Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Grading is Backwards

Hiya. Adam here. This post (with minor editing) is borrowed from my personal blog, where it was titled "How Our Current Grading System Directly Undermines the Goals of Education" The tone is different from what I go for here, so please forgive that. Enjoy!

As should be so obvious it hardly needs stating, the purpose of most any class is to take someone with a certain baseline of knowledge in a subject (ranging from nothing to quite a bit) and add to his or her competence in, understanding of, or exposure to the relevant topics. In other words, classes are designed to facilitate learning in some way. We go to school to learn. Is it safe to say we can all agree on that?

My purpose is not to address what, why, or (mostly) how we learn. Those are all weighty topics that deserve their own attention. I just want to point out that the way we evaluate learning is, at its most fundamental level, not only flawed but directly counterproductive. 

I'm talking about letter grades. 

Given our initial assumption, that in a class we should start at the relative "bottom" and work our way upward, we should theoretically have an evaluation metric that mirrors that progression. Instead, we have the opposite. Here's my inartistic and incomplete visual metaphor for how grading currently works:

The balloon in this drawing represents the student, who starts at the edge of the cliff and, with an initial updraft that comes from excitement, energy, a teacher, a parent, or personal determination, gets off to a great start. Of course, not all students are like this, but let's be optimistic. Very soon, however, a problem develops. The student makes a mistake by flying into the path of a well-meaning sportsman (riiight). The question is answered incorrectly, the assignment failed, and now the student has a less-than-perfect score. Under our current grading system, although the student begins the class at the bottom of the developmental scale in the subject, he or she also begins with the assumption of top marks: there are no strikes against him or her, so the student coasts along with an "A" grade. As soon as the student makes a mistake, however, ground is irretrievably lost. Sure, there's credit recovery, make-up tests, and other interventions, but without some sort of deus ex machina, it is now impossible for the student to achieve a perfect score (i.e. the highest possible grade). If continued, this translates to closed doors down the line as secondary schools, employers, and others withhold opportunities, seeking instead the students who made the grade.

Recognizing this, schools, legislators, parents, and well-meaning individuals and organizations try all manner of strategies to help kids "get their grades up," thinking this will equate to a meaningful solution. Sometimes it does. Some kids genuinely get on the path to more effective learning, improve themselves, and become better prepared for later life. But sometimes they just learn how to give the expected answers or work the system to their advantage without actually increasing their mastery of the subject in question. Other people abuse said system, pressuring teachers to give kids grades they haven't really earned, or to grandly reward the most token efforts in the name of positive reinforcement. Some teachers, loving their students, do these things on their own, trying to preserve opportunities for students whose potential they can see, but who for some reason haven't taken control of their own lives. Sometimes teachers do this to avoid the wrath of parents who want to make sure their kids get "good" grades, or to preserve government funding based on student performance, possibly because of administrative pressure or simply to feel good about how they're doing their own jobs - temptations people in all professions sometimes succumb to.

This, in turn, conditions students to focus on what letter grade they have, rather than how well they have progressed in the subject matter. Many kids may not see the difference, but pay attention to a teenager sometime. Ask how he's doing in school. Ask about her grades. Odds are, she will start telling you stories about negotiating with teachers for better grades, making up a poor grade by doing far less or different work than it would have taken to get the grade in the first place, or a time when he suffered some kind of extreme stress because of a grade, whether or not it was deserved.
Furthermore, notice how often a single failure - an absence from a key class period, a poor score on an important assignment, a failed test, a negative relationship with a specific teacher - features as the main reason for the bad grades in these stories. Sometimes these failures are skewed out of proportion, but many times they are all too real. Doing poorly at the wrong time for any reason can, and often does permanently damage a student's grade to the point that making it up requires special accommodation.

Now, I'm not saying the concept of letter grades is the source of all educational ills, but we have set up a system that only rewards perfection, and even then the reward consists merely of maintaining status, not any kind of growth or increase. Even when the ground to be gained in subject matter is daunting, the only way to be rewarded above and beyond simply keeping the same grade you had at the beginning of the class is to complete extra credit, meaning additional tasks that further increase difficulty, and, for the high-performing student, offer little increase: from an A to an A+, a nominal distinction with few if any benefits beyond a proud feeling and increased expectations for the next class.

Now let's consider a different model:

This looks like a warm, fuzzy illustration of many years of rhetoric about how we all have different paths to follow and are all at different places on our path. The funny thing is, it also looks like how students actually learn. Some coast along above the rest of the class, not knowing any more but grasping the material more easily. Some struggle the whole way up the slope. Others hang out at a specific spot for a while before moving on (or not), and still others zip to the top and would keep going far beyond the scope of any single class, if we would only let them.

What if there was a system in which everyone in a class started not with the assumption of a perfect score, but with the much more realistic assumption that they have a lot to learn? What if we started at the bottom and, as the gamers say, leveled up as we went along? What if rather than having a single standard for perfection that could only be maintained or fallen from, we had a standard of progression that was, quite literally, unlimited? Imagine a student being able to achieve a level 13 in math - a respectable accomplishment that might get you up to geometry - while another could get all the way to calculus at level 25. A third, struggling student, might only reach level 6 in a given year, but that would be OK because instead of having fallen from grace, that student would still be getting rewarded for every right answer. Every effort would bring with it a tangible benefit. Failure and misunderstanding would result in additional attention from the teacher, but not in a punitive way. There would be no ground to lose as long as the student was trying. There would be no shame in retaking a class if you could start at the level you left off on before. In fact, you could mix all kinds of ages and ability levels in the same class, provided the curriculum was well designed (more on that another time) so there would be no per se re-taking a class. It would just be Math, a class shared by all, and students would progress as fast as they were able.

Plus, the long-term benefits of subjects like math would remain. These benefits, in my opinion, do not reside in being able to compute advanced statistical formulas - that's only useful on a day-to-day basis for statisticians and a precious few others. The rest of us have helps and shortcuts for things we lack true aptitude for. The lasting benefit is in the development of the mind that comes from practicing the logical, analytical thinking that math requires. That's just one example. Something similar could be said for any subject.

This is far from a Utopian solution, of course. Parents would still demand performance at a specific level by a specific age. Students and others would still look down on those who progress more slowly. Governments would still want to impose one-size-fits-all metrics for purposes of funding and evaluation. Colleges, universities, and employers would still show preference for the highest-performing students. Most of the pressures I've already described would remain, and not all of them are bad things. But one key element would change: fear.

There would still be standards and expectations, but fear of failure would evaporate, and we could focus on helping students genuinely learn. Grades would actually mean something because they would reflect actual understanding, achievable only by performance. Kids would progress faster because they wouldn't be afraid of being punished, and they could help each other along more easily because they would be more confident in their own skills. They might only earn a Math level 7 by midterm, but that could be improved with extra effort, while perhaps backing off for a while in a subject that comes more easily, and this could be done with no negative repercussions. Students who lack an aptitude for math might easily excel in language arts, social studies, fine arts, or some other area, while still continuing their gradual but rewarding progress in the harder subjects. Instead of worrying about an all-inclusive and over-simplified GPA, a student might graduate with an accumulated level 12 in math, level 30 in English, level 26 in social studies, level 17 in science, and level 32 in art. Of course it could (and likely would) get more complex than that, but you get the idea.

This would give counselors a better idea of how to direct student ambitions, and students themselves would have a better idea of their true strengths and weaknesses. Schools could still set benchmarks, but they could be based on competency level, not grade level. Best of all, students would be empowered to achieve as much as they can, without arbitrary limits. Hopefully I don't have to go on listing the benefits, because they should be easy to extrapolate from here.

I have a lot more to say on restructuring education, but what are your thoughts about this most basic element: how we evaluate progress? What have I missed?



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