Grades and Rankings

Wednesday, April 12th, 2006

I had a wonderful conversation with students in Brit Lit after returning an exam on the Victorians. The discussion focused on outcomes, grades, and plans to expand outcomes-based learning across the curriculum at Sixnut U. This semester, in a few select courses, I’ve avoided discussion of grades, while in others I’ve been giving them out in the usual way. Accompanying the former method are lists of outcomes and their breakdowns into descriptions that focus attention of the abilities I’m attempting to engage in the course, namely historical and literary analysis, technical reading, and communication, fundamental building blocks that will come in handy for future teachers, English majors, and other people pursuing the Liberal Arts. The evaluation of student work is on

1. What people know
2. What people can do
3. What they can apply

all in a sustained and intensive 15 weeks, minus holidays. If elements are not being expressed or applied in work and discussion, then explanatory notes, margin comments, adjustments to discussion, and one-to-one talks provide suggestions for study, reflection, and other opportunities to explore and demonstrate learning.

This abilities approach is a method of sustaining a learning environment that demotes rote and lecture instruction and promotes extended discourse on the “stuff” we learn and make, from equations to comics to tunes to bridges to plastics.

I’ve written about grades here and here, with many more posts on the subject deeper back in the archive and in other contexts, such as learning spaces. My problem with the tradition of grades is not that they are rankings based on performance. Rankings are important place makers. The derivation typically points back to place in definition: in line, in society, in a competative context. We’re a society of rankers. Some things need ranking for convenience and all ranks have their context. The problem is with their confusing use and scale in high stakes environments.

The grade as a rank based on performance places one into position. It doesn’t inform what to do next, and what to do next often takes a lot of energy and reflection. What an A is vs an A- is interesting guess work, but depite this, someone made my jeep in such a way that it works, and we’ve all heard the jokes about brain surgeons with C avergaes.

A grade does not necessarily imply progression or continuum: its a place, after all. Grades are necessary institutional statistics and convenient “moveable” information, but these days in education the grade has become an “end.” Ranks are ends–a higher rank is a desired end in the miltary. But in learning, the learning and its consequences are the end (hopefully the consequences can be excellence in diplomacy, better tools, and design). Job postings, likewise, ask for tangibles, not grades. This is why portfolios matter. They don’t demonstrate a grade. The point is not slender or benign as those struggling with NCLB, standardized tests, and college entrance are finding out and already know. The students I speak to get this quite clearly. They understand the outcomes approach, but they still want to know what transfer institutions will see on a transcript. Fair enough.

More problematic and complex is scale. Even top students hit college with false expectations based on scales and even highschools that profess outcomes-based learning do strange things in their evaluations, such as informing students of grades without explaining what they mean, other than higher is what we want, and disencouraging applications of learning that promote meaningful performance. One “end” of solid education is this–the habit of independent learning. Worries about rank and what rank means in comparison to the past and to other standards simply gets in the way of the content and the practice, all of which matter. And that’s just the top rank student issue.

Numerous kinds of people come to college: dropouts, people who put college off, people looking for other ways of earning a living or just living, people with children, people who want to contribute in other ways, people who find an area interesting and want to pursue it, people looking for themselves and for what they may do well, people looking for a way forward, people just unsure what else to do with themselves. Most students, despite the claims of Alfie Kohn, have a false impression of the meaning of a grade since a grade (inflated performance measurement) does not express the complex abilities that people typically carry with them and often hyperexpress the abilities people acually possess. I remember Neha Bawa and Susan Gibb not really worrying about grades; they worried about the material and their relationship to it. Both these “students” are highly successful. Indeed, my most successful students never wondered about their grades; they obsessed over the extent of thier grasp of material. The students I worry about most obsess over their rank.

None of this means that grades are by nature false or corrupt. If accompanied by systematic reflection and exposition and discursive evaluation, grades do just fine. But when pedagogy, curricula, and human identities adjust to them, then we have a common complaint: “I got As all through highschool. What do you mean I got a D.”

“What do you mean what do I mean” is the response.

A focus on abilities calls for a different kind of discourse between those involved in learning and that’s more to the point: constant talk about Blake or Borges or Cantor’s infiniy of infinities is much better conversation than “Could you change my C- to a C+” for whatever reason. Sure, how about a B+, now demonstrate your understanding of isomorphism in both set theory and Victorian poetry, please.


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