Grading Rants for a Monday – Inspired by the Art of Possibility

High Speed Aerodynamics by o b s k u r a
High Speed Aerodynamics by o b s k u r a

One of the books that I use for my course is the inspirational The Art of Possibility and in one of the opening chapters the authors, Ben & Roz Zander, propose getting rid of grades. This usually invokes strong pros and cons reactions from my students. For example…

“The author of the book, “The Art of Possibility” made a statement that “not just in this case, but in most cases, grades say little about the work done.” This statement could not be more true. The first thing I thought about when reading this chapter is the meetings that I have sat in with administrators that have implied students should earn nothing less than a 50% and that is if they even fail. Today, we are educators, which work in a data driven education system where the author’s statement of this book could not be more applicable. Grades today do not reflect the work or worth of a student for the simple fact that, like Southern California, there are so many other places that are driven by political, or administrative, holds to influence their “data” and/or “funding.” by Melissa C.

Two of Melissa’s classmates responded:

“I feel the exact same way!!! My school wanted us to also not give students anything less than a 50% a couple of years ago and last year the 50% was raised to 60%. When we were told this many of us were livid! I felt like what was the point of grading work if we were just going to GIVE grades. Where is the “Truth in Grading”? Our system depends on data for funding and political purposes. Since our high school graduation rate was so low I believe this was a strategies used to improve it. I don’t understand how passing the children when they clearly have not mastered the material. Giving students a passing grade is being done on all levels and it is so frustrating when students come into my classroom and you are thinking they are on level and find out they are very far behind.” by Nicole

The second classmate said…

“I recently shared this chapter with some of my colleagues at school and you should’ve heard the gasps of horror when I proposed that grades mean a lot less than we think. Of course, they all seem to agree that the way schools are “graded” according to NCLB is unfair. Talk about a double standard. In all actuality, grades can be a good way to provide feedback to students as long as what we are really assessing is mastery. Then again, there are a lot of better ways than grades to do that. I feel lucky that my administrator feels the same way I do (he has also read this book). Unfortunately, we have a steep hill to climb to get everyone on the same page.” by Noel

Being the class professor I had to add my two-cents:

So, part of the problem is that grades are meant to be a way to communicate progress, but rather than track the progress of the learner, they tend to be a crude measure kind of like the height requirement before a little kid could get on a rollercoaster, “rider must be this tall to ride this ride.” It doesn’t tell us anything except for that one data point. So in many ways it fails in it’s primary task. Worse than that is that this crude measure becomes the goal, when what the student is capable might be far beyond “the goal.”

artofpossibilitycoverNow your concern is a bit different because administrators are trying to keep students from digging themselves into a hole that they cannot get out of, because if they fail to turn in the first of three assignments, for example, they cannot make up the points needed to pass if they get a zero out of one-hundred the first time out. Now the grade is being used as an accounting tool that needs to be tweaked, which should be a sure sign that something’s amiss. There are some fundamental issues being lost in the need to show a number, forgetting that there might be dozens of reasons for the student not turning in an assignment, beginning with a basic cultural conflict between the needs of the school and the pressures at home and that the student probably can’t read. This is where data is the enemy because it provides excuses and allows decision-makers to hide from the truth that this section of the community/school wall is completely broken and needs more than meetings and studies to repair it.

image: High Speed Aerodynamics by o b s k u r a, retrieved on 10/31/2009

Week 3 – Giving an A by Melissa Clark (with comments by Nicole and Noel), retrieved on 10/31/2009

image: Cover of “The Art of Possibility” from Google Books, retrieved on 10/31/2009