Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Mis-Measure of Schools and School Children

Currently, at least 14 states grade their public schools on an A-F scale. Educators are correct to point out that this is a stupid way to hold schools accountable. Three reasons pop out right away when we think about the idiocy of giving schools a letter grade and then publicizing this grade through the media.

  1. A letter grade cannot possibly capture the complexity of the learning society that is a school. So many factors go into what makes a school high functioning or low functioning that letter grades, leaning heavily on standardized tests, are suspect from the outset.
  2. Letter grades, again based largely on standardized test scores, narrow the curriculum and encourage poor instructional practice based on test preparation
  3. Low grades given to schools where teachers, administrators and students are working hard at overcoming the odds, destroy morale and inhibit motivation, while high grades may encourage a false complacency.
So, yes, all educators should fight against these short-sighted, narrow-cast attempts to assess their work on a school-wide basis. Unfortunately, we teachers cannot claim the moral high ground here. Teachers, after all, invented A-F grading and for the past 150 years or so have been working to convince parents, students, and community members that grades are a legitimate way to assess a student's knowledge. This is a lie. It is a lie that the public has bought into wholly and now the public, in the form of state legislatures and departments of education, is coming to punish us with our own invention.

Letter grades for students have all the same flaws as letter grades for schools, except that instead of the damage being institutional it is personal. 
  1. Letter grades for students, we all know, are woefully inadequate measures of the complexity of individual student learning. 
  2. Grades narrow learning by creating a "grading orientation" rather than a "learning orientation."
  3. While high grades may motivate students to want to achieve more high grades, low grades are demoralizing to lower achieving students and destroy motivation.
We tend to pack too much into grades: test and quiz scores, homework completion, attendance, classroom participation, effort and on and on. Many of these things are only tangentially relevant to actual achievement, but all get packed into a grade. I was recently a part of a discussion on assessing writing. The teachers were working on a rubric, which tried to capture all the aspects of a constructed response essay. At one point, the principal pointed out that the rubric score was not to be considered as a grade. In fact, a student with a "4" out of "6" on the essay, might get an A if she were in a low track class or a C if in a higher track class. The teachers generally agreed. Immediately, we have to ask, what is being graded - the student's ability to write or the student's perceived overall ability? Obviously, the grade does not reflect, in this scenario, writing ability, but some aspect of writing combined with effort, combined with teacher perceptions. And so it is with all grades. They lie. They do not provide useful feedback, but we have convinced the public they are meaningful.

Alfie Kohn has argued for years that grades diminish an orientation towards learning. A "grading orientation" as he calls it, causes students to focus on getting a grade rather than learning new and interesting information. A grading orientation leads to a desire to choose the easiest possible task, because that easier task will lead to the better grade, not necessarily to better learning. Students become efficient grade acquirers. For example, when assigned a reading task with follow up questions, the efficient grade acquirer will go straight to the questions and answer them, only reading what is absolutely necessary to complete the graded assignment. A grading and testing orientation narrows students focus on the trivial and takes them away from the larger questions and broader understandings in any area of study.

In a Psychology Today article, Schwartz and Sharpe argue that "if we corrupt students' souls by convincing them that the main motive for learning are high grades and honors, we end up de-motivating, and de-moralizing, those students who have little chance for the top rankings. It is true that studies have shown that grades can be motivating for high achievers, but often, as discussed above, this is at the cost of deeper understanding. 

I had a group of so-called "college bound" 8th graders many years ago in an American History class. The students in this class were used to getting As on all there work. They understood the school "game" well and were bright and capable. I had a habit of including one or two essay questions on my tests and quizzes along with map identification and multiple choice questions. These students regularly Aced the map and multiple choice questions, but struggled mightily with the essays, which tended to read like a list of highlights from the text, rather than well reasoned arguments. Some of these students started getting Bs or Cs on their tests. They were incensed. We had a lengthy discussion about what it meant to think like an historian, but the students felt I was changing the rules on them. They were A students after all. How dare I? 

If I had had a little more experience (and tenure) in those days, I might have told those students what I tell my college students now, "All of you in this class are smart enough to get an A, so I am going to give you an A right now. Now let's get on with the actual learning we have to do." 

I know nothing I say here is going to change grades and grading in the near future, but I do want us all to understand that when others seek to grade us, we have only ourselves to blame. In subsequent posts I will discuss better ways to assess student learning.