I was reading a book on school grading metrics, as one does on a Sunday. The book is “On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting” by Thomas Guskey. Warning to the reader: I read the book pretty quickly and this is some stream of consciousness on my part. So any mistakes are likely on my end and not on the author’s.
One issue is that the use of a single grade is often an amalgamation of potentially confounding variables that, ultimately, makes it difficult to tell what a grade represents. One example he gives is two “C” students. One is diligent, grinds away, participates in class, turns everything in on time but ultimately what the student produces is unremarkable. The other is not terribly diligent, turns work in late, has attendance problems, but what he does produce is excellent, demonstrating good understanding of the material and penetrating insights. These are very different students but the grade is the same. Some systems — I think Canada was referenced — deal with this by giving separate marks for product, process, and progress. In the example I gave, the first student would have a good process grade but a mediocre or poor product grade. The second student would be the reverse. Progress would tell you more about the impact the class had had on the student’s knowledge.
Another issue is a sort of illusory precision we give our grades that can have some pernicious effects. Categorizing student achievement in five broad categories has its challenges, but is doable. Something along the lines of excellent (A), decent (B), acceptable (C), poor (D), and unacceptable (F). The difference between 83% and 86% is going to be arbitrary, dependent on a bunch of variables and teacher idiosyncracies. There is really no foundation showing that these metrics are telling us what we want to know. The author points out that by making the scale 100 points and setting the “D”/”F” line at 60%, you’ve now created 60 points of failure on the scale with only 40 points of passing work. You’re using up a lot of real estate on the failing end of the scale that’s not really helping anyone. Combine that with the confounding process variable I mentioned above, and you potentially end up with something like a late assignment being given a 0 — more than half a grading scale away from a passing grade; you know nothing from this about the student’s substantive knowledge of the subject matter; and the student is in an academic hole that is a great deal deeper than it would be without this illusion of precision.
And maybe the biggest issue is that we have grades working at cross-purposes. What are we trying to do with these things? Is the purpose of our educational system to develop academic proficiency or to identify and select the best and the brightest? If you’re trying to develop academic proficiency, you will ideally develop a system that gets all of your students to the desired levels of proficiency. If that’s the case, you’ll end up with a bunch of kids at the highest end of the spectrum. On the other hand, if you’re looking to rank, filter, and sort the students, then you’ll implement a grading system that exaggerates the distinctions to make things easier for university admissions officers and whatnot. (Part of that “whatnot” includes a cultural sense that there can’t be meaningful success without the failure of others. This, in turn, I think comes from a sort of Manichean idea that there is no good without evil. But, I certainly digress.)
This final bit is more me than the author, but poking at our grading system and questioning why we do what we do, you can see some of the accretions from bygone years. There are echoes of the 19th century when education was more of an aristocratic thing, used to justify and entrench privilege. There are echoes of the industrial revolution where we tried to standardize and mechanize everything. There are echoes of the Progressive Era, seeking some kind of objective perfectability of people and the related drift into eugenics.
Our reaction to change is probably going to reflect some of that entrenched privilege as well. When a high socioeconomic status area embraces the idea of designing a system where almost everyone is able to attain the academic objectives, it seems plausible and everyone getting As and Bs doesn’t seem as objectionable. When this happens in a low socioeconomic school system, you’ll get more of the protests about grade inflation and participation trophies. The aristocracy is to be nurtured, enhanced, and preserved. The masses are to be goaded and culled for their own good.
Like I said, this was all a bit stream-of-consciousness for me. So, I don’t have any strongly held opinions here. I just thought there were some interesting ideas to chew on.