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Posts Tagged ‘grades

I read two articles this month that got me thinking about how we might wean ourselves off grades.

The first was a CNA article that reported how year-end exams were cancelled because of COVID-19 disruptions. This was to allow teachers to help students catch up.

One stark statement from a teacher was: 

No exams is a good thing, so we can concentrate on the teaching, rather than on the testing.

The other article was one shared by Larry Cuban and written by Jack Schneider: With Pass-Fail, What’s the Point of Grades?

In his review of grading systems in the USA, Schneider started with this:

In the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, countless colleges and universities shifted from to A-F grades to a pass/fail system… Many K-12 school districts have done the same.

What were the purposes of grades? He provided four arguments in his op piece. Grades were:

  • Motivation for the academically motivated
  • A form of scholastic coercion, i.e., reward or punishment for performance
  • A form of coarse feedback and communication for students and with parents respectively
  • A method of sorting and assigning people to schools and jobs

Schneider then outlined some problems with grades: 

  • They are high stakes and feedback can come across as long-lasting judgement
  • Students chase good grades at the expense of meaningful learning
  • The practice has led to grade inflation (easy As) and grade grubbing (negotiating for better grades)

Schneider suggested a portfolio-based alternative where students “assemble evidence of what they know and can do”. He suggested some advantages of portfolios have over grading. Portfolios:  

  • Help students focus on the substance of learning
  • Facilitate the revision of artefacts of learning
  • Allow students to work at different speeds to reach proficiency

Most importantly, well-implemented portfolios motivate students to improve their work and not merely chase grades.

If relying on grades is like suckling on milk, transitioning to alternatives like portfolios is like eating solid food. The pandemic has asked us to question the validity and utility of grades. It might be the opportunity to start weaning ourselves of grades.

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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