What Purpose Does a Grade Serve?

In other words, does the traditional answer apply to today’s students?

Day 18 of my 30-Day Writing Challenge

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

It’s getting harder to not repeat myself, so I would love to know what you would like me to write about. Please leave a comment if you would like.

According to Carnegie Mellon University,

Generally, the goal of grading is to evaluate individual students’ learning and performance. Although grades are sometimes treated as a proxy for student learning, they are not always a reliable measure. Moreover, they may incorporate criteria — such as attendance, participation, and effort — that are not direct measures of learning.

There are some important points to unpack in that short paragraph.

Evaluating Students’ Learning and Performance

As stated in other posts, assigning a grade to one performance is not a good idea. On test day, the student could be sick, distracted, tired, angry, or otherwise disengaged. Test anxiety is real too.

Grades “Are Not Always a Reliable Measure”

If plenty of formative assessment precedes that summative assessment that results in a grade, we can use formative assessment data to analyze the summative score, to determine if that score is valid.

If students are allowed to retake a test, I can accept that grade as valid. It’s shameful that this “one and done” policy is so prevalent still, in my opinion.

If the grade is the result of an activity with a real learning progression toward mastery, and the summative activity provides the student with meaningful and authentic ways to demonstrate learning, then providing the student feedback with a grade makes sense to me.

In other words, if the grades reflect assessment, not just testing, I think grades are acceptable data points.

Grades May Include “Criteria” That Are Not “Measures of Learning”

I’ll admit I have used those other criteria Carnegie Mellon mention: attendance, participation, and effort. Are they truly not “measures of learning”? I need a connotative definition of learning in this context, and I’m not sure I would agree with the definition.

I mean, I get their conclusion in the strictest sense. If we look at grades only in terms of measuring content and skills related to the course, then sure, attendance, participation, and effort don’t apply.

However, those other factors are important to one’s education. They are part of the “hidden curriculum,” those skills and concepts that should be part of every course, each year of a child’s education.

Consider the following arguments.

The Importance of Attendance

What happens when an adult doesn’t show up on a workday and doesn’t have a legitimate excuse? Well, after three days or so, the person’s employment is terminated. Shouldn’t we instill that value in our students?

The Value of Participation and Effort

What are we teaching kids when their diligence doesn’t mean as much as that other kid who is successful without much effort or participation? We’ve all known that kid, right? When the diligent kids enter the workforce, will they work hard, or will they have learned it doesn’t matter to anyone else, so why bother? Shouldn’t we show how much we value participation and effort to encourage those children to be self-directed, courageous, and dedicated human beings? Shouldn’t they be rewarded?

Let’s Re-purpose the Grade

Addressing the needs and development of the whole child is not new. If a grade reflects assessment of mastery-learning and life-skills (attendance, participation, and effort), then that grade should be considered valid.

There are so many programs that can unpack a grade. These programs can align assessments to standards or course objectives to create robust data teachers can analyze to improve learning. The LMS’s I have used in the past allow teachers to align parts of an assessment (questions and/or rubrics) to available standards and objectives, for example. With that data available, can we not include life-skills measures into the final grade? Of course we can.

If we have to have grades, we need to re-purpose them and redefine how they reflect learning in all its aspects.

What Is Your Definition of Learning?

That’s my question for you today. Thank you for reading this, my eighteenth post in my 30-Day Writing Challenge.

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