Blog Post

My Response to the NY Times' "Quest to Explain Grading"

In "A Quest To Explain What A Grade Really Means," New York Times writer Tamar Lewin discusses an attempt at the University of North Carolina to nail down "what a grade really means."  Professor Andrew Perrin, a sociologist, wants to institute a new way of grading.  His focus isn't understanding the "why" and "what" of assessment or to improve existing assessment forms but about telling students and the world what the median grade in each class is, crunching the overall grades given by a certain prof in a certain field, and in other ways measuring the measurements and the measurers.   The punchline is that if everyone gets an A, the grade means nothing.  Really?   What if a certain professor (in this case, yours truly), has reconceptualized education for the twenty-first century as a group project in learning not as an individual process of measurable achievement?  What if the goal of a class is to have students themselves set the bar higher than it's been set for them before--and to do what is necessary to ensure that everyone helps everyone get over that bar?   What if the goal of assessment isn't to win the race a footfall ahead of one's peers but to judge how well a group can work together to erect a sound, innovative edifice--building, together, the best foundation imaginable?  Which metaphor of learning would you prefer for your child's future?


What if one believes (yrs truly again) that some part of formal learning has to take advantage of all the forms of trial-and-error that mark informal learning, child's play, and most of the world of work in the future, beyond the classroom, where there is no teacher saying "This is an A but that is an A-" but where, if you do not make the grade, you get not the lower one, but fired?   If one's metric as a teacher is ensuring that students learn how to learn in order to succeed in their own future; if one's belief is that collaboration and success as a participant in a complex project is the metric of the future, then the present system of grading falls short---even if there are media grades and scores for the teachers and the taught. 


Here's the NY Times essay:    And here's my previous post on "How to Crowdsource Grading":


Since grades were only invented in the late 19th century as an efficiency and a convenience, we can measure and remeasure all we want but that doesn't begin to address the issue of whether we are teaching to the test--and to achievement on test scores--or teaching for other learning goals, such as success in the world?   In my peer-led, open-sourced classrooms, where learning is public and communicated, where we use the model of the peer-developed open source World Wide Web as our testcase and our model for collaborative contribution, the goal is for every student to achieve an A as defined by community standards I, the TA's who apprentice in my classes, and my students all figure out together, with each assignment (set by the students as challenges) having its own evolving standard of excellence, in the way completion of a work project would.  Students decide this--and we discuss decision making.  And they set challenges and provide help to those who are not measuring up.   Not every student wants to contract for an A.   It's tough.   Students can maturely survey their semester and decide if they want and need an A or if a B will suffice--that comes with less work and success is outstanding accomplishment of those tasks.  


I personally think our grading system has become a reductio ad absurdum of the originally limited goal (efficiency) for which it was designed.   At the time, work was assessed in conference with the students, in a written response.   Everyone thought letter grades were only about "lower order thinking" but, teachers are busy and grades are fast.   But are they educational?  We know grades do not determine future success.  Why do they count at all.   In the NY Times piece, it's noted: "At UNC, the average G.P.A was 3.21 in the fall of 2008, up from 2.99 in 1995. As have become the most frequent grade, and together, As and Bs accounted for 82 percent of the 2008 grades."   It is very, very difficult to get into UNC but, once there, almost everyone gets A's and B's.   Why even bother with the other grades?   And why grade?   Especially when the metric is basically a binary--A or B--does a GPA tell us much of anything any more?   And, with litigation an issue in recommendations, even recommendations hardly matter any more (all those adjectives, the vague words, on and on).  Measuring the measurer does not solve the problem; it simply measures the number of taps of pedagogical angels dancing on the head of a pin.


We have a broken system that doesn't match our era or our requirements for learning.  We need to change it.  We need to think about grading not on its own terms but in new, more productive, accurate, discriminating, precise, and helpful ones.


What does a grade really mean?  What the grader and the system and the institution says it does.   The world has changed.   Our metrics and our emphasis on individual grading is starting to change.  Even the SAT's this year, thanks to the wonderful work of some of my colleagues in the digital media and learning world, gives students feedback, not just a score, on which questions were more difficult to answer--what subjects, what kinds of thinking, what cognitive patterns.   Now we are getting closer to measuring what a grade measure.  Real-time, in-process assessment not of the grade and the grader but of learning, how it works.   Tests and grades should be designed to help us learn.   If they don't then I ask not what does a grade mean?  But is grading meaningful?


If I were to grade this new way of grading the graders, I would give it a C.   It is internally consistent and internally defensible.  It is workable and accurate.  It is a solid enough system within the parameters it defines for itself.  However, it lacks imagination, does little to challenge underlying assumptions, and nothing to advance the field of study of which it is a part--the field of learning, pedagogy, assessment, measurement, and institutional educational improvement.   Most of all, it sets its own horizon of accomplishment far too short.  It measures a measurement.   To earn an A, you need to find a better way to enhance, improve, inspire, and motivate the most challenging and vital forms of learning.  For an A+, you do all that in an inexpensive, efficient sustainable and replicable way.   Fortunately, a lot of very smart people in the fields of computational, real-time peer-learning and assessment are working on that problem right now.   Many of us take seriously the problem of grading--but we want not to tinker around the edges but to reconceive a better way of assessing learning for an interactive, new age.  Professor Perrin and the University of North Carolina have focused on a good topic but they have not defined either the real scope of the problem nor the best solution.   Others, however, are working in these more sophisticated ways to rethink what it means to grade, how we grade, and, most importantly, the best ways for assessment to help us all learn more and to learn with more depth, complexity, and dexterity, important features of learning in the twenty-first century.  Not a minute too soon.   It's fine to sweep the deck of the Titanic, but that's not going to save the ship.  Hold tight!   Change is coming.  A better system is on the way.


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