03 May 2013

I was a straight (no grade assigned) student

There has been a lot of chatter out there in Internet and television land about how American education is broken. Hell, there's been a lot of chatter on this blog about how American education is broken. (for the record, you could pretty easily just read all of the posts here at the Blaze of Competence if you wanted to hear read about me rant how American education is broken.) There are as many different proposals for fixing it as there are commentators. 

One of the newest fixes for education is the movement to do away with grading. This article from Slate does a nice job of summarizing the history of grades, and the movements to educate kids without grades. You should go read it now. I'll wait.

Back? Good. 

I think that there are interesting points to be made there. Grades do hurt self-esteem. Grades are (often) a poor indicator of how a student actually is performing in a classroom. They are arbitrary, there is very little indicated by a grade, and they often don't even mean the same thing from classroom to classroom. My A is different from the A's kids earn in the rooms on either side of me. 

The proponents of going grade-free argue for a more holistic approach to teaching, and to learning, and to evaluating how students are learning. This sounds very pleasant, very nice, exceptionally wholesome, and I would be all for it. There are just a couple of "real-world" problems that I think prohibit a large-scale transition to a gradeless utopia. I say "utopia" non-sarcastically. I genuinely think that if we could solve all of the problems I'm about to list, we would fix most of what's wrong with education. I just don't think we can solve these problems, and that's why education is broken in the first place. Seriously, if one guy with a blog that about 30 people read can come up with these ideas, they aren't rocket science. I'm basically making the educational argument of "if we could just figure out the cure for cancer, no one would die from cancer anymore."

Problem the first:

Grades are something, for better or for worse, that society, kids, parents, and employers understand. 

Let's be perfectly frank here; when a report card goes home, parents are looking for a quick and dirty evaluation of how their kid is doing in school. Parents understand the A-F system. If we sent home a more nuanced letter, especially at the high school level, many parents would have a very hard time figuring out how their child is performing. They would call and ask (I suspect verbatim), "So, what grade did he get?"

It's not just parents. Certainly kids could easily be taught to understand a new grading system, we teach them A-F already, we could easily teach them a new evaluative tool. However, colleges would struggle. How do you admit a kid who has no GPA? How do you evaluate them versus their peers? It becomes much more difficult, although it does solve the problem of grade inflation (which I very tangentially discussed in this post. To answer your question: yes, I am attempting to link to every single previous BlazeBlog entry in this post.) Grades are used (and continue to be used) because they are a nice shortcut, with relative universality in public schools (A is good, F is not) and because they are easy to transfer.  The same is true of employers. Every teacher will vouch for those students who excel; their success is our job. How will employers compare one graduate against another? More than just grade cards will have to change if we abolish grades. All of society will have to shift how it evaluates success.

Problem the second:

Doing away with grades allows bad and lazy teachers to become worse and lazier. 

If we did away with grades, I suspect that we would move to a much more nuanced system of evaluation. The problem is that those teachers who are lazy or unskilled would no longer have the specter of a gradebook hovering over them to make sure they are at least doing some form of work. Right now, if I'm not keeping my gradebook up to date with grades that parents can check out, then I hear about it from parents and administrators. This wasn't the case 15 years ago, but with the advent of online gradebooks, the reality is that people can keep track of what I'm doing from a grading standpoint quickly and easily. Without letter grades, that would be harder to track that most basic effort of teaching.

Sadly, by taking away that accountability, we would open the doors for more teachers to do less work. If grades were less formulaic, and more subjective, bad teachers would simply give grades based on "feelings" instead of actual observations. Taking away grades would also be confusing for many teachers. We were raised and taught in a system that was all about grades. If we took away letter grades, and moved to a system that was more whole student driven, many less open-minded teachers would have kittens, so to speak.

Also, many bad teachers (and many good teachers, for that matter) are completion driven. Finish this worksheet, outline these pages, answer those questions. If that's how you measure learning, it's pretty hard to do without letter grades, because students don't really demonstrate growth or change on a worksheet; they demonstrate how well they could look up answers. 

Problem the third:

Classes are too large to effectively measure students in any manner other than keeping track of points. 

Let's be perfectly frank; classes in American schools keep getting bigger because budgets for American schools keep getting smaller. (which, shockingly, I've written about before. (the class sizes, not the budgets. Well, I have written about the budgets, here)). As class size gets larger, teachers, because of the constraints of time and psychology, (not to mention thermodynamics) are forced into moving to systems that grade based less on the whole student and their growth, and more on the ability of the student to complete tasks. Hopefully, the tasks have been designed to force the student into academic growth and critical thought, but in reality most of them are graded for doing the assignment. In my AP Government class, I have 13 kids. I can tell you where each one of them struggles, and I could easily write a paragraph of strengths, weaknesses, and growth on a report card for each of them. In one of my World Geography classes, I have 39 kids. I could do that same report card for about 20 of them, but there's half of that class who I could tell you their grade, but I would struggle to explain how they've grown, or what they are good or bad at. There are simply too many of them. 

American schools need to shrink class sizes for a myriad of reasons, even if they aren't going to get rid of letter grades. Things like feedback, evaluation of skills, and even basic classroom management all degrade as class sizes increase. This is especially true at the Middle and High School levels, where teachers are teaching multiple sections and thus increasing each section by just one kid increases total work load by 7-8 kids. 

Problem the fourth:

Money.

Instituting a system of nuanced grading (and I have no real idea how to do this, by the way) would be prohibitively expensive. You would need massive campaigns to train teachers, educate parents and develop new reporting systems. You would need smaller classes. You would have to pay for programs to evaluate how well you were evaluating. And all of those precious state tests? They'd have to be scrapped and re-designed. Actually, a re-design of tests would mean millions for Pearson and ETS. Maybe they can start to lobby for a move away from grades, since they are the only people in education with enough money to lobby effectively. 

So, what's the solution?

At some point on this blog, back near the beginning, I said that I didn't want to complain without offering solutions. (actually untrue. I said that I would just complain, and that it would be cathartic) Anyway, I think that to find the solution, we need to ask ourselves what problem we're trying to solve. If we think that grades are the problem, we need to ask why grades are the problem. Here's why I think grades are the problem: it isn't that grades are the problem, it's what we grade that is the problem. 

Think about it. What do we grade? We grade academics only. Is that all we want to know about students? I would hope not. We want to know about how they operate socially. Employers want to know if they show up on time. Colleges want to know if they have the skills to succeed at that level. 

This is the crux of the problem with education. We have simply stopped evaluating anything that is difficult or subjective. We no longer give citizenship grades, we long ago stopped evaluating handwriting. Even in this new Internet driven era, we haven't begun to evaluate things like "digital literacy" or creativity and teamwork, which are things that employers tell us they desperately want for students. These things are difficult to evaluate in any non-subjective way. How do you award points for "creativity"? What does the rubric for teamwork look like?

Education, as a culture, must find ways to evaluate those things. I'm not sure how (quite yet) of how we do that, but it's going to require flexibility from the data police, (who want everything to be evaluated in concrete objective ways) flexibility from parents who want to know "why" their kid got the grade she got, and flexibility from teachers, especially the old school crew who love to give book work and worksheets. 

I don't think it's time to scrap grades, I think it's time to grade the things that matter.

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