Tuesday, May 21, 2013

As a Student, I Thought Grades Were Stupid; I Was Right

In this age of educational "accountability," more pressure than ever has been put on teachers, schools and now students to show continuous improvement in the Common Core subjects that have been determined to be vital to our nation's future competitiveness. For that reason, understanding what a student knows and is able to do, and the progress that they are making in meeting those important skills and competencies, is vital. So why are do we give students grades?

One reason for grading students is to be able to label them on the basis of their academic performance and then sort them into various categories in order to, theoretically, better educate them. Of course, "tracking" of students or segregating them into "ability" levels has a long and storied history of being ineffective for the "lower end" students.  Mountains of research have shown this archaic practice does more harm than good for everyone but the "elite" students. Grades, in general, are a relic of 19th century schools designed to sort out the factory workers from the various different levels of white collar opportunities at those same factories. The inherent problem with this practice is that the process of sorting and grading is often incompatible with the goal of having students learn. 

People learn best while doing so cooperatively and in groups, whether these groups are in a conference room or meet virtually, as they do in "chats" on Twitter or groups on Google+. Our individual knowledge, experiences and viewpoints benefit others in the learning conversation, as does helping one another. However, concerns over how to give individuals credit and appropriate grades for their individual contributions often get in the way of true student collaborative efforts.

In today's global workplaces people work cooperatively, sometimes in various parts of the world, to solve problems. But grades force individuals to compete with one another, not cooperate. Schools are virtually the only place on earth where people are forced to learn and work competitively rather than cooperatively with peers. 

Learning in order to take a test in order to earn a grade is not learning, it's compliance and competitive memorization. How many of those tests, quizzes and exams that you received "A" grades on in school could you take now and pass?  Where else but in education do you fail at something important or partially obtain success and then simply move on to the next task, ignoring the fact that you are leaving your prior lack of progress behind? Why "learn" something just so you can take a test and then empty it from your head and move on to another pile of information that will be flushed from your brain's RAM the moment that the test is over? All of this in the name of GPA or class rank or some other trophy that rewards the students who are experts and effective temporary memorization? And what if you aren't one of those students? What if self confidence or competition isn't your thing? What if it's the start of the 3rd quarter and your grade has already mathematically eliminated you from passing for the year? What's the point?

But competition is good, you say. Doesn't competition better prepare our kids for a global marketplace? A marketplace where, we are often told by education "reformers," that we are falling behind?  Tell me about one environment where people work and get performance evaluations that say you are an 83 to the company, or a B for the year. What does that even mean? Let's not even get into the fact that a number or letter grade has been shown to be so ridiculously subjective, arbitrary and lacking in inter-rater reliability that any grade is pretty much worthless. I could (and may) write another whole post about how grades often get subterfuged by add ons like homework, compliance points, keeping a neat notebook, class participation and other factors that have nothing to do with progress or learning. So why do we continue to do this?

Why do we still believe that grades actually prepare kids for anything? Wouldn't individual, authentic narrative feedback on a student's progress be more effective and support their learning every day of the year? If we took the competition out of schools and allowed students to work together and learn together and help one another, focusing their energy on improving themselves every day- based on real feedback of progress towards a learning goal- wouldn't that create many new opportunities for engaging work? Wouldn't it reduce student's stress? Wouldn't kids actually learn?

Would you hire a contractor who was great at taking tests or would you prefer one with an extensive portfolio and references? Why would you want less for your child's education?

1 comment:

  1. Great Questions. Have you tried alternatives? I am exploring them at the classroom level; then what? Department and school discussions?