades that expressed something along the lines of “not good enough or meets a/the ‘standard’,” “good or meets a/the ‘standard’,” and “beyond good or exceeds a/the ‘standard’.” I mean that is generally how we all nearly simplify any kinds of assessments in life, and I am not just talking about school or teaching. When I think back to every evaluation that I have gotten in a workplace, prior to becoming a teacher, that is about what those assessments amounted to. Sure they might have used fancy language or adopted some “quality” lingo and prepackaged form, but what always mattered most were the conversations that I had with the person or people doing the evaluation. And in every case those conversations were driven by the three qualifiers I outlined above.

I wish we could adopt something like this in schools. Instead we continue to insist on fragmenting the simple for increasingly more discrete pseudo-measurements, as if it is all so scientific, analytic, and smoothly translates into mathematical numbers. Yet to me that is all about sorting and nothing to do with assessment, and we have built entire institutional and societal norms on dubious methods of measurement.

The more distance a grade is from the context of the class and the teacher that give it the more distorted that grade is. Still, so much false value is placed on them and they are used as the currency for so many judgements. To me grades, as they typically exist today in schools, are the central properties in a increasingly widening distortion field.

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