Questionable Grades

Some questions about grading that come from a discussion I am having at my school:

Questions of Diversity (are all grades the same):

  1. Why do some teachers use percentages of right answers, others use letter grades, some use Pass/Fail, and still others some other measurement of grading?
  2. What are the differences in grading by individual, by group, or by independent standards?
  3. Should all students be graded in the same manner? In what cases, if any, would there be differences?

Questions of Gestation (by what means are grades brought into being):

  1. How do grades differ when gathered from test data, performance, participation, or simply put, from what students know versus what they do?
  2. How do the limitations of a teacher’s knowledge, experience, assessment forming skills, and opinions affect the assigning of grades to a specific assessment? In other words, can a grade be objective despite the subjective nature of a teacher and teaching?
  3. How does a teacher grade self-expression (art, poetry, music, etc.)?
  4. If grading by percentage of correct responses, should a teacher expect all students to arrive at the “right” answer in the same way, or allow for creativity and imagination, only grading the result and not the path to the answer? What would this imply for science and math grades?

Questions of Communication (what does a grade imply or speak to):

  1. What does a grade measure?
  2. What does a grade communicate to the student and parent?
  3. What should a grade tell a teacher?
  4. What should a grade tell a future institution of learning that receives a student’s grades?

Questions of Action (what should be done with grades):

  1. What should a student do with his grade?
  2. What is the importance of grading?
  3. How accurate is a grade in demonstrating mastery of a subject?
  4. Should a student who has, say, an 83% mastery of Algebra be allowed to pass into a Calculus course?

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.


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.


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.

Is There a Common Core?

I have been doing a lot of research and thinking about the Common Core standards that has so many up in arms these days.  That has led to much more general thinking about “standards” and standardization, and thus testing, which means I come back to the old bugaboo: assessment.


It’s a bugaboo (would never have guessed that SpellCheck would know how to spell bugaboo!) because much of what seems to be at issue in our current discussions on education is how to assess education.  The following are the disjointed but related thoughts I have had on this issue (chime in as you like):

As I understand them, “standards” in an educational manner refer to a set benchmark or “spot” in learning that can be in some ascertained to have been accomplished.  I have already discussed the modern confusion of arts and sciences and what that means to this issue: you can’t assess actions and facts in the same way.

So if we are going to have a common set of standards, it would seem that a number of things must be in place: an agreed upon goal for education (or everyone will have differing standards), some manner of ensuring that the standards are achievable by those they are set upon (can any student or only some students achieve this standard?), and finally a clear and standard means of determining (assessing) that the standard has been obtained.

As to goal, this seems very difficult above the local level – at the heart of the Common Core movement is the notion that a kid in 9th grade Algebra in Massachusetts and one in Louisiana would be aiming at the same standard because all kids everywhere should be called to the same standard.  I am not convinced that you can say this honestly, and then if you do succeed in arguing the theory of it, that you can actually pull it off in reality.  It seems to suffer from our modern fallacy of equality – that we can actually ensure that everyone is exactly the same and should be that way.

As to ensuring that all kids can achieve the same standard, that also seems to suffer from some delusional thinking based on the idea that a central “committee” can somehow know enough about “all kids” as to make such a standard and know that they have successfully addressed this issue.  There is a dangerous notion hidden in this idea of “democratized” learning.  Can any committee reach agreement without compromise, and when it is a compromised agreement, is it faithful to any real standard or has it been reduced to a lesser standard to achieve agreement?

And the last point, the big point, is very difficult in my mind at the national or “common” level:  who is going to determine the standards have been achieved and by what means?  Again, the committee aspect addressed above is staring us in the face.  And further, there is no way around the subjective aspects of any standard.  Who says what the standard is?  Who says what “percentage” of mastery is “passing”?  I am all for a discussion of mastery, but what constitutes such?

In the end I applaud an effort to articulate standards.  I believe highly in such.  But I am not convinced by the paltry discussion I have seen on the above issues.  I think the belief has been “let’s state the standards and then find a means to ensure that everyone meets them and we will be fine.”  I am not finding much in the way of robust discussion of these difficulties, or the many others that surround the topic of assessment.  There needs to be more discussion of assessment, including but limited to, standards.  And by the way, once we articulate a set of standards (either locally or nationally) we then have to discuss how to teach our students to those.

Understanding Man’s Place in Nature pt 1

I was reminded yet again during this past Lenten season of the corollary between the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Golgotha.  By one, sin was made accessible to man, by the other salvation was made available to all.  One of the ideas that I meditated upon in that regard was the relationship of something as “other” from me as wood and my own eternal destiny.  I am not a pantheist, but rather a “creationist” in that both the wood (of Eden’s tree and Calvary’s) and myself are from the same Creator.  Just as He can use me in His kingdom, so also He used wood for these specific purposes.

Of course I further developed the thought by contemplating the Son’s relation to wood, as a carpenter’s son, and how material things have been so prevalent in the education and worship of the people of God, both in the Old and New Testaments.  Considering the place of wood led to thoughts of water, wine, bread, leaves, stars, dust, stone, etc.  The list seems almost endless, but each of the ones just mentioned have a whole catalog of uses within Scripture.

And so we come to what seems a necessity in education – to truly understand Real reality, one must engage with things, not just with ideas.  Too much of our modern notions of education seem to rely upon the idea of how things are, rather than actual interaction with those things.  This is a major factor in how any school that includes “hands on” instruction adds to its cultivation of wisdom in the child.  But we must walk carefully here.

In one of my many school experiences we adopted a “hand’s on” science curriculum (K-8) that had us gathering “stuff” to use in the various experiments called for.  At first, I thought this was answering the call to interact with nature.  But then I considered that when nature is removed from its context it is at best an artifact, not actually in nature, but removed from it.  So when the removal of the proverbial frog from the pond into the lab meant rather that we observed a dead frog (or a bored one – being out of its context) which is not a “real” frog at all.  The only way to get around this was to argue that the “thing” by itself was worthy of study much more so than observing the thing within its community.  This is certainly safer, easier, and frankly in most cases less “gross.”  But it is not what I have been arguing for.


Students need to see the relationship between themselves, other things, and the created order of this world, of reality, not simply cut things up in the lab.

I am not arguing against the lab, but I am arguing that the use of the lab is limited and not nearly as cultivating of wisdom or virtue as a walk in the woods or a good seat on a log by the pond.  Charlotte Mason is great on this point.  Such observation en media res (Lat., literally into the middle of affairs) is not a fully autodidactic experience, however.  The student must be taught how to observe, how find the connections that exist in what they observe (this in particular is where the true study of “ideas” comes in), and how to pursue truth as it is found in nature.

So again, my thoughts go to a school setting on a farm.  The daily routines of farm life would teach a wealth of this kind of understanding that leads to wisdom.  The task of the school would be relate these lessons to what is studied, and to learn to measure this wisdom in an appropriate way.  There is no machine gradable test for one’s knowledge of cow excrement, but stinky boots certainly come closer.

Measuring Learning

Assessment is perhaps one of the most perplexing and key issues in education.  How do I know a) that I taught the lesson well, and b) that the student “got it.”?

My compatriot, Buck Holler, has passed along some YouTube material on the issue that I am passing along to you.  View, think, discuss, become a better teacher:

First, there is this talk by Dylan William that is rather engaging:

Then there is a set of short videos all by Rick Wormeli that can be found here.

Finally, there is this video that may lead to more study as well: