Monday, January 20, 2014

The Problem with Traditional Grades and Percentages

A Guest Post by Joseph Jeffery

Imagine a class, if you will, where 50% is a passing grade. A lot of people associate 50% with barely meeting the objectives of the course. What does '50%' even mean though? It is an average score that does not show if there is improvement in the person. 50% can represent someone who has always been 50%, it can be someone who was great (100%) and got worse. It can be someone who was 0% and got better.

How many students play the 'passing game'? How many university students play the 'I don't need this midterm to get my B' game? I know I certainly did at university. The system of grades is quite broken and does not do a good job of reflecting what a student can actually do, and it is especially bad at being a comparative measure between students.

Yes, it is an integral part of the current graduation and university entrance system, but saying that "it has always been that way so we shouldn't fix it" is a rather terrible argument. "Women's rights, LGBT rights, cultural rights, who needs them? After all the system has always been biased toward the white heterosexual male so why should we change it now" - Springs to mnid as an example of that mind set. Change is important, and necessary, and we ought not balk at it just because it's new.

Assessment 'for' learning has been proved to be a much more successful strategy than straight assessment 'of' learning (Black, 1999, and numerous studies since). Constant feedback loops are what make things work. It's the way in which any number of design principles involving clients are done from engineering to information technology. Even writing utilizes a feedback loop involving the editor.

As teachers, we do not recieve a grade from our administrator. In our first years as a teacher we recieve constant feedback from our administrator as to areas of improvement. Daily we recieve constant feedback from our students, in real time, based on their reactions to things taught, their manner in the class, and whether they appear to be grasping the subject or not. This feedback informs our practice (or it least it should!) and tells us what we need to do, and change. This kind of feedback is vital for us. Why do we then discount it when it comes to the child, letting a single letter define them? Think back to university, to high school, to your own experiences for a moment. Was the first thing you read on your work the comments, really took them in and internalized them? Or did you skip ahead to the last page, like me, and read the grade. If it was an A put it aside, if it was a D get horrified (or nod that it was a poor attempt written at 3 am because you had better things to do) and then read the comments and deny their validity? Probably, that is how most university students I knew worked. In fact, it irritated me to no end when I started teaching labs that the students never learned from their mistakes that I had helpfully pointed out in comments. 

Grades are a culture, and one that does not give rise to understanding of the material. Shallow learning that can easily be forgotten a year later is often the way of the game. There is little ownership, even in the best students, who are just out for top grades and rarely want something challenging, because it gets in the way of their perfect grade point average.

Should we change to no-grades overnight? Heck, no. Should we do it without decent thought, discourse, and debate? Heck, no. But should it at least be on the table? Yes!

This is of course, only my opinion, and you are entitled to yours, but I am all for opening up the discussion to serious consideration of this within SD57. 

Joesph Jeffery
Learning Commons Teacher
Highglen Montessori Elementary School
Jan 20th, 2014


Post a Comment