Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Let's Talk About Grades...Part Uno

"How many A's did you get, my boy?"

From an early age, we are all asked about our grades and our favorite subject at school.  Everyone wants to know and, later in your education career, the grade seems to becomes the goal of going to school (instead of learning being the goal...but that's a different topic).  Did you ever wonder where these grading scales were invented and how they evolved over time?  Well, we all should, since these darn grade things have been held over our heads for years and we need to understand something in order to kill it! (that last remark should be in quotes, but I don't remember the movie or book that I experienced it).

Fortunately, some others have followed the history of grades and we have access via this wonderful tool called the internet...
It's interesting how, over time the grading scale has been changed, altered, adjusted, etc.  I have watched the scale and how it is interpreted change drastically since I graduated college...even since I began teaching.

At my university, we utilize the A, B, C, D, F policy.  In my opinion, there is no worse grading system than this.  Let me give an example of three students, their performance in class, and their grades.  Let's see if you spot the injustice...
  • Student 1:  Percentage of points earned = 88.5%, Grade = B
  • Student 2:  Percentage of points earned = 79.7%, Grade = B
  • Student 3:  Percentage of Points earned = 78.5%, Grade = C
The skills developed, information grasped, and ability to perform on exams, quizzes and homework is obviously better in student 1 (notice, I said nothing about effort, since that is not something I measure).  

But, students 2 and 3 are so similar that, honestly, a good guess by student 2 or a bad guess by student 3 on a couple of multiple choice questions might be the difference in their points earned.  Or, student 3 might have been sick during exam 2 and the illness left them unprepared for the exam.  Who knows.  But, they differ by a very small amount and yet "earned" different grades.  In fact, I see student 2 and 3 as very similar in competency based upon the results of the various assessments in the class.

Also, is it fair that student 1 outperformed student 2 by such a large amount but that their GPA for the class is the same (a 3.0)?  Absolutely not.

This one example should be enough that the powers that be should be bending over backwards to ensure that students in our education system are more fairly assessed at the end of the semester.  But they aren't.  I've brought up the topic numerous times to my administration and they always remark that the university system sets the grading scales.  

There must be a better way to do this.  Yet, the history's linked above show the same sort of searching and trying that I want us to do, now.  And, I have yet to introduce the difference between grades given by different instructors of the same course.  Or, how different departments tend to give nearly all A's while others have a more even distribution while others have bell shaped distributions.  In other words, the system is a mess and, frankly, tells you less than you think about a student.

It is these variations that have led to the dreaded standardized test.  While we now boo the standardized exam and dismiss them as being too important, the history of grading and the current shambles of a grading system almost force our hands.  I do not see a way around the standardized exams if we want to properly compare student skills and competencies.  

I think it's time to really rethink the whole system.  While we're trying to build a better education system that includes quickly changing and varying technologies, different skill sets required for employment, different educational space needs (classroom design), and students who learn differently, we should be holistic and consider the way we assess the students.

I would love to hear your ideas and opinions about grades.  Please, comment below to start the conversation.  This is an important topic and there is no better way to get ideas than to brainstorm...

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