Measurements or Challenges?

I’ve been engaged in a sort of “war of ideas” lately, on the topic of grading.  I have to admit to some arrogance here, however, as I always go into these conversations knowing I’m right.  After all, I come from the perspective that a grade needs to be purely a measure of content mastery.  Anyone who gives out extra credit or includes practice work in a student’s average just isn’t enlightened enough to get it.

For example, I am constantly promoting the idea that assessments are not mountains to be climbed or puzzles to be solved, but measurements of mastery.  Teachers and parents sometimes argue that students try harder when there is a grade on the line.  I keep telling them, that we need to teach students that these are just “temperature checks” that inform our teaching, not some sort of challenge that must be overcome.

But, there are moments when I realize that I don’t have all the answers.  There are arguments that other teachers make that force me to re-assess some of the practicalities of an instructionally sound grading policy.  The fact is that moving toward a system like the one that I’ve described here and here (and others have discussed here and here), requires more than re-training teachers and administrators.  It means helping students and parents to understand why this is better than the alternative.

But, it’s also much bigger than this.

I came to this realization during another extended “sounding board” discussion with my friend and colleague, Erica Speaks.  She rightly pointed out that while I might say that assessments are just “measurements of content mastery” (can’t you just picture the air quotes here?), they have so much more impact than that.  I interrupted to remind her that we need to train students of this new reality.  She countered that school athletics, university admissions, and lots of others create an environment in which kids are made to feel that earning a good grade is an achievement that one gets through hard work.  Academic failure is described as a failure of will and effort.

Should a patient feel like a failure if her temperature is 100.8 degrees instead of 98.6?  She might if it meant that she couldn’t join the Marine Corps (or the Peace Corps).  Measurements have meaning when they are tied to extrinsic rewards and used as standards for participation.

It is now clear to me that grading practices are not going to improve until those “downstream” from public education are on board.  As Russ Goerend put it in a recent blog post,

“Grading is communication. Once all stakeholders are speaking the same language, it becomes a much less meaningful conversation.”

4 thoughts on “Measurements or Challenges?

  1. I think there’s little debate with Russ Goerend that grading is communication. Where people seem to disagree is on exactly WHAT it should and should not communicate, and to whom.
    It’s true that academic measurement in the form of report cards and standardized tests communicate to colleges who’s deemed worthy of entrance. It communicates to the schools who may or may not get a diploma that entitles students to certain jobs. Because of all this, it communicates to parents that they should encourage good grades because that will give their children more options later in life.
    So to me, our discussion wasn’t “Measurement vs. Challenges” as your title suggests…you were arguing the grade is “only a measurement”, and I was arguing “…but it’s also an achievement”. To this, you said a parent does not show up to the doctor’s office pressuring his/her child for a certain temperature. As you’ve explained, I then pointed out that having a certain temperature doesn’t preclude the child from life’s paths like earning certain grades does.
    But I feel my next point was the most critical of my counter-argument: Neither a child nor a parent has ever been PROUD of a temperature. There’s no accomplishment in getting a 97.9 vs. a 99.4. No effort expended. No intrinsic motivation warranted. I can’t understand why we’d want to rework the whole system to remove that. (I can’t imagine young Paul wasn’t often proud of his report card. :o)
    But I agree…if it’s NOT an achievement, we as a society have been really been wasting our time. Valedictorians should stop giving speeches. Caps and gowns with tassels and “Pomp & Circumstance” playing – why do we bother? Awards ceremonies, Honor Roll parties, and Student of the Year trophies all for…the equivalent of having the highest temperature?
    And this brings me back to what the grade communicates…and to whom. In the end, what is the message we want communicated to the child? Because they are who I care about the most. They can’t “try” to get a certain temperature. There’s literally nothing they can do about that measurement. Is that the message we want them to have about their academic achievement?


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