Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What to do about 'grades'?

There's a very thought provoking article by Alfie Kohn in the latest edition of Educational Leadership.  The Case Against Grades makes a very strong argument for moving away from any and all systems that attach a value to the work of students.  Kohn cites findings from as far back as 1933 that putting a 'grade' on students' work has almost no positive effect and numerous negative effects.  Grades have been shown, among other things, to diminish student interest and limit student achievement in a number of ways.  Essentially the argument against grades can be boiled down to this (and I'm pretty sure I'm not the first to say this); When people are given extrinsic rewards for any work that they do, the intrinsic value of that work is inevitably diminished.  Many kids in our system (and some parents) are so strongly focused on the extrinsic rewards available; grades and, by extension, university entrance, scholarships etc. that they completely lose track of what education is supposed to be about in the first place.  Even "standards based" grading, according to Kohn, is just another way of quantifying and labeling.  He even pokes holes in the argument that students "need" grades to get into university, citing examples of broad based admission policies.

So, how do we work toward a grade free world?  Well, let's start with a realistic assessment of what can and can't be done in the near term.  First, though more post secondary institutions are indeed moving to more broad based admission criteria, achieving a mark of x% over y number of courses is still the primary determinant of who gets coveted spots at most large universities.  In Richmond that's no small issue.  Interested parties, primarily government, need to put pressure on these schools to change admission criteria to make broad based admission policies the norm.  However, as a school system, collectively letting universities dictate how we do our job is letting the tail wag the dog.  If secondary schools across the province, perhaps as part of the new Education Plan, were encouraged to move toward grade free environments then universities would quickly find ways to continue to attract the best and brightest.  After all, universities are in competition for the best students just as much as those students are in competition for limited spots.

What can be done on a school level?  My feeling is that there's an appetite amongst teachers to find more productive alternatives for student assessment (see my post FromGoodtoBetter: Rethinking the Currency of Marks).  But they need encouragement, they need some guidance and, perhaps most importantly, they need 'permission' (note the quotes).  That is, they need to feel a true sense of permission from the system as a whole, from the ministry right on down to the school level and perhaps even from parents, to radically change what they've been doing their whole career.  Such a transformation would take time and resources, but I believe that this is one educational reform that would have the backing of most teachers if done properly.

Here's one suggestion for moving this along.  Now that the number of ministry exams has been drastically curtailed, secondary schools will be left with even more unstructured time at the end of semester or the end of the school year. This time could well be used by teachers for things like summative meetings or interviews with students, or other assessments where kids would leave a course with a genuine knowledge of what they'd done well, what still needed a little work, and what their next academic step may be given their current accomplishments.

In short, the old arguments for grading students are sounding to me increasingly like "We do this because that's the way ________ wants it done."  That refrain is getting old, as educators why are we letting ______ tell us what's best for students?  I'm under no illusion that we'll be moving to a grade free system anytime soon, but if we hold a vision in our collective consciousness of what a grade free environment might look like, incremental steps in that direction can be implemented.

NOTE: As I write this post, this is in today's Vancouver Sun "Entrance GPA Reliable Predictor of School Performance: study"

"Interviews and supplementary application materials such as reference letters, resumes and essays, add little value when it comes to predicting how well students do - mark-wise - in nursing school."

In other words, students who did well in the "marks as currency" system which is predominant in most high schools continued to do well in post secondary, where the "marks as currency" system is even more predominant.  The frustration is that studies like this make meaningful change even more difficult.