What is the point of a grade?

I return to this topic again and again. It is report card time at my school. So grades are on my mind.

I loathe grades. Too often, they get in the way of learning and they don't give much in the way of information. They imply an objectivity that rarely and perhaps can never  exist. Some suggest that grades serve to motivate students. In some cases that is true. However, I taught for 23 years without giving grades and my students were motivated. In the video below, Alfie Kohn explains far more eloquently than me why grades don't work.

Yet in most schools...


we are stuck with grades. And so, I find myself keenly attuned to grading and testing practices. If we agreed that grades should be no more and no less than a shorthand "snapshot" of a student's learning, then I'd be okay with them. I wouldn't like them, but I would tolerate them. But we don't use grades that way, even if though we say we do.

For instance, I have had advisees, who not knowing tests had a second side to them, score D's on tests in which they answered correctly every question they attempted. While yes, the students should have looked to turn the page over to find more questions, the "D" tells the student, and the student's parents, and potential colleges next to nothing about the students' learning. Everyone involved, including the teacher, knows this "D" is not indicative of learning. So why give false information? 

 I also wonder about the role of extra credit. I know there are students who score 106% on tests. That is impossible! One cannot know more than all the material. It also reinforces the notion that tests are about the points, and not the learning. 

Yet, here is my real point today. I'm resigned to giving grades in my new role. What I want to know is when did we decide in American education that an average was the best way to determine student understanding?

Imagine a foreign language class.
Student A scores
80, 80, 85, 80, 84= 81.8 average

Student B scores
55, 70, 75, 90, 100 = 78

Who has learned more? Who is the more proficient student of the foreign language. Hasn't student B learned far more and by course's end,  know more? This is an unlikely example (though it is one that any long-time teacher has seen), but it does prove the point that averages can deceive. In terms of weather, the average temperature in Dublin and Philadelphia is largely the same. The average tells us nothing about the weather in Philadelphia and Dublin. I've spent a good amount of time in Dublin. It isn't like the weather in my hometown of Philadelphia, PA. 

A colleague of mine pointed out that for one's golf handicap, the highest and lowest scores are dropped. Makes sense. Outliers are just that, outliers. 

Some schools are rethinking assessment and grades. Some have dropped grades. Others have become very intentional and specific in what they say the role of grades are. 

If you give grades, please remember the point of a grade is to quickly show student learning. Do yours? And pointing the mirror back to me, do mine? 

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