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An A for Effort? Grading Grades in the 21st Century


Mark is the director of the Longview School in upstate New York.

Grading and evaluation is a hot topic in education. There are many theories about what approach is best, but in order to be able to evaluate the theories themselves, it is essential to begin by taking a step back to consider how the goals of evaluation intersect with the goals of education.

The Goals of Education
The goals of education are not the same at all levels and in all contexts.  Let’s begin by examining vocational education.  Consider a class in operating heavy machinery.  What is the goal of the class?  Graduates need to know how to operate heavy machines effectively and safely. In this context, the knowledge and skills are paramount: if they have been obtained, then the student has been successful in the class and s/he should receive the highest evaluation.

Consider college classes as in math, the sciences, English literature, psychology, etc.  Here again, it seems to be a reasonable expectation that grades reflect knowledge of some material and/or acquisition of a particular skill set.

This brings us to K-12 public education. There are some significant differences between this and vocational training or college education. All students are expected to complete Kindergarten through 12th grade. (1)  Admission is qualified for simply by reaching a certain age, rather than by having to meet ability-based acceptance requirements. As a result, the range of knowledge and abilities in any public school class is extensive, so much so that there is no possibility that everyone who leaves high school will have the same skills or knowledge. Let me say this again:  it is impossible for high school students to graduate with the same skills and knowledge. 

Let me provide a specific example: I recently participated in a Committee on Special Education Meeting in which a well-meaning director of special education looked me in the eye and told me that under his care, if one of my students returned to the public schools, he would be able to pass the New York State Regents exams, though it might take a few extra years for him to do so. Bracketing whether spending a few extra years in high school is worthwhile, the statement is simply a reflection of wishful thinking. This tenth-grade student, even with regular instruction using a multisensory approach, continues to add on his fingers, to multiply with repeated addition and to reduce fractions unreliably.  It is not my expectations which limit this student, it is his ability. If he were to focus on schoolwork for ten hours a day from now until the age of twenty, the level he would achieve in math would still be below the level a significant number of students have already reached upon entry into high school.

The challenge of individual differences in students is equally problematic to a class as to a few specific students.  Imagine a math class with 23 students. (2)  Will all 23 students complete the class with the same math knowledge and skills? Of course not. Students do not start the class with equal knowledge and skills.  As a result, they will not leave the class with the same. This is not a failing of the class or of the teaching. This is simply a basic reality of human development: because of differences in the students, some students will know more than others.

Our public school special education departments and state departments of education can pretend that this is not true, but under their current assumptions, there are only two choices for high school graduation requirements:

1.  The bar can be set low enough so that even weak students, through study and hard work, can eventually meet the requirements for graduation.  In this case, some of the brighter students would already have the required knowledge and skills upon entry into ninth grade. 

2.  The bar can be set high enough so that the work would be challenging even for brighter students.  This would necessarily result in a significant percentage of students, the weaker students, being condemned to becoming dropouts.   

The current trend, both in my home state of New York and in national education policy, is movement towards choice two.  High-stakes testing is on the rise with seemingly a new test added or an old test made more difficult every year. In New York, there are no longer local diplomas for students who cannot meet the rigorous state requirements but who have worked diligently and passed all their classes in their four or more years of high school. If a student cannot pass the Regents tests, then s/he is considered unworthy, and must either stay in high school for as many years as it takes to pass the tests or drop out.

Fortunately, there is a third possibility, but to be able to consider it fairly, we must reassess the goals of K-12 education. There is more to success than knowledge acquisition and skill attainment.  For students in this age range, self-development and the acquisition of life skills are at least as important as attaining academic knowledge.  Therefore, a complete K-12 education would support each child in developing:

  • responsibility
  • good decision making
  • the ability to apply her/himself to challenging tasks (perseverance)
  • the ability to work effectively with others (cooperation)
  • the ability to work on one’s own (independence)
  • a strong sense of self
  • a positive self-image

An effective K-12 learning environment teaches academic material while at the same time supporting personal development. 

Teaching Academic Material
The acceptance of individual differences in the abilities and knowledge of students as unavoidable has led to the creation of flexible teaching methods. A primary example of this is the development of differentiated instruction.  Educators use this approach to teach students with a wide range of abilities in a way that challenges each and every student. Although this approach technically goes back to 1953, (3) good teachers have utilized their own versions for centuries. Differentiating instruction results in classrooms in which all students learn more and learn at their levels.

According to Rebecca Alber, consulting online editor for Edutopia, differentiated instruction is based upon the idea that

Equal education is not all students getting the same, but all students getting what they need. Approaching all learners the same academically doesn't work. We have to start where each child is in his learning process in order to authentically meet his academic needs and help him grow. (4)

There many excellent books and programs detailing differentiated instruction techniques. Suffice it to say, this writer believes that any teacher not using these on a daily basis is not a true educator. 

Supporting Personal Development 
Teaching personal development is particularly difficult for us educators because we are never trained in this directly. Sure, university education classes cover classroom management, and there are usually the required courses in special education and psychology which focus more on non-academic student needs, but we have no curriculum or learning standards for teaching responsibility or decision making. We often relegate this topic to health classes but personal development cannot be a subject covered only in a half-credit course in which we lump together diverse topics such as drugs, alcohol, depression, suicide, sex education, etc. 

I believe the reason we require four credits in English and none in personal development is that we have not yet figured out how to teach this subject, much less assess it. Indeed, creating a curriculum for a course in personal development is challenging. We could create a syllabus for a course covering a range of personal development topics, but is a course really what is best suited to the subject matter? 

Students learn more through living than listening.  

  • It is only through being responsible that students learn responsibility.
  • It is only through making decisions, good and bad, that students learn good decision making.
  • It is only through working hard that students learn that hard work gets good results.
  • It is only through working in groups that students learn to work well with others.
  • It is only through participating in an environment that creates the possibility for success that students develop positive self-images.

In accordance with this, a school could be the type of institution whose structures support students in learning personal development.  Each and every aspect of the school, from making and enforcing the rules, to choosing the food to sell in the cafeteria, to creating a school budget could involve the students. 

Much has been written about schools which share power and responsibility with the students. Although most public school administrators imagine overwhelming barriers to implementing this in their schools, there are some creative programs out there. These are outside the scope of this article. Here, the intention is to focus on the goals of education as they intersect with the goals of evaluation.

It is this last item on the list, development of a positive self-image, which is both crucial and directly tied to the issue of evaluation, and which leads to the third possibility for evaluation and graduation requirements. 

Differentiated Assessment
I have argued that an effective K-12 learning environment teaches academic material while at the same time supporting personal development. It should be clear that in so doing, differentiated instruction techniques must be utilized in order to educate each and every student in multi-level classes. The problem is that differentiated instruction only goes halfway. Assessment should be a reflection of instruction. When we differentiate instruction without differentiating assessment, we send mixed messages:  we allow students to achieve success during class, but then to fail when it comes to assessment.

For example, let’s go back to our math class. With differentiated instruction, each student learns each topic at her/his level.  Each student begins with a certain amount of knowledge and then learns more, moving towards mastery within the limits of time, ability and effort. Then, if everyone is given the same test on the material, those who knew more and have greater ability score higher, each and every time. What have we accomplished by testing in this way?  This assessment method benefits neither the stronger nor weaker student. The stronger student will test well regardless of whether s/he has worked hard or learned a significant amount in the class. The weaker student will test lower than the stronger student no matter how hard s/he works in the class. 

The effect this has on self-image is critical. A stronger student’s positive self-image, whether deserved or not, is reinforced by testing each and every time.  A weaker student’s negative self-image is reinforced by testing each and every time.  Who benefits?  Neither student.

So, what is the alternative? Differentiated assessment. 

With differentiated assessment, each student is evaluated based upon what s/he has learned in a class as compared to what s/he knew upon entry into the class. This should take into account the capacity each student has to learn and the effort with which each student applies her/himself.

Student should have different, personalized evaluation tools to determine whether they have learned what was taught to them. Imagine a class in which each student had her/his own customized test.  In an ideal world of unlimited teacher time and small classes, this is feasible, but returning to our math class of 23 students, it is more challenging.  A teacher can hardly create 23 unique tests. 

There are a few ways to address this problem. A class of 23 students does not require 23 tests.  More likely, by grouping the students by ability, 3-5 different tests would suffice, and some of the same questions might appear on all of the tests. 

In addition, and much more importantly, in assessments on many topics, teachers can use open-ended questions, which each student can answer based upon her/his level. With these modifications, the test could be the same but the teacher would be able to grade in a differentiated fashion. If differentiated assessment were to be embraced by schools, publishers of textbooks would also be likely do so and in their textbooks could design multiple tests for each section so that teachers would easily be able to choose from these the test most suitable for each student.

The crucial point is that differentiated assessment changes what it is that grades reflect. Instead of providing information about how a student’s knowledge and skills compare to other students in the class, grades reflect how much a student learned, how much growth they have demonstrated. Since education is about learning, having assessment reflect how much has been learned seems fitting.

This brings us to a possible third path for evaluation and graduation requirements.  Set the bar neither too low nor too high.  Don’t set a bar at all.  Every student should have her or his own bar set just high enough so that success will reflect significant learning from hard work. Every student who graduates under this system would deserve recognition for the work they have done and the amount they have learned. No one would have been bored along the way from work that was too easy nor would students have been set up for failure with impossible expectations.

Of course, this system would change the meaning of graduating from high school. Graduation would mean that a student is leaving high school knowing a significant amount more than when s/he entered as a freshman. To ascertain how much more was learned and how hard the student worked, one need simply refer to the student’s Grade Point Average.

Many educators are probably jumping up and down yelling that this will result in the end of true education. How could I possibly propose a system which gives up objectivity?  With differentiated assessment, a lower-level student could get A-grades for mastery of material a lazy, higher-level student had already mastered upon entry into the class. A smart kid could not meet her/his graduation requirements while a weaker student could graduate knowing less than the smart kid.  The system has no objectivity.  How is this fair?

Objectivity in Evaluation
First off, we should acknowledge that what we believe to be objective assessment often has more to do with how much a student has been able to retain for each test than what has been truly and indelibly learned.  We don’t have to look any further than the functional illiterates who have “graduated” from high school in our current system to convince ourselves of that. Or we could look at a less harsh example, and ask ourselves how much high school Spanish we can actually use as adults.  Or even more probingly, we can ask why, if we truly learn what we’re taught in high school, can’t every high school teacher teach every high school subject?  Didn’t they ALL graduate high school, presumably at the top of their class?  Maybe we don’t objectively learn the things that we have earned our “objective” good grades on. 

Second, we need to consider whether our assessment system should even be objective at all. Objectivity in evaluation is helpful for certain purposes and irrelevant for others. Currently, one of the primary uses for grades is the creation of data that can be reported on a transcript.  A transcript is generally used by a higher educational institution in order to help with sorting. Colleges use high school transcripts (as private secondary schools use elementary and middle school transcripts) to help them decide which students to admit and which to reject.  They hope a transcript provides an objective source of information from which to compare students from school to school, using information such as Grade Point Averages, course levels, etc. 

In reality, even under the current system, colleges know there is little objectivity in grading, and they also realize that grades in one school are not necessarily able to be compared to grades in another school.  As a result, colleges are hesitant to do any firm sorting based upon students’ GPA’s. This is the very reason why national standardized tests, both for general knowledge and skills (SAT I and ACT) and also for specific disciplines (SAT II) are usually required as part of the college admission process.  Although I am not a proponent of over-reliance upon high-stakes testing, tests can be at least a part of a sorting process college admission offices could utilize. (5)

That being said, grades earned within a differentiated assessment system would provide information colleges would be able to use as part of their sorting process. The students with higher grades would be those who have shown the willingness to work hard as well as the ability to learn. I would argue that colleges will be better served by having this information than by knowing what knowledge students have presumably acquired prior to their enrollment in college.
Regardless of what information colleges would like to have in order to choose which students to admit, I believe it is not the responsibility of high schools to do sorting for colleges, especially as the attempt at objectivity utilizes an evaluation system which is not optimal for students’ social, emotional and academic growth.

Another reason some people support objectivity in grading has to do with competition. Many people, especially Americans it seems, believe that a primary part of education is learning how to thrive in a competitive environment.  They argue that the real world is competitive, and therefore responsible education prepares our youth by having them compete from an early age. Although competition is one aspect of the real world, it is neither prevalent nor primary.  As a result, forcing our students to face competition in sports, in the arts, in classes, etc. unbalances them, creating the sort of people who expect and even impose competitive frameworks where one is neither required nor desirable. 

Most workplaces are task-oriented:  the goal is to complete tasks sometimes independently and other times in groups.  Comprehensive completion of tasks is the measure of success. Sure, competition is an aspect of many work environments, and students should have some experience of competing, but our current system has blown this out of proportion with reality.

There is a place for competition in evaluation. Primarily, this is most appropriate in two ways:

  • Competition against oneself, in which one demonstrates improvement over a period of study;
  • Competition against the subject, in which one demonstrates acquisition of knowledge and skills competing against the challenging material or tasks (as opposed to other people in the class).

Class work can be primarily cooperative or at least mutually supportive. In our society, people have significant trouble getting along with each other. Part of the reason for this is that we view each other as competitors. Personally, I choose to relate to others as if we were working towards compatible goals. My goal is to:

  • lead a happy life with positive relationships with friends, family and my spouse;
  • to have enough professional success that I am proud of the results of my work;
  • to earn sufficient money to meet my wants and needs; and
  • to have some leisure time for entertainment and participating in sports. 

There are times when I have found myself in competition with others—competing on a racquetball court, vying for a job or pursuing a potential love interest, but these times are infrequent compared to the times I find myself able to work cooperatively with others. Our competitive time in education should be brought back into balance with cooperative time.

Thus, it is my assertion that education will be improved when schools let go of the fantasy of achieving objectivity in evaluation, and instead trust teachers to focus evaluation on providing the most helpful feedback for those being evaluated.

Moving Beyond Grades
Too often evaluation is considered to be synonymous with grading.  In my experience, grades are only one small piece of evaluation. We repeatedly receive feedback from the people around us. This can be as subtle as a person smiling at a comment we make or as overt as people arguing against a position we have taken. People are repeatedly telling us what they think; in other words, they are evaluating.

Teacher feedback is often constrained to number or letter grades. Some grading systems also allow for comments to be added, usually from a list of familiar lines such as “a pleasure to have in class” or “follows directions well.” This attempt at personalization does little to explain to students how teachers perceive them and their work.

In our school, we use a grade plus comment system. Our comments are not chosen from a list.  Instead, each one is composed by a teacher about a specific student. We train our teachers how to make these comments useful. It is essential that comments be completely personal. That is, a student should be able to recognize each comment as applying specifically to her/him, and conversely, is not broadly applying to other students in the class. While it is challenging for a teacher to write these, especially for larger classes, the information provided helps the student align self-perception with the perception of an evaluator.

This brings us to another heretofore unmentioned goal of evaluation: seeing oneself for how one is. How often have we met people who are incredibly talented, but who think of themselves as insufficient?  How often have we met people who think of themselves as the best thing since sliced bread who have trouble slicing their own bread, metaphorically or otherwise? Too often we do not see ourselves as we really are. Being exposed to other people’s evaluations helps us to create grounded self-images, but there is more to it. Only when we are in the habit of having to assess ourselves do we become proficient at so doing.   

In my classes, I often combine self-evaluation with teacher evaluation. I write a form in which students are asked to describe how well they think they did in a range of areas and then to assign numeric values to this. At the end of the form, they are asked to use the information from their own assessment in order to give themselves overall grades.

This seems to work best when combined with short one-on-one consults in which teacher evaluation is compared to student evaluation in an atmosphere of open discussion. It is in this way that students’ self-assessments come into alignment with the assessments of others and with what they have earned.  It is a process that necessarily takes time to develop—at that start students may be all too eager to give themselves a 100, but given time, they learn to hone their self-observation skills and give more sincere grades.

I give schools a D for grading in the 21st century. Too often, we use grades in ways that do more harm than good.  We evaluate without providing the information students need, and at a very young age, we set certain students up for success and just as many up for failure.  Additionally, we inadvertently set things up so that the grade becomes the goal, rather than the learning. It is only when we question our fundamental assumptions about the nature of assessment and the goals of education, that we are able to create a system that makes assessment a supportive part of our students’ education.

For decades our best teachers have been employing a wide range of differentiated instruction techniques to maximize the learning in their classrooms.  Still, most of these very same teachers have continued to use the same old assessments. It is only when differentiated assessment is used hand-in-hand with differentiated instruction that we will be able to fully educate our students, both in academic knowledge and in life skills, and in so doing give each and every child the best possibility for success.

1. Although there are exceptions, as with homeschooling, this still remains the general expectation.

2. This is a below average-sized class for most public schools,

3. See “Adjusting the Program to the Child” by Carleton Washburne,

5. Although outside the scope of this article, I imagine a truly effective admission process would involve school specific testing with sections that were major specific, a rigorous interview process with both individual and group components, and maybe even some final sorting involving observation of work on a project during a full-day admission assessment.

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