18 November 2006

What's In A Grade?

If there's any theme to this blog this year, it's grading. Between our district move at the elementary level to have a standards based report card, my work with new teachers, and other thoughts afoot with my own return to school, I've been thinking a lot about grades. Some of it is philosophical ("What does an 'A' really mean? Should we really give zeros for missing work?") and other tangents are a bit more practical ("What tools can teachers use to assess student progress based on standards?"). I find myself doing a lot of reading and thinking and talking with other teachers when I can.

I ran across an Associated Press article earlier today that describes the problem college admissions are having with weighing GPA as part of college entry. If you have schools with multiple valedictorians (even 75 of them), what does that tell a university about the students? Are they really all 4.0-ready-for-Harvard types?

One way that colleges are dealing with this is to look more at standardized tests. The ACT and SAT are still good predictors of success, like it or not. How many places of higher ed are looking at state tests is not known. Of course, once such tests either become graduation requirements for all schools or in 2014 when all kids must be at standard (or else...), then I'm not sure they will be good tools for distinguishing among applicants.

The article doesn't mention course selection. It's a lot easier to get your 4.0 if you have 2 periods of study hall, 2 periods of PE, an English class, and an early dismissal at the end of the day than if you're the gung ho type who takes multiple AP classes. Shouldn't a transcript say more to an admissions officer than just GPA?

What colleges are wondering, however, is just what an "A" means in high school. There's not a way to calibrate and every teacher's expectations and grading scale can be different...yet colleges look at an "A" in high school chemistry the same. I am not of the opinion that the number of A's should be limited in the class---a/k/a "grading on the curve"---but if a teacher's view of an A is a kid who turns in their work on time, participates in class, and doesn't get test anxiety is all it takes, then perhaps we at least need to think about that.

When I talk with secondary teachers about grades, there are varied viewpoints. Most think that a grade reflects student knowledge, but also some intangibles ("He works really hard!"). They are not willing to factor out those intangibles, although some would welcome the ability to report two grades: one strictly for content and another for things like effort, attitude, and so on. I like this idea, but I don't know if we'll see it come to fruition here.

As usual, I don't really have any answers here. Schools need to have some hard conversations about what a grade should be in the 21st century and colleges need some communication about what they need to know about applicants. It is a seemingly impossible task when you consider the sheer number of schools (secondary and post-secondary) involved. We have to start somewhere. Huge numbers of students are dropping out of post-secondary ed programs because they don't have the right tools to be successful...but obviously, they had the GPA.

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