We don’t need no stinkin’ grades. Part I

I guess I should start by saying that I do not grade.

What is the purpose of grades? I find myself questioning them more and more. At their heart they are supposed to show ability levels of above average to below average, with the majority of grades for an assignment being around a C. This makes our coveted bell curve that we are taught is ideal.

But what is average? Average compared to what? To just the other kids in their class? To all my students? All students in the school in similar classes? Or are we talking compared to state or nationally? In the end, what is the point in the larger context?

I am torn in far too many directions on this issue. I hear and understand the arguments of grades reflecting the ability level of students when compared to a rubric, especially a widely used one like an essay writing rubric. However, isn’t the goal of education to bring all students to mastery level? If so, why are we using a scale that claims average is a C. We argue this idea of mastery and approaching standards, while grading them on a system that argues average vs. above average.

I read an argument on this from Penn State where they had changed the definition of grades from the “average” scale to the “achievement” scale. In the view of the authors, it was still acceptable to receive a grade of C and students should still be considered for masters programs for a 2.00 as they had fulfilled the objectives of the previous courses to an acceptable level. Their goal was to limit the number of high achieving students who were making it onto deans lists due to watered down grading policies. The exclusivity of these lists was diminishing.

This argument reminded me of a class I had last year. In one of my AP World History classes, my sophomores were going through credit checks and one of the many excellent students I was blessed to have, came walking back in cheering how she was Ranked #1 for her class. It helps to know some about this student as she is usually never very openly confident in her abilities, even if everyone around her knows she is an excellent student and tries to remind her.

However, when she came in singing her joy of her accomplishment, another student in the class, a friend of hers and a very blunt child that I love, announced to her and the class, without hesitation, that she was in a class of #1s and they were all tied for #1 so she wasn’t special. While this scene was hilarious, as the laughing response from the now deflated child was to let her have her 5 minutes of happiness, it did speak to a larger issue of what exclusivity was there to rankings or honors distinctions.

Looking into this, I found that many school districts have begun the process of eliminating the valedictorian and salutatorian distinctions and replacing them with the cum laude system. Reading many of these articles, the common theme was that it allowed for more students to achieve some type of top honors to help them in their collegiate pursuits and the competitive nature of the former system placed too much pressure on students. Is the goal then just to get all students into college or to inflate the abilities of students, making them feel smarter or more prepared for the future than they really are? As a colleague once said to me, we are no longer educators, we are now graduators. It seems that the end goal of education is to not only get the kids through the hoops to get a diploma but to get them all through with higher honors and GPAs, even if the ability level isn’t there.

Proof of this can be found in remediation rates of students entering into college.

Before I get into this, I want to make it clear. I DO NOT think it is the goal of primary and secondary schools to get students into college. College is not for everyone in my opinion and many successful, wealthy people either never went to or dropped out of college. I will get into this more at some other time though.

However, what the results show is that remediation in college is increasing. In 2001, the average percent of high school graduates that attended college who needed remediation was around a 33%. By 2010, the number has grown to about 50%. Two important places where remediation has skyrocketed are New York and Florida. Under the guidance of Gov. Jeb Bush and Joel Klein‘s data driven accountability education model, remediation rates rose to upwards of +70% (I wonder where DC schools will be once the dust settles from Michelle Rhee).

So what does this all mean? For me it means that grades are less and less important or even irrelevant. What do they really say? One view of this is the College Boards use of the AP test scores. The AP Board is very active in explaining that their scores and pass rates are not indications of standards assessments. They also adjust their results year to year as the tests themselves are not designed from one textbook or state curriculum. There just isn’t enough time to teach all the facts of world history in one year. It is not a test of facts and details. It is a test of critical thinking and analysis. It is a competition with fellow students and the AP Board strives to balance the successes of students on the exam while still keeping it difficult to promote exclusivity and rigor. The AP Board knows that if everyone who took the test and ended up passing the test, then colleges would devalue it more and stop accepting it.

In the end, this is only a fraction of the national debate over grades. Universities have been in deep discussions over these issues and others, such as grade inflation or course rigor from discipline to discipline. There are other issues of community, culture, necessity, political motives of leaders both inside of and outside of education and countless others factors adding to the complexity of this issue. From a simple A-F system of 50 years ago, we have created a monster where the image of a student or a school trumps the integrity of the assessment and the true ability levels of our children.

Next post I will further discuss this issue and explain how I have begun to approach this Goliath in my own classroom. Until then, if you like the blog, please subscribe on the right and share it with your friends and family. Please comment and share your thoughts, questions, ideas and feelings on this or any post. Also, send any topic ideas to me as well as i am always looking for things to spark a conversation about. As always, this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.