Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Meaning of Grades

One of the biggest assumptions of our education system is the need for graded assessment, or evaluation. For many colleges, grades and SAT scores make up the entire admissions process. For policy makers, the debate centers around how to improve those scores, taking for granted that they are good measures of learning.

I would argue that the main thing grades assess is a student's ability to get a good grade, and the main thing a standardized test score assesses is a student's skill in taking standardized tests. How many students generate strategies for getting a good grade that have nothing to do with learning? I know I was one, even though I was never as grade-motivated as many of my peers. Likewise, how many people take test-prep courses or work with tutors not so they can learn better the content of tests like the SAT or GRE, but so they can develop test-taking strategies?

The problem with placing evaluation of students above assessment - and then making those evaluations determining factors in student's lives - is that doing so obfuscates the purpose of education for students, and therefore undermines their desire to actually learn. Considering the competitive nature of most evaluation (in order for some to succeed, many more must fail), it is no wonder that students begin to play their appointed roles as "drop-outs" and "failures." How many brilliant minds do we lose to frustration, both among said "failures" and among the "achievers?" How much creativity and critical thinking is stomped out because, in the end, those things are hard to evaluate?

I do not believe that assessment should be abolished, by any stretch. Teachers, whether wittingly or not, are constantly assessing their students. Even a lecture hall with 100 undergraduates and a single Professor has some level of assessment built in ("ah, look who's asleep in the back again"). Most teachers will tell you that they know - usually early in the course - who in their classes gets it, who doesn't, who needs extra help, who is a trouble-maker, who's passing notes to who, and who they can trust to run down to their office to pick up a forgotten hand-out. Most teachers are excellent assessors of their students.

The problem is, those dozens of qualities and skills that teachers assess constantly are narrowed into a single evaluative measure. A to F. What's more, most of those qualities are cut out of the evaluation process. What matters, come grade time, is not a student's work-ethic, or his trustworthiness, or his interest in the material, or his sense of humor.* What matters is how well he 'gets' the material, and how well he is able to navigate the structure of the evaluation the teacher chooses.

* I choose these in particular because of Valentine's Day. We "assess" our lovers largely on these criteria - as well as a few others like attractiveness. In our culture, it seems perfectly natural that the criteria we place at the heart of love - which we tend to say is one of the most important activities in our lives - are ignored by our education system. Indeed, a culture that designed things like sense of humor and trustworthiness and appreciation of beauty into their education systems would seem unsophisticated and barbaric to us. It seems just the opposite to me.

Because we need to be able to communicate student abilities across vast distances of time and space, we transform the myriad assessments a teacher makes of her students into a single letter. The necessity for this is a social one: we need to know how good the student is doing, and we don't have time to listen to the full report. A state senator or school board member especially can't sift through thousands of pages of teacher write-ups, nor do teachers have time to write reports about each of their hundred or more students. The system is what it is because, on some level, it has to be just that.

Education reform is uncommon. Our system is very similar to what it was one hundred years ago, and despite the noise made by just about every presidential candidate, it is likely to resemble its current form for decades to come. Digital technology is a disruptive force, to be sure, just like the television was. The pervasiveness of the Internet and mobile phones might effect the delivery of educational materials more than TV ever could have, but the content and the evaluations are likely to remain much the same. Indeed, if anything the downsizing of the role of the teacher - the transformation from teacher to computer - necessitates an even more rigorous protocol of traditional multiple-choice and true-or-false tests.

I believe that digital technology can have the opposite effect, but only if educators strive to use it in a more progressive way. On the way to doing that, however, there are a great many steps. One is developing technologies - or implementations of technologies that exist, at least - which undercut the need for an evaluation-driven system. I don't believe that means that computers will do the assessments that teachers once did; rather, computers can deliver content and learning environments in a way that students don't see as evaluative or, strictly speaking, educational. How many students of my generation have learned a significant amount of history though computer games, for example?

Another important step is transforming attitudes about education. Education and teaching, as words, should give way to learning (indeed, not all cultures differentiate the three: imagine if we believed teaching and learning to be the same thing). The role of formal education should be questioned, not on the assumption that it will be abandoned, but rather with an eye towards its purpose, and whether technology can help it better fulfill that purpose.

Ultimately, I believe the highly-structured system of homework, test (or essay), grade that we've developed needs to change, and that modern technology makes possible - but not necessary - that change. Education researchers have been fighting that fight for a century (with a remarkable lack of success), as have many teachers and - unwittingly - a great many students. Politicians, businesses, and parents, however, tend to resist change (painting in exceptionally broad strokes), not for any good reason, but because either it's too politically risky, because they like discrete and scalable evaluations, or because that's the way they did it when I was a kid. After all, you gotta learn to buckle down and do your homework so you can get an A so you can get a job so you can have money so you can send your kids to 'good' schools so...

Alas, perhaps challenging the assumptions of education involves challenging the assumptions of a whole culture, an even bigger task.

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