02 February 2009

Can't We All Just Get Along?

One of the things I often hear from teachers with regards to grading is the idea that one of the purposes of the grading systems we use is simply to prepare kids for the next level. In other words, junior high teachers have certain assumptions about high school...and high school about college. I even heard these words echoed in the elementary I worked in last year: "You'll need to know how to do this for third grade!" Somehow, I don't think many 8-year olds really paid attention to that sort of future threat.

When I worked with teachers last week, the issue of the high school-college connection came up again. The context was simply the idea that by having a unit test at the end of each section of material, this prepped kids for college. While I don't dispute that tests are a part of college life, I'm not so sure that this line of reasoning is the most valid one. Not every kid is going to college. And more importantly, shouldn't there be a better reason to assess student learning than "just because"?

And...what if high school's assumptions about college are wrong? (Or at least may well be very soon)
Is it time to move beyond grades? That was the question considered — largely in the affirmative — at a workshop Wednesday at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. It may seem counterintuitive to think that this is a time for colleges to consider giving up grades. Many college administrators feel that accreditors are breathing down their necks, demanding more and more evidence of student learning. With the economy falling apart, parents want to be assured that their children are learning something. And the vast majority of colleges award grades.

But when organizers of the workshop had audience members describe their experiences with grading, the closest they came to a fan was an associate provost who admitted that he saw grade inflation as completely out of control and said that for more students at his and similar institutions, the grade-point average range is around 3.4 to 3.8. It seemed that everyone else in the room had been motivated to attend by their sense that the system isn’t working: Other academic administrators who said grades had become meaningless. A registrar who said that she was struggling to understand the apparent inconsistencies in faculty members’ grades. A professor who tells his students that “grades are the death of composition.” Another said: “Grades create a facade of coherence.”

Many said they assumed that it was politically impossible to eliminate grades. But they heard from educators at colleges that have done so and survived to tell the tale. And notably, they heard from colleges offering evidence that the elimination of grades — if they are replaced with narrative evaluations, rubrics, and clear learning goals — results in more accountability and better ways for a colleges to measure the success not only of students but of its academic programs.

There's much more to read in the Inside Higher Ed article: Imagining College Without Grades. I do wonder if there will be an opportunity to bring the k-20 spectrum to the same table at some point to talk about grades. We seem to all be working in isolation on this topic...speculating about what the other is doing and the reasons for ascribing motivation to our actions. When it comes to grading, can't we all just get along?


teacherninja said...

I went to New College in Sarasota, FL. They have no grades. You get a Satisfactory, Unsatisfactory or Incomplete. There's a contract system that goes with it (I won't go into that here). But I loved it. They have a cover letter explaining the whole thing they attach to our transcripts and I don't know of anyone that has had a problem going on to higher graduate levels. Of course, it's an honors college so pretty much everyone does go on to higher levels and that might be why no one questions the lack of a grade point average.

I just made so much more sense and I wasn't afraid to try a challenging class "because it might mess up my GPA."

There were also no required classes (except as they related to your major).

Dorothy Neville said...

Do we give four year olds knives and tell them they'll need to know how to use one when they are eight? Do we mark kindergarteners low on their work if they fail to use proper MLA citations to prepare them for the future? Do we make eight year olds read Faulkner and justify it because they'll need to be able to read him in high school?

The funny thing is, having a unit test on each chapter does *not* prepare for college. In college, one often only has a midterm or maybe two and a final. No brownie points for having your book every day, for participating, for having two pencils, for getting parent's signature on the course syllabus... all things that my high school son does get grade credit (or loss) for.

Unknown said...

Oh but that we could all just get along. What I'm wondering about is exactly related to the question of moving away from grades and toward narratives. We've been issuing grades for each standard, along with a course grade - and it doesn't seem to be doing much in the way of improving achievement, and it definitely seems to be negatively affecting initiative (which makes sense, as we're entirely focused on the outcomes, not on the process). So the question I have is, for schools moving toward standards-based systems (particularly grading) - is issuing a grade for each standard the right direction to head in? Is more grades the right / best answer?

Curmudgeon said...

A few quick thoughts on tests and grading...

Grades should be an indicator of the math knowledge attained and a transcript should be an easy-to-read summary of the student's achievement.

If I have a kid in front of me with an A in Integrated 2, then I know what he has accomplished and what I can expect him to be able to handle in Integrated 3.

Tests are a means of evaluating the students, not practice for some future classroom setting. If they don't evaluate, then you need to change them.

Grade inflation is merely your best way of screwing that kid in the future.