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).


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?

At What Cost?

In the midst of reading yet another article on how a return good education would be fairly easy (simply return to what we used to do), which is fodder for another meditation, I ran across this chart:


And rather than seeing what the author wanted me to see (which I see, but am not meditating on here), I saw further proof for my thesis that modern public education is not about learning, but about job growth.  It is profitable for educators to avoid improvement.  If there is always a crisis in education, there is always more money with which to try and solve it.  If the simple solutions were to be implemented, and work, then all the current spending on education would be silly.

Even as we decry how poorly we pay our teachers, we watch as the educational industry skyrockets in cost.  If we are paying teachers poorly, where is all that money going?  The text book industry is doing well, especially now that it can charge the same or more for electronic books while saving all the costs of printed texts.  The testing industry is booming.  The satellite industries that produce practice tests, test prep, consulting, and the like are doing well.  And there are more offices in the admin wing than ever, but teachers are still underpaid.  Hmmmm.  There seems to be a large rabbit hole somewhere…

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.

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