Why Give a Student a Grade and What Does it Mean When I Do?

The beating heart of the classroom these days seems to be located in assessing what has been learned.  Every student seems to solely motivated by the grade earned.  Parents are engaged upon seeing a poor grade, and little else sees them darken the classroom door.  The pulse of education especially in high school when facing college entrance is the grade point average.  This has resulted in many calling for one reform of grading or another.  Moving from letter grades to number grades brought more objectivity according to many educators’ minds.

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Some have attempted to reform education by changing the scale of grading percentages (adopting the “tough scale” of 7% or the like).  Others have called for the complete abolition of numerics.   There is a growing group of educators who believe the whole grading idea needs to be eliminated.  What do grades do for education anyway?  Are they not simply an old and elitist form of falsely separating students into meaningless groups?  Should grades and test scores be the end all source for assessing success in the classroom, determining what schools continue and which ones close, and generally being the currency of education?

I will leave my diatribe against compulsory education at the door and seek here to only set down my thesis concerning the necessity of grading and its subjective nature.  Let me take each in turn.

Both teacher and student need some form of assessment to culminate a lesson.  I have explained elsewhere (both here and here) how I believe that a formal lesson should follow a series of advancements and be based upon the embodiment of an idea.  As both Plato taught us in The Republic and Paul taught us in his epistles, we learn by seeing and being taught to follow and Ideal.  Paul shows us that the Ideal is in fact the Person of Christ.  All true education grows out of Paul’s invitation to follow him as he follows Christ.

This means that all true education is the cultivation of a relationship with the Logos, the source of all wisdom and virtue.  It does not end with knowledge, but knowledge leads toward understanding, and understanding finalizes itself in wisdom.  All education begins and ends in the Incarnation.  This is the basis I have for offering any assessment to my students.  To what extent has the student embodied the Truth through this lesson?  From this question flows all my consideration of assessing both the student’s progress and my own ability to teach it to them.

When man first began formally educating students through a teacher other than his parent, the practice of communicating progress had to become formalized as well.  A parent with their child simply never stops teaching.  There is no graduation from that process.  If the relationship is at it should be, there comes a time when a child will leave their father and mother, but the child will always honor the parent’s input into his or her life.  The marvelous thing is that upon leaving, many a child actually wants the parent’s input more than when living in the home.  But once a parent asks another adult to help educate their child, the parent will want to know how the study is going.  And because a stranger is now training them, the student needs more than a look of the eye or body language to tell them how they are progressing as well.  Some form must make the progress assessment formal.

Throughout much of Western history, this was the simple method of what we would now call Pass/Fail.  You studied until you knew.  You moved on when you should, when you were determined to be ready by your teacher.  This implied having very few teachers who knew you very well.  It was the age of general or liberal education.  The ideal being embodied was that of becoming wise and virtuous, able to stand on your own two feet in the grown up world.  In short, education was normative.  You were ready when those older than you said you were.

But when the definition of education began to be disagreed upon, especially at the close of the 19th century, this formal conversation between teacher, student, and parent was no longer able to remain so simple.  As a greater percentage of our youth pursued more and more formal education, or to say it another way, as teaching became more specialized and brought more teachers into contact with each student, there was a desire to move the student from being the subject of education to an object of education.  This changed how teachers graded their students.

This brought the letter grade into existence.  A teacher now stated where in the group of students, who were all still pursuing an ideal, a given student fell in their progress.  This student was excelling, at the top of his class, the best at the given study, and therefore was given the highest mark, an “A.”  But another student was simply doing average work, so he received a “B” or a “C.”  But what of the student simply not ready to pace with the other students he began with?  Well, he had failed to keep up, and must stay while the others pass on.  Eventual, to make it clear, he was given an “F.”  The teacher, student, and parent all knew where the student stood in his progress.

This brings us to the final turn history of grading.  Once the student became an object within the system of education (brought about by the compelling of all American children to be in school) and the analogy of education moved from that of a garden to that of the factory, all involved in the educational process needed a more quantified means of assessment.  So the letter grade moved to a percentage scale.  It was no longer enough to state a letter in assessing, but rather now there was a difference between an 88 and an 83 in class.  All grades were computed off the rubric of the percentage correct a student received on a written test.  This removed (supposedly) the subjective teacher opinion and replaced it with hard or objective numbers.

Of course, all grading is still subjective, but it now has the appearance of being objective.  Instead of a direct relating of the teacher’s expertise through a “B” the student is now given written assessments that produce the grade.  The 85 is “earned.”  But who taught the material to the student?  Who chose the content of the course?  Who wrote the test?  Who graded it?  Who chose to “curve” the grades?  Who still gives a participation grade?  Overlooking all these subjective elements, the quest for objectivity seems to have been completed.

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With these thoughts spelled out, I am left with the following shorter notes on what can be said about the nature of communicating assessment between teacher, parent, student, and future schools the student may apply to (college being the most obvious).

  1. Grading scales do not change the rigor of any school’s academics, if the teachers are competent and engaged with the students.  I could prove this in several ways, but will use an easy example.  How many graduate schools, which typically require maintaining either an “A” or “B” average actually drum out any more students than do undergraduate programs?  Statistically it is moot.  Teachers, knowing the scale, adjust to make sure that the “bell curve” is maintained.
  2. Grades depend upon what is communicated through their use. In today’s world of grade inflation, they communicate less and less. The one hope that can still be maintained is some sense of continuity and commonality.  Within a school, I believe all teachers and all classes should be on the same scale.  It seems impossible to gain any continuance or commonality beyond the walls of a given school.  In other words, an “A” in one school could easily be a “B” or a “C” somewhere else.  But in most schools today, there are two or even three levels of grading within the walls:  Basic, College Prep, Honors, AP, etc.  Each of these usually has a different form or scale for assessment.  I believe this is confusing and generally a bad idea for communicating progress.
  3. The mission of a school should determine how it behaves. If a school has a mission to prepare its students for college, then it would seem using a form that emulates that future form of communication would be most likely to bring continuity and real communication. Because of that desire, colleges already take all numerics or letter grades and translate them into a new form (the 4 point scale) that is different from either percentage or letter grades, though almost a one to one correlation with letter grades.

My main concern throughout this meditation is honesty.  There is no such thing as an objective grade.  All grades are the communicating of hopefully an excellent teacher to both his student and the parents as to the current progress of that student in the curriculum.  Beyond that, we are grasping at the wind.

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