What is a Grade?

I get asked about grading and assessment often enough to know that our modern minds do not know how to deal with the issue well.  From some type of cosmic game show to a quantitative evaluation of a person’s worth, misunderstanding in this area is rampant.  Teachers seem to labor over obtaining a chimerical objectivity in their grading, while students seem more intent on how to “get an A” than how to become truly educated.  And reform in education is almost totally fixed on outcomes, on the grades achieved either in standardized tests or some other number generating endeavor.

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In the following series of blogs I will consider a number of related questions regarding how learning is assessed and how that assessment is communicated between two minds.  I don’t promise to be thorough, but hopefully to reinvigorate a discussion about these things as I am convinced many of the current issues in education are issues of assessment and grading.

So first, what is assessment?  Every act of learning follows a sequence of events.  The mind must first come to perceive it’s need to know something.  Once this is done, learning begins.  The mind seeks and hopefully through good teachers is able to find an expression of the idea being sought.  If all goes well, models are given of what is being learned.  These are compared and the new learning begins to be embodied in the learner.  Assessment comes at the end of this sequence when the learner, and often the teacher, determine if learning has been thorough and effective.

Not all assessment is the same.  The distinction most helpful is the one between quantitative and qualitative assessment.  When assessment is for oneself, this is intuitive and almost always results in both types of assessment.  But for the teacher who has several or many students, and is often assessing a number of them together, this distinction is necessary.  Quantitative assessment determines how much has been learned.  If a child is asked to memorize the bones of the body, he is then assessed by how many he was able to recall on the assessment, whether that is verbal, written, or otherwise.  Modern education loves this because it feels more objective.  It is not, but we will leave that for later.  Qualitative assessment seeks to determine how well learning has occurred.  If the previous student has been asked to teach a lesson on the bones of the body, qualitatively the assessor will indicate how clear, how complete, or how compelling the presentation was.  This requires a master of the lesson to comment on or coach the student in their progress toward becoming a better student of the subject at hand.  Again, much of what passes for assessment in most classrooms is a mixture of these two types.

Before going deeper, it may also help to state in rather short fashion what assessment is not.  Stating the antithesis can often make the thesis clearer.  Therefore, assessment should not be construed to be…

  • an objective measurement. This is one of the strongest fictions in education and will be dealt with in full later, but for now I will say that no assessment is totally objective.  All assessment is a master assessing a student through various means.
  • a singular method or instrument. Learning cannot be assessed by one means only.  It requires multiple forms of assessment.
  • a judgment upon the student. Assessments only show where a student is.  They can be compared to show progress or trends, but they can only demonstrate a moment in learning.  They cannot define a student, only communicate where they currently are.
  • (because of the previous statement) an indicator of ability, only a demonstration of where the student was during that assessment. One of the horrible things that happens with too much emphasis on assessment and grading is the stratification of learners into tight boxes of ability: these are the “A” students and these are the “struggling ones” etc.  More on this when we get to grading.

Before ending this first meditation, let me state that we must put cart and horse in order here.  Assessment is the overall term for assessing student learning.  Grades, which often are placed in the forefront, are simply an attempt to communicate between the parties involved (teacher, student, and parent) what has been seen in assessment.  If assessments are subjective, grades are even more so.  I think this places us before a lot of questions yet to be answered.  More on this soon.

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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?

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:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKLo15A80lI

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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jduiAnm-O3w