What Do Grades Have To Do With It?

Once again, I rant about meaningless grades and courses.

I was sitting in a meeting in which we were discussing some students that were going to participate in a small research program, and as part of the conversation, we reviewed the courses and grades for the students. The students had taken or were taking advanced courses, honors version, etc., and had made high grades in the courses that they had completed.

And, either out of arrogance or ignorance, my internal response, was ‘So what?’ My experience with similar courses led me to believe the content and the practice of those courses did not have any relevance for the program we were considering (except possibly some help with the vocabulary; but that can be taught quickly). The grades only meant that they were successful students, but probably didn’t really tell me anything about the student’s intellectual ability or his or her capacity for research. I’m sure these are fine students and that they will do well in the program, and it’s not their fault that we have incomplete or useless information about them. So who or what can we blame?

I’d like to blame grading and grades and all the things that are decided by them. Do you want be part of some special opportunity?, then What’s your GPA? How do we find the best student?,  let’s Look at the averages. How well do you know topic X?, becomes What did you score on the final? I understand all the reasons that we reduce complex information down to this one number, but I keep running into situations where it is no good. Having this one mystical number define so much of a student’s academic life naturally drives them to figure out ways to get good scores, which often becomes separated from actual learning. So we drift off into some form of holistic review, or standards based grading (SBG) or something more ‘complete’, increasing someone’s workload, but most likely at the end reducing a student back down to a single number.

I keep wanting to write out a solution, but I always see it sliding back into one final number. For example, suppose we keep track of how a student does on every activity, including early drafts, corrections, in-class participation, test, etc. and then for any query we have about the student, we have some way (a computer avatar?) to use that information to evaluate that student (think of those evaluation forms where they ask how this student would be as a teacher). We have retained some flexibility as we can evaluate against different criteria, but in the end, we will come up with a score, like Ability to Do X: 9/10, Ability to Do Y: 8/10, and someone is going to add them up or average them, because that’s what we do with a bunch of numbers, and because we know that all 10/10s is better than some 9/10s.

Maybe our only hope is to find a way to stop asking for this type of final or overall evaluation and make everyone who wants to know about our student, read or listen to a long description of what he or she has done.

Hypocritical Postscript: soon after the meeting that prompted this rant, I was looking at my child’s grades and was pleased that one teacher seemed to be providing lots of opportunities to earn grade points through low-stakes, participation-like activities, thus providing a means for my child to get a high grade. Shame on me.

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