What should grades include?

Now that Martha has shown me up, I figured it was time for me to blog again. 😉  I have four posts in the pipeline right now that I need to publish–really, I do.   This post began as a link to the article I mention below on our Teaching Center website, http://TeachUMW.org.   Upon reflection, I realized I had more to say on the topic than just to refer readers to an interesting article, so here goes.

If you’ve read my blog, you know I’ve thought a great deal about the question posed in the title above.  A couple of weeks ago I participated in a discussion on the extent to which one could use grades for program and institutional assessment.  The major take-away from the discussion was the point that only part of what goes into grades reflects what students know or have learned.  That is the part that can appropriately be used for assessment.  The rest of grades measure student effort or other aspects of “good citizenship” in the classroom.

This distinction was amplified in in a recent New York Times article “A’s for Good Behavior”.   “Standards-based grading/education” seems like it should be a good thing.  I have spent a lot of time in recent years thinking carefully about how to assess the skills and concepts that I want my students to learn.  Consider how much of published test banks ask questions which don’t do that.  Part of that reflects the fact that texts try to allow instructors to teach in a variety of ways, to emphasize different aspects of the material so uncareful (or random)  selection of questions from the testbank may well yield questions which assess material that either wasn’t covered in the course or wasn’t central to it.  Sometimes it’s hard to find enough good questions, and when pressed for time teachers just plug questions in to fill out the exam.   But I digress.

Why do we give students credit for things that don’t measure mastery of the material?  The NYT article implies that this is wrong-headed.   I give credit for effort, not because effort is “good behavior,” but because effort leads to mastery.  Many people believe the myth that most accomplished people have natural talent, rather than that accomplished people have gotten to where they are by working to cultivate what talent they have.   If I can encourage students  with grade incentives, I hope that will also lead to learning.  In a sense, I am recognizing that students target grades, rather than learning.  Of course, that’s a slippery slope.  My students don’t need any encouragement to value grades over learning.  It’s understandable, even rational that they do, but it’s a mistake since it undercuts the reason for education.

Standards-based grading isn’t as pure as one might think. In principle, we should only count what students know at the end of the course.  Yet, we usually count mid-term examinations in our grading.  And what about homework which is graded on correctness (as opposed to effort).   On the other hand, putting all the weight of a final grade on a final exam can easily cause students to perform at a lower level than they are able—for example, I’ve found that final exam grades decline the later in the final exam period they occur.

All of this may beg a more important issue:  When students focus on grades (and perhaps when teachers focus on standards-based grading like the Virginia Standards of Learning or similar No-Child-Left Behind metrics), there is a tendency to emphasize what Bain & Zimmerman term “shallow learning,” in which students memorize for the test and then forget it afterwards.  This is the real problem of a system when students focus on grades rather than “deep learning,” that is, learning for real.  All the blame doesn’t go on students–I am sure that NCLB leads at least some teachers to teach-to-the-test, where the test is the point rather than the learning.  In recent years, I have begun to see large proportions of students who haven’t learned to think critically or write at the university level before they enter higher education.  But this is a subject for another post.

Which brings me back to the NYT article.  When I began to read it, I was intrigued:  What could be wrong witht standards-based learning?  The more I read, though, the more I began to worry about the tendency we all have to take the easy way out:  to assess what is easy to articulate and easy to test, for example, lower-level cognitive skills.   Is then, the solution to abstain from thinking carefully about one’s learning objectives, one’s teaching strategy, and the way one goes about assessing student learning?  I don’t think that’s the solution.  Rather, I think we need to keep focus on what should be our goal:  Teaching for deep learning, and doing our best to assess that, not settling for assessment which is easy but invalid.

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2 Responses to What should grades include?

  1. Gardner says:

    Great post. I wish you posted more often, but heck, I wish *I* posted more often, and I should get my own house in order first.


    1. What is the reason for education? Seems to me we’re not doing a very good job of articulating that. It’s a surprisingly complex question with a whole host of threadbare answers. But asking the question as complexly as possible with as many difficult, tension-filled answers as possible is worthwhile, I think, since I don’t believe Occam’s Razor applies to the glorious complexities of cognition.

    2. Everyone wants easy, fast, scalable assessment. I’m routinely shocked by how cynical and shallow most thinking about assessment is. By contrast, Chuck Dziuban’s recent work on ambivalence points to hitherto unexplored areas of thought in this realm. One early conclusion is that we need to assess assessment, and without this meta layer our work will always be thin, self-validating, and damaging.

    3. The whole problem of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation goes deep here, since assessment itself can become a mode of extrinsic motivation in which Campbell’s Law (q.v.) comes roaring into view and everything becomes a species of grade-grubbing. Multimodal assessment is vital to avoid Campbell’s Law, but ah, that takes time, and it’s not easily limited to one theoretical model….

    There is no rule 4.


  2. Jenny says:

    If any of your kids are still elementary age, you should be seeing a new progress report for them soon. We are trying to move to standards based grading in the elementary years. We’re not ready to ignore things like effort so there is a separate place for that. It doesn’t impact their academic grade because that should solely report what they know.

    I guess, to me, one of the big questions is the purpose of grades. At the elementary level the main purpose is to communicate student progress to parents. If so, then we want the clearest way to do that. Standards based grading makes the child’s academic progress clear.

    If the purpose of grades is something else, then we might want to look at them differently.

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