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  • Writer's pictureKjell Fenn, M.Ed., M.A.

Grade A Choice Students: Why Do We "Grade" Kids, Anyways?

by Kjell Fenn, M.Ed., M.A.

I have not yet met one teacher who likes grading. You know, staring at the pile of papers to read and evaluate. Maybe you have a rubric, maybe you don't. You get through one stack of work just to hear the next group of students shuffling in to lovingly place their work in a new stack. And when you get behind in grading, it's excruciating to try to dig your way out. Ugg. And while scantrons are amazing, they don't really capture what the kids know.

As you can probably tell, I hate grading. Kids are more than numbers, more than GPAs, more than empirical marks. Learning cannot be judged accurately by the percentage of items correct. Rubrics and charts cannot really evaluate intellectual growth. So, why do we do it and where did it come from? The first question is due mostly because we’ve been doing it for so long, so we keep on doing it (much like homework).

Where Grading Started

In the context of the history of education, grading students is a relatively new idea. Starting in the late 1800s, grading began in the university system. Universities began evaluating students, often as a motivational tool, and then to track and sort students. Professors used grading as a way to create competition within the class. The students who had the best grade sat closest to the professor – something that students wanted. In the early 20th century, grading was used to standardize the U.S. system of education. The method of evaluating came from agriculture, as in grading grains and products (even the term ‘grading’).

In the 1960s, the system was unofficially systematized into the current student evaluation system of the 100-point scale with letters (i.e., A-F) to complement the percentages.

Subjectivity in Grading

Grading is incredibly idiosyncratic. The grading system tried to remove subjectivity from evaluating students by quantifying the learning and achievement of content. The system tried to attach numbers to abstractions. There was no intentionality to the grading systems, no planning, and no real forethought. It was a gradual and accidental form of evaluation. Soon, however, grades became a type of currency in which students would navigate the system to earn more points and achieve higher scores which would open more doors to their future. Grading students’ progress and growth, then became secondary to the students earning points, adult approval, and opportunities. It does not evaluate growth or learning. Kids are not learning but receiving A’s; kids are passed on to the next grade level without knowing the previous standards; kids who learn much are receiving poor grades. When I hand in my math homework without my name, I lose 10 points. Because I forgot to write my name, it appears that I only know 90% of the material when, in fact, every single one of the answers was correct (and I did show my work!). There are so many issues with the current, traditional system of reporting the evaluation of our students.

Incongruence with Missions

The vast majority of vision and mission statements have nothing quantifiable in them, yet we use standardized test scores and grades to determine learning and growth. As a parent, I look at the soft skills (often in narrative form) on the report before I look at the grades. Why? Because I don’t want my kid to be smart and a troublemaker! I want her to be smart and likable, to be a life-long learner, a global citizen able to navigate the harsh waters of the world.

The traditional grading system also does not fully recognize the import of soft skills. Typically, responsibility, honesty, study habits, etc., are relegated to a class participation grade, usually 10% or less of a final grade. In the mind of a student, this small percentage is meaningless; thus, he/she does not actively and intentionally strive to improve those skills. In a cursory review of schools’ visions and missions, none of them (the visions and missions) were quantifiable. How does a school assess whether a student is “dedicated to transforming” the city? What does “environmentally conscious” look like? In what ways does a school determine that a student is a “life-long learner”? Soft skills, such as self-regulation and self-motivation, are what a liberal arts education is intended to impart.

The typical grading system actually grades prior knowledge more than learning. For example, Jimmy is a student from a poor family. He does not read because books are not a part of his family life. He comes into Mr. Smith’s history class having only 30% of what he should know (i.e., prior knowledge). Sally, a solid student, watches Discovery Channel and History Channel religiously and discusses the news with her parents at dinner every night. She enters the class knowing 60%. And then there’s Enrique who comes from a very privileged and educated family. His mother is a professor of classical literature and his father a historian for the town. He reads textbooks for pleasure and wins at Jeopardy! nightly. He comes in having 85%. Mr. Smith begins the class and after a few weeks, gives a test. As you would expect, Enrique aces it, Sally does quite well, and Jimmy fails. After another few weeks, the class received their final grade for the quarter: Jimmy, 65; Sally, 85; Enrique, 95. Who learned the most? Who received the highest grade? [Answers: Jimmy learned the most with 35% (doubling his prior knowledge) and Enrique received the highest grade (an A, but only learned 10% new)].

Historically, learning has more to do with character-building and long-lasting changes in an individual than with particular, time-specific scores; it is meant to maintain the healthy elements of a society and reform the maladaptive aspects while progressing for a better future.

Why Grade the Way We Do?

We grade this way because it’s traditionally what we’ve done. Now, if it is systemic, it is not going to go away any time soon, no matter how broken it is. The second reason why we grade this way is that the higher ed system uses the grades for entrance and scholarships. Grades, then, become the currency by which high school graduates pay for college.

Why Should We Grade?

We should grade? Wait... we shouldn’t grade at all! Students are not meat (Grade A) or vegetables, they are kids. We should evaluate and assess. We should measure learning and growth. But, alas, a system is hard to change. In the meantime, awareness of what grading is, where it came from, and what it actually 'grades', should act as guides on our evaluation and assessment of students.

Authored by Kjell Fenn © SchoolRIGHT, LLC., unless otherwise specified. All rights reserved.


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