Another dot in the blogosphere?

Portfolios, not grades

Posted on: July 5, 2020

As good as this opinion piece was, it did not fully address one of its central arguments. It described the purposes of grades, but not quite why such grading did “none of them well”.

So this is my attempt to address that fill in some blanks. But first, I paraphrase what the author wrote about why we have grades:

  • Motivate students by competition
  • Reward the talented or hardworking, and punish those less capable or less inclined
  • Rate and communicate performance to students and other stakeholders
  • Provide feedback to students

The problem with motivating, rewarding, and punishing students with grades is shared — it relies on extrinsic incentivisation or disincentivisation. This approach leaves agency largely in the hands of the teacher to engage, instead of in the heads and hearts of the learner to be empowered to learn.

In practice, we use both sources of motivation, but grading does not serve us well when it tips the balance to the extrinsic and makes students dependent on incentives.

The problem with using grades to rate and communicate performance as well as provide feedback is that they are potentially demoralising and reductionist. A grade does not adequately capture the variety of learning processes — it reduces a person’s effort to a letter or number — nor can it provide sufficient detail for improvement.

Grades are recorded and leave a paper trail. We all make mistakes. Some are big and others are small. Some mistakes are inconsequential while others have impact in the short and long term. We still have agencies that look primarily at paper qualifications instead of the whole person because evaluating grades is easy. Good grades tell stakeholders that the test takers were good at taking tests, nothing more.

While a grade might be administratively convenient and efficient (e.g., for sorting), grades are often tied to a student’s self worth. In the best case, a bad grade demoralises a student. In the worst case, it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of “I am not good at…” or “I am too stupid”.

In short, what we need to go beyond grades. The “ungrading” movement probably has this as its central tenet:

That working principle is an ideal but abstract idea. What concrete action can we take? The better question might be: What action have a few progressives already taken as a viable alternative?

See my tweet: Student portfolios. This is what I have curated on the topic of e-portfolios for several years. Depending on where you look, there are at least three types of portfolios: showcase (product-focused, static), working/developmental (process-oriented, living), and assessment (a record of one’s achievements).

The best portfolios are probably hybrids of the different types. These combo portfolios provide qualitative information to quantitative grades. A good portfolio is an extension of the person who maintains it, illustrates that person’s growth, and his/her worth to a new school or workplace.

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