Auld Lang Syne

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Grades are a crummy way to measure student learning and progress, or my activism began with school

Here we are at part deux of my blogging about the nutty educational system we have here in the US. Last time I talked abut Standardized Testing (ST) and how that "termite" has slowly and steadily eaten away at the foundation of our country's schools. Today I'd like to chat with you about grading systems and what is happening on that front.

I will start by saying that the school board on which I sit is dedicated to looking at this system and making things more efficient and reasonable, FOR STUDENTS. I am thrilled at the prospect of deep revisions therein. We are quite simply looking at standards-based learning and measurements. There is a problem with things in the status quo, well several. I will unpack those here and we can discuss.

Problem #1 Colleges

When a student decides to go on to a community college, technical college, or a four-year college or university, there is a selection process the admissions folks use that is based upon things like SAT scores (although many are abandoning this as being artificial and fairly useless) and GPA. Grade Point Average is a measure not of potential but of past achievement. It is a number that is averaged, showing no nuance, no target areas of strengths. It is not a true picture of the whole. Like ST, GPA is a flat-earth way to look at astudent's potential and sustainability. GPA is made up of the basic arithmetical process of averaging. (one of the words I cringe under is "average" for a number of reasons) Ten measurements, add them, divide by ten. Bada-bing! The average.
To make it even more appealing, come up with a "value" or point for each letter grade received. Add those together and do the arithmetic. GPA. An A is 4 points. If a student gets all A's the GPA would be 4.0 right? Not really. An A- is less of an A than an A.

(SIDE NOTE: colleges (undergraduate programs) use GPA too and graduate schools make their decisions based upon these dinosaur measurements) In college I took a Shakespeare class wherein the professor announced he did not believe in A's and no one would therefore be getting an A. So, there went my 4.0. No chance for that. My fellow students could get a 4.0 GPA just by avoiding this professor's classes (unless they were female, blonde, and buxom).

Back to public high schools and GPA:

Problem #2 Advanced Placement and Honors

Another problem with using GPA as a standard of grading is that if a student takes certain classes (Honors or Advanced Placement) and aces these, she/he might end up with a 4.something-else (higher than 4.0) in that class. That means that perfect is not really perfect. For "advanced" students," more than perfect is the goal. All A's might be judged as not very good in that case. Meeting all the graduation requirements with A's becomes "less-than." Bottom line is that colleges do look at GPA and that fact presents a problem for school systems which want to eliminate number and letter grades and move toward something more descriptive and encompassing, some plan whereby teachers write more of a profile of the student as a learner. This is one giant elephant in the room when changing grading policies is discussed by faculty, administrators, and school boards. Let' say a school district decides to change to a narrative evaluation. How would that translate to a GPA that colleges could use to decide admissions? How, indeed.

Problem #3 Parents

Let's face it, we are used to grades, both letter and number. From time to time, or in lower grades of elementary schools, we have gone to SUN grading: Satisfactory, Unsatisfactory, Needs Improvement. What a firestorm of protest that induced! Parents feel comfortable looking at report cards with letter or number grades — and maybe even a key for describing what the number translates to as a letter. In my high school an A was 93%. In many schools, 90% is an A. Hmmm, so my A was worth more? How did my future colleges look at my A in comparison to someone else's? (yes they asked for a grading scale too). My point here is that assigning numbers and letters is artificial but we like that, just like we are comfortable with "butter spreads" rather than the butter itself. My father was all over my report card each quarter. He looked at each grade and made a judgment about what my life was going to be in the next quarter based upon that. (I was once told to quit Girl Scouts and concentrate on my studies because I got a B). Lest you think my father abusive and controlling, I should say that he was actually a bit more on the paranoid side, worrying that I'd have the hard life he had if I didn't do well enough to lift myself out of the manual labor life and into higher education. He was smart enough to know that education is the silver bullet, and he wanted me to have the best chance possible. By the way, I did quit Girl Scouts but not for that reason (the Troop Leader made her own daughter patrol leader... nepotism... and that was unacceptable to me)

At any rate, parents are comfortable with and can understand A's and F's and percentages. What they fail to consider perhaps is that those letters and numbers don't show anything other than what was calculated based upon a limited number of measured assessments, and an average at that. Those numbers could and often DO get skewed by external factors, even environmental ones (the room was hot, there was noise outside, the student didn't feel well the day of the test, etc. I used to verbally joust with my father over grades. He'd say what a great job I'd done, what a great report card, and I'd say to him "well... what does it mean? How do you know what I know? Do I actually KNOW things or did I get lucky on the tests? I pressed him for a definition of those A's and B's. A's were exceptional he said, A's meant I was smart he said. Bah, I said. Bah, I still say.

I need to insert a bit of a victory here. After I achieved my BA in English/ Writing from California State University at San Bernardino, I went on to graduate school at Vermont College of Fine Arts, seeking an MFA in Writing. I was amazed and delighted to find out that there were to be no letter or number grades attached to my work. I would, instead, be receiving an evaluation written as a narrative that would describe the projects I'd undertaken, the scope and engagement, the breadth of my reading, the writing I'd do my work ethic, and whether and to what degree I'd met my set goals. Weaknesses were to be pointed out with suggestions for direction, revision of plan, and problems I might avoid in successive semesters. A look at these evaluations and I'd be able to get a clear picture of my work and my results. Oh, and I need to add that self-review/evaluation was an integral part of the end-of-semester formula. The self-eval included a bit of goal-setting for moving forward. I could look back later and see whether I had stayed the course or veered and whether that was a good thing or not so great. Nothing was remotely vague or "standardized" about this system. I smiled at the way my desire for more reasonable grading was being met here. I only wished my father was alive to see that. OK, I wanted to gloat a bit.

Problem #4 Students

People who are promised rewards (or promised a withholding of rewards) for doing or filing to do something tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do. The reward, positive or negative, outstrips the activity. I suggest that the pleasure of doing, the pleasure of accomplishing is way more important. But then, how does one measure?

Studies in sociology have shown that, contrary to the conventional thinking, people who have been led to think about what they will receive for engaging in a task (or for doing it well) are apt to do lower quality work than those who are not expecting to get anything at all. In short, we do better at what we WANT to do, regardless of reward/punishment factors.

These findings are consistent across a variety of subject populations, rewards, and tasks, with the most destructive effects occurring in activities that require creativity or higher-order thinking. This effect produced by the extrinsic motivators known as grades has been documented with students of different ages and from different cultures. The findings are rarely cited by educators or administrators or school boards. It is another elephant in the room, or more accurately in the oatmeal.

Studies have shown that the more students are induced to think about what they will get (need to get) on an assignment, the more their desire to learn evaporates, and the less well they tend to do. I think this points to one of our better angels: we are strivers for the sake of striving, doers for the sake of doing. But those who inhabit the ivory towers insist on casting aside intrinsic values for extrinsic ones.

What I noticed, anecdotally, was that students were becoming "point-gatherers" and losing sight of the greater goal: actually KNOWING things. I didn't see this so much in high school. We were only slightly induced by grades (I wasn't much as I said before, preferring to know things and wanting to know more things than my peers, which is also a bad motivation overall). When I was in college finishing my BA in English/Creative Writing/Poetry, I saw the point gathering had escalated to unreasonable proportions.Some of my fellow students were obsessed with asking (begging) for extra credit work as early as the first week of classes. Aaaargh! I heard professor after professor say, nope...just do the actual work on the syllabus and you won't need extra credit. These students rarely did well on the assigned work and gained anxiety and stress as a result of worry over the points. This stance was befuddling to me. It was in no way logical thinking. Again, I was interested in KNOWING things (but certain that this obsession for being "the best" in any given class would LEAD to the points and grades I sought. I made myself sick of myself here. I was not being authentic in my approach. But, I still had as my prime mover the KNOWING. I was able to get back to my authentic self in grad school when there were not grades and there was not an ounce of competition. It was ALL about the work. I had found my safe place where values met outcome.

Then I took up teaching college English. Oy. Back to grades and point gathering. Back to anxiety in students and in me. I felt guilty "giving" an F, perhaps more guilty "giving" an A. It seemed so fake, so contrived, so unfair. But we work within the systems that hire us. So I undertook a radical method of point gathering. I assigned each student all their points the first day. All were perfect. Huh? Of course their job became KEEPING the points. At least I was being creative. At least I was showing the students an unbiased bit o' love. Hmmm. How did that work? Not so well. For some students, the idea was so foreign they couldn't cope. They didn't understand that each test would have a minus-something at the top and this represented points they lost. They wanted to know what that meant in terms of A, B, C, etc. They wanted extra credit right away. Oy again. I persisted in this, as I thought it might teach them to treasure and protect what they had. For some, this lesson was logical and worked. For others, it made me look like some kind of strange weirdo. Point taken.

Since 1893 we (the US) have been pretty much having onto a Titanic of a system. Slowly, since figuring out the No Child Left Behind was actually leaving everyone behind, schools and departments of education have been realizing we need a drastic overhaul of the system. Enter stage left: standards-based (think: proficiency-based) learning and grading. If we're careful (praying loudly here) we may end up being like my graduate program. Oh be still my pounding heart. "Make it so," as Capt. Picard of Star Trek used to say.

How will this animal function? you ask. How indeed will we have transcripts colleges will understand enough to accept our kids to post-secondary studies? Simple. Many many colleges already accept home-schoolers (looking at WHAT they have learned, sans the traditional grades). It will be a far easier shift for colleges than it will be for parents of points-gathering students. Here is the deal:

Let's say you are a student working in any subject area. You will have a plan for yourself that will include standards needing to be proven as met per particular subject area. Your plan will include small steps (foundational learning) and bigger ones (moving from general to specific learning targets within that subject area) that will lead to your demonstrating that you've mastered the subject to a certain proficiency. It's a "build upon the foundation" kind of thing. You (student) will KNOW what it is that you KNOW, and you will KNOW where you need help or time or effort. No competition with others, just with the material and yourself. Grading will be something like this: 1. not proficient, needs intervention or extra help 2. some proficiency (not mastery, but gaining ground with the subject matter) 3. mostly proficient (mastery at a reasonably high level of understanding) and 4. Proficient (mastery at a high level of understanding and application).

One of the beauties of this kind of learning plan (and its grading system) is that the student becomes an owner of the process and the outcome. Every student can have this kind of success. And because the key to mastery is mastery, not averaging, a student who works more slowly or has a bad day/semester/even year, is not penalized by dragging that not-so-stellar part of learning with him/her forever. Once mastery is reached, it is reached, no matter the route it took or the time.

I realize that I am merely skimming the surface herein. It is not my objective to take this lightly or to suggest that it will be an easy change. Not at all. All change is a bit fearful for many, a TREMENDOUSLY fearful thing for some. It is, however, a WAY to begin to shift the paradigm. It is a door opening and fresh air rushing in. It is hope that an antiquated system proven to NOT be working can be overhauled to begin working. School systems and district which are already doing this report successes. They report much higher levels of student engagement and we all agree that one of our biggest problems is retention and low graduation rates. Kids are BORED, feel "done to" rather than "worked with." If we only fix this part and keep kids engaged as stakeholders, we are miles ahead.

So... my suggestion here is this (in 3 parts):

1. encourage your school boards to consider standards-based learning and grading

2. tell your kids you are more interested in what they KNOW than their grades

3. think of your child as an explorer rather than a student, an explorer on a journey to knowledge and success and self-esteem.

I think that's enough from me for now. Let me hear from YOU.


  1. Interesting, Carol. When I was an adult ed teacher, teaching an English GCSE course, I refused to put grades on their work until we had to get a portfolio of it together for the exam, so they went from September through February without them. However, I wrote a detailed comment on every piece of work, and marked spelling and other technical errors, and expected them to review that and improve them. They were very uneasy at first, but actually in the end did better without the artificiality of grades.

  2. I think what kids (and parents) really want is a sense that something important is happening, something that will survive after formal educating is done: lifelong yearning for learning
    is a better goal than a GPA