Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Grades are not poison.

Grades are not poison, they're a shortcut.

They're a single number that is shorthand for something.  All of the horrors ascribed to grades are simply problems with the interpretation and implementation.

To answer Alfie Kohn, if you grade something that cannot be graded easily with a tool that is horribly inappropriate for that purpose, why would you expect that it would ever work well? Things that look like participation can be measured, and most such run counter to the stated purpose of the grade.

If the class is supposed to discuss, you can count the times the person made a statement.  "You must comment at least twice on at least two classmates' posts in the forum." You'll also have to account for those who can't or won't speak up in class, or who are incapable of posting in a forum; you'll need to account for many things.

My point is that counting forum posts isn't really measuring what you want to measure, isn't encouraging anything important, and may be counterproductive. That's Alfie Kohn's data point as well, but I refuse to take step two.

Using participation grades to bash ALL grades is a silly Strawman argument.

Grades are useful. They condense a semester's worth of work into one readable nugget. Does the student understand Algebra 1 enough to go on to Algebra 2? You can have a 10 page paper listing all of the things that students should have learned this year, but the mass of data is too much so the reader needs the teacher to distill it into something more concise.

What form that concise summary will take is debatable, but I would maintain that the A-F scale is fine. It's not complete, of course ... it's a summary, but it's what the public has grown accustomed to so the writer and the reader are both using the same notation and communication is assured. Communication is the point.

Rubrics expand the summary but don't add precision or accuracy to it because they are made from the same data the grade was. Changing to a 1-4 scale is no improvement. Any scale that includes levels like "Proficient, Nearly Proficient, Gaining Proficiency, Barely proficient, No Evidence of Intelligent Thought" is akin to changing languages and claiming that French is superior to English because it has accents.

Perhaps the problem is that grades are a form of communication that is being used in too many different ways, many of them problematic, leading us to assume that all uses of grades are false and problematic.


  1. Curmudgeon, couldn't we use 'pass' for people who are ready for the next course, and 'did not pass' (yet) for the people who aren't ready? What is the benefit of grading with A through F?

  2. Pass/Fail seems to be used in high schools as a way to differentiate between the kid who gets at best a 60 and the one who does no work at all. In other words, the current habits in many guidance offices are to use P/F only when the kid is going to get a D and they don't want his GPA to suffer.

    I think there needs to be more categories than just p/f:
    pass meaning the kid isn't good enough to continue to harder work;
    pass, let him continue but put him with other kids who struggle;
    pass, a good student who should go far in this field;
    pass, with honors.

    which is F, D, C, B, A.