Monday, March 29, 2010

Monday Meditation: Grades?

I have a lot of other things to meditate about, but the topic of grades is most timely because I just finished narrative reports. In particular, I'm thinking about some quotes I'm reviewing as part of my contribution to my school's review of its grading policy. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on them:

"Schools use grades because it's one of those things somebody once decided on and now everybody just goes along with it." (Littky, 2004)

"Students see their schoolwork as a game they play for grades." (Winger, 2005)

"Grading and reporting student achievement is a caring, sensitive process that requires teachers' professional judgment. (Cooper, 2007)

"A profound cultural transformation [would be] classrooms in which both students and teachers focus on learning, not grades." (Shepard, 2005)

I don't have a problem with any of these. In fact, I accept them as fact, based on my own professional experience. The one that follows, however, really has me pondering because it implicitly suggests something many teachers, parents, students and government officials fear to consider:

"In a perfect world there would be no grades--at least as we know them now." (Brookhart, 2004)

So, why are we so tied to grades? What might a student's classroom experience be like if there weren't any? What choices would schools and people have to make in order to create a viable learning and system without grades as we know them? What are your thoughts?


the passionate hairdresser said...

I think the student's experience would be less stressful if there were no grades. However, being a parent, I like grades. They tell me, at a glance, whether or not my child is understanding and making the effort regarding the material presented. But, you knew that already... :)

Diane Echlin said...

Would you propose moving to a strictly pass/fail model?

Is it crazy to wish for portfolio based evaluation, delivered in an infinite modes of expression, say, like Marlboro?

Wayfarer said...

Beth: The issue of convenience is one that we've talked a lot about at my school, and we're investigating ways to communicate both conveniently and accurately about student achievement. We're convinced that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Diane: Portfolio-based assessment has a place in my school's world in much the same way that it does at Marlboro -- toward the end of a student's time at the school. The thing we wrestle with here is how portfolios fit into a larger system of assessment for individual courses. Sometimes, they're not the best or easiest way to look at student progress. I like them, though, because they promote responsibility and self-reflection. How good is this work really? Is it my best effort? How can I keep it safe until the end of the year? These are questions my students just don't ask often enough.

To answer your question about the Pass/Fail model, my thinking is that it misses the point, but to say why is requires a long explanation. For my school and my classes, in particular, the better question to pose might be "Is the student prepared to move on, and to where?" I'm sure I'll post more about this, but I'm still working through the reproductive rights question. I can handle one big thought like that at a time.

Diane said...

Brian, I appreciate your thoughtfulness on this topic, and I'll continue to follow the comments.

Personally, I don't think pass/fail is that great of an option unless the standard for passing is *very* high, and assignments/rubrics are made incredibly detailed in such a way as to provide a roadmap for success.

We have to have some idea of the value of competence versus mastery, and apply them where is each concept appropriate.

Wayfarer said...

I don't disagree, Diane.

I've just started reading an interesting book as part of my work on my school's steering committee around the grades question:

How to Grade for Learning (O'Connor, 2009)

It does a great job of calling into question all those "traditional" practices we in education accept as standard practice. I haven't even finished reading it yet, but it's one I recommend to anyone interested in exploring how schools might better construct grades to support, honor and document student achievement.