Friday, February 21, 2014

On grades, and what they mean

Until I finished high school, there were very few things that were on my mind more constantly than grades.  I had a personal goal to finish first in my high school class, and that meant that it was necessary to out-perform my classmates.  Especially then, I was a competitive person where it was possible to compare myself to others.  Sports provided one outlet for that, but academic competitiveness was something that stayed with me until the very end.  There were times when my quest for eking out every last advantage on my grade point average verged on the monomaniacal.

Today's entry is bound to be controversial for some people, but Good Counsel never shies from controversy, so here goes:

Grading systems that promote the approach I took are inappropriate at best and damaging at worst.

I've given a great deal of careful thought to this subject, and our approach to grades, especially in elementary, middle, and high schools, is part of the problem that George W. Bush famously (in)articulated:

Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?

Jokes aside, this might be the most insightful thing that Bush* ever said or thought, even if it was unintentional in its brilliance and appalling in its grammatical structure.  Consider a student who masters 85% of the curriculum before her, as measured by an 85% overall grade average for a particular class.  That would usually be assigned a traditional letter-grade of "B," which is supposed to reflect above-average performance.  But above-average compared to what?  And doesn't it also reflect a lack of mastery of the other 15%?

* - I can scarcely believe I am quoting Bush with approval, but "any port in a storm," as they say.  I once gave a speech to the Georgetown Law Democrats that was entirely composed of around 50 "Bushisms," tastefully arranged into a semi-coherent message. It brought the house down.  But a couple of months later, the joke was on us—and the whole country, as it turned out.

Consider your job.  Of the skills you use at your job, what 15% are you allowed not to be proficient at?  At what 15% of your tasks can you utterly fail and still be considered an effective employee?

I would hope that for most people, whether you are a lawyer or doctor or a mechanic or a bookkeeper or a janitor, the expectation would be there that in order to stay employed, you need master all of the skills that are expected of you.  (That doesn't mean that you don't make mistakes, or that the outcome of your effort should always be perfect.  I'm talking about the skills you have.)

Would you drive across a bridge that only had 85% of the rivets placed correctly according to the engineering plans?  Would you go to a surgeon who only knew which instrument to use 85% of the time?  Would the IRS accept corporate accounting books that were only 85% accurate?  What about a concert pianist who only hit 85% of the right notes--would that be someone you'd pay to see?

Of course not.

So why would we find it acceptable, much less "above average," for students to master only 85% of the material covered in their classes?

I suspect that the reason why we find that 85% figure, or anything less than 100%, acceptable is because of the "performance" imperative.  What seems to matter to us most academically is for students to "perform"--to go through the motions of homework and tests as though they were sporting events or game shows, for the purpose of drawing comparisons.  You don't need to shoot 100% from the field to win a basketball game; you don't need to answer all the questions right to be a champion on Jeopardy!.

Rarely, however, is the question asked:  Are our children actually learning, as in mastering the skills they must develop to be educated, creative, critical, productive adults?

If a child is given 100 math problems to work out as homework, and those math problems are directed toward practicing particular math skills, why do we regard anything less than getting 100% of the answers right as reflecting mastery of those skills?  Isn't mastery the goal?

When I was in the sixth grade, my elementary school installed a computer lab, one purpose of which was to assist in the teaching of science.  Those computers had software on them that provided some automated instruction in various science principles. After a student reviewed the lesson, he was given a set of 8-10 questions designed to test whether the student understood the material or not.  In a twist on the usual testing method, this program required the student to answer 100% of the questions correctly before moving on to the next lesson.  If any questions were missed, the student was forced to go back and re-review the relevant sections of the lesson.

This arrangement was not exactly well executed for a couple of reasons.  If the student missed a question, the lesson didn't become more detailed or attempt to explain the concept in a different way.  The questions were multiple-choice and didn't change no matter how many times they appeared, which allowed for passing through trial-and-error and pattern recognition. There are limits on what you could do with an Apple IIe computer.

But the larger point is this.  If the curriculum specifies that children of a certain grade level should demonstrate mastery of a particular group of concepts, then children should be expected to master all of the concepts before moving on.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of a curriculum that was based on much smaller units, akin to chapters in a book, whereby I would be given maybe thousands of units to complete over the course of a school career, arranged so that mastery of each one was required before moving on to the next.  Slower students would work at their own pace and be given as much time as needed to master the material.  I might have been able to work through those units at twice or three times the pace of an "average" student, while still developing the same skill set I ultimately developed, thereby leaving more time for creative work, for play, or even for more academic work.  I don't know how it would work logistically, but it seemed to me to be far preferable to the group pace that characterized most of my education.

I realize that there are other factors involved in grade promotion.  I realize that not every student is capable of mastering concepts at the same rate as his or her age-peers, which is sort of the point.  I suppose it's also possible that students don't really need to master 100% of the curriculum before moving on to the next unit, because what they miss out on, they will pick up later.  But maybe the problem is in thinking that way.  Maybe we're so concerned with performance and its measurement, and the corresponding comparisons among students in a group and between a student and a given age-based standard, that we're forgetting that the point of an education is to develop thinking skills.

Is our children learning? No wonder we can't tell.

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