What Does a Grade Mean?

After establishing what a grade or assessment is, we move on to the issue of what it indicates or means.

If a grade indicates the teacher’s assessment of learning, then we have to distinguish between the “kinds” of learning occurring.  The first distinction I would make is between Arts and Sciences.  In short, we teach students either to do or to know.  A full discussion of this can be found here, but you can’t teach, or assess, these two things the same.  An art (the ability to do something) is not taught or tested in the same way as a science (something we learn intellectually or that which we know).

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As I see it, the following are at the very least the ways in which these things must be assessed differently.  In the arts we seek to judge how well the art is able to be done.  This further breaks down into those who have obtained enough of the ability that they can be said to be able to do “x.”  These assessments of basic ability, when done correctly, indicate that Johnny can dribble a basketball and Susie cannot, etc. But most times, the instruction is more than just distinguishing between those who can or cannot, but how well one can do the thing being taught compared either to other artists or to some standard for that art.  Here the task of assessment is to demonstrate a growing ability with the art.  “You started at this level and have progressed further to this current level.”  This is demonstrated well by such things as various karate belt colors.  You progress from white, to yellow, to gold, orange, green, blue, purple, brown, red and eventually finally to black (which then even has degrees within its highest distinction).  The color around your waist is an instantaneous indicator to all who care with what level of proficiency you have progressed through your karate training.  And that leads to the final act of assessment in the arts.  Though no art is ever perfected in a human, there are masters of the art, and at some point one must be judged such, usually demonstrating their readiness to leave formal training in that art and become a teacher of the art themselves.

The sciences are taught and assessed quite a bit differently.  I must reiterate from other discussions on this that Arts and Sciences work together.  Confusing the two is problematic to be sure, but sealing them off hermetically from each is equally harmful.  At least three things are assessed in a student’s growing knowledge of a subject: the level of knowledge, the student’s competency of that knowledge, and his ability to integrate his knowledge of the subject with the rest of his life.  The first is often what most people default to in educational assessment:  “How much do you know about the subject.”  But most teachers want students to know the material in such a way as to be able to connect the content together into something like understanding.  Given that these things (the knowledge) are so, how does fact A connect to and affect facts B, C, and D?  And this simply leads right into the third aspect of this mode of assessment:  how does subject A integrate or fit into the other subjects or “sciences” of life.  See my discussion here of the four sciences and how they are used to better educate the whole student.

So a grade or assessment shows a great number of things, depending on what is being assessed.  The last question for this blog is just as fundamental:  Who wants to know?  As an assessment is a judgment being made, it seems the main purpose of the grade is to communicate the judgment among all involved parties.  I think the teacher, student, and depending on the age, the parent behind the student, want to know the judgment contained in an assessment.  The teacher can use assessment to better his teaching, determine the progress of his students, and be clear with student and parent where he thinks the learning process currently resides.  A student is able to adjust his learning experience based on this feedback from his teacher.  And the parent, who is often funding and responsible ultimately for the learning going on, but not in the classroom, is able to know how things are progressing.

Some of the following questions flow out of these thoughts:

  1. How individual or collective can assessment be? Can the same assessment judge all students, or should there be individual tests for all?  The whole standardized testing thing comes into the discussion here.
  2. How objective or subjective is a grade? What can affect the objectivity/subjectivity of assessment? [I wander over into this sticky mud hole in my next blog].
  3. Should teachers seek premade test banks or make all their own assessments?
  4. If the arts and sciences are assessed differently but their grades appear side by side on a “report card” what is to be done to avoid the common confusion of these things?
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A Deepening Contemplation

I have been spending a lot of time lately trying to think with others about how the seven liberal arts, the four sciences, a Christian idea of epistemology, and the modes of knowledge of all work together.  It is deep, demanding, and greatly rewarding.  If you have not seen it, here is a chart from James Taylor that has fed much of my thought.

It is from page 44 of his work, Poetic Knowledge, which I highly value and highly recommend.

Taylors Chart of Knowledge