Monday, September 22, 2008

Grades Are Stupid

It's late. My title is needlessly acerbic. My post will be short. I may write more on this later.

I complained an awful lot about the meaninglessness of grades when I was a student. But when I taught I found out how ridiculous they really are. The bottom line is really that teachers are forced to reduce an entire semester or year's worth of interaction and work to one rating. Which isn't entirely devoid of utility. But when you consider all of the rules, regulations, semantics, and politics that go into grading, then the utility dwindles pretty close to zero.

When I was teaching, students were given number grades. Teachers could give students any of the following grades: 50, 55, 65, 70, 75, 80, 85, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100. Grades below 50 weren't allowed b/c it would make it too hard for a student to pass for the year if they had a grade below 50 one quarter. 60 wasn't allowed because that was the pass/fail cutoff and they didn't want ambiguity. I have no idea why intervals of 5 were used below 90 and intervals of 1 were used above.

Maybe somebody from NYC was hired by Pittsburgh, because they've adopted one of these rules -- except in a much more bureaucratic and absurd way. The minimum grade a student can receive on any assignment in Pittsburgh is now 50. I'm unclear as to whether a student is given a 50 on an assignment if they fail to complete it.

The motivation behind the policy is sound -- they want to prevent kids from losing hope and, simultaneously, have more kids passing. But, in my mind at least, such an inane rule simply proves that the system is ridiculous to begin with. I'll leave you with my favorite quote from the article:

"one teacher . . . already worries about how awkward it will look when a student correctly answers three of 10 questions on a math quiz -- and gets a 50 percent"


Nancy Flanagan said...

Speaking as a person who once took some amused exception to one of your blog titles (see "Does Teacher Opinion Matter?" in June), I fully agree that grades are, in fact, stupid.

Grading--assigning numerical value to student work (or, God help us, "effort") is a relatively new technology (200 years or so) but one that has embedded itself into educational thinking and practice like concrete. And in spite of the fact that everyone knows that grading is largely subjective, context-dependent, and wide open to all kinds of measurement mischief.

Your specific issue--no grade lower than 50%--is a hot, hot topic these days. You can go to entire day-long workshops on this issue, and I've been involved in listserv discussions with hundreds of passionate posts.

This isn't about giving someone half credit for work they didn't do (or did extremely poorly). It's about scale. We all like 100, but it's not the only assessment scale, and it tends to push kids' overall numbers into "fail" territory very quickly. And a kid who sees that even if he gets 90+ on every subsequent assignment will still fail the marking period is a kid you'll be getting nothing from, because...why bother?

If schools routinely used other scales (like a 1 to 4 scale, for example) a single negative grade has less impact on the overall average. Some teachers use median or modal schemes. In the end, the way you deal with the numbers ends up being the biggest factor in the ultimate grade assigned, not the relative quality of the work--and not, of course, what the student has learned, which should be primary.

I hate grades, too.

Brian Rude said...

I can sympathize at least a little bit with your thoughts, but maybe not too much. Certainly giving grades is one of the less pleasant parts of teaching. We have to make judgments about people, and some of those judgments will be negative. But in the past I have always concluded that it's better to have grades than not. Grades are an important part of a total system that does produce results. The young do get educated. It's an imperfect system, to be sure, and it produces very imperfect results. But what alternatives do you envision?

If you envision children and adults learning just for the joy of learning, students listening carefully to teachers just because they are interested, students practicing on algebra problems just because they want to understand algebra, students reading history just because they want to learn history. . . . . . . . Well, these things do happen. I have done them myself all my life. However I have never come to the conclusion that interest alone is sufficient to base a system of education on. The artificial rewards and punishments that have developed over the years serve a purpose in motivation.

Some idealists want to get rid of competition in the schools. I take a different view. I observe that many competitions arise naturally whether we like it or not. I think we should give a lot closer attention to the idea that adolescence is characterized by emerging competitions. Young people typically choose an arena to compete in, often very informally and even subconsciously, but sometimes intensely. The "popular crowd" and the "nerds" are differing arenas of competition, as are athletics and academics. There is no way in the world that we could prevent these natural competitions from emerging, just as a result of normal people doing what they naturally do. So everyone needs to learn how to handle competition. The schools can do much to this end. And they ought to. Grades form a part of this world of competition, a constructive part in my view.

And I also observe that society needs judgments about the accomplishments of people. Parents want honest and accurate information about their children. Employers want honest and accurate information about potential workers. Voters likewise. No system exists to give perfect information to anyone about anyone, but grades and degrees are still very valuable information.

So I think grades are here to stay. The question is how to use them most effectively.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

BR: My problem isn't that grades have no utility, it's that a particular grade doesn't mean all that much

Roger Sweeny said...

a particular grade doesn't mean all that much

Neither does a particular age. But we have ages at which people can legally enter into contracts, join the military, drive, vote, and a host of other things.

And a particular grade does mean a fair amount. It tells how well a kid did "what was expected of him" relative to his peers. That's actually a hell of a lot.

Roger Sweeny said...

A grade also tells whether the student did at least the minimally acceptable, i.e. whether the kid passed or not.

Students develop a fairly good sense of what they have to do to pass. Failure to pass is good evidence that the kid didn't try, or doesn't have much in the competence department, or both. If I was a potential employer or college admissions officer, I would want to know that.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

A pattern of grades certainly give you some information about a student, but one single grade really doesn't tell you that much.

Roger Sweeny said...

A pattern of grades certainly give you some information about a student, but one single grade really doesn't tell you that much.

Absolutely. The fact that team A beat team B 12-3 on August 2 doesn't meant much. The fact that team A finished with 100 wins and team B finished with 60 wins means a lot.

The fact that one particular game doesn't mean much is no reason to avoid keeping score.