Thursday, October 14, 2010

Grading Inequalities

Some time ago, I blogged about the unintended consequences that occur when teachers grade student effort. Essentially I made the case that a student who receives a high grade for their effort but a low grade on their learning may come to think that they are still really dumb even when they try really hard, and that a student who receives a low grade on their effort but a high grade on their learning may come to believe that they can succeed without any effort at all.

Essentially, I am concerned that kids will come to devalue the role their effort plays in achieving excellence. I fear that they may attribute their success on external sources such as luck, difficulty or natural ability.

I want to talk about a comment Anonymous left today on my Grading Effort: Unintended Consequences post:

If Johnny is not a smart child, and Carol is...
Johnny's crappy project gets an A because he's not that smart?
Carol get's an A because it's a good project?
Carol looks at Johnny's crappy project with an A, and says "Hey what the?"
Next time she doesn't put that much effort in because why? Crappy gets an A if your "just not that smart"
If I was Carol....I would be PISSED

Anonymous is right...

...but not the way they would like to believe. If school is really just an exercise in collecting A's, and the point of it all is to compete against one another - then kids are right to focus on the grading inequities. If this is the case, then Carol is right to be pissed off when others succeed... she's right to be pissed off when she has to work with someone less intelligent than herself... she's right to be pissed off when doing the right thing doesn't reap the rewards she deserves.

After all, why would anyone ever willingly learn something if the promise of an A isn't waiting for you?

But is this really the kind of learning environment we wish provide for children? Would you want to learn under such tension?

A classroom that focuses on grading is not a classroom about real learning; in other words, rather than compete for grades, kids should collaborate over their learning.

The tone of the comment above from Anonymous leads me to believe they have fallen victim to a classic distraction inherent to traditional education - that is, they still believe that grades are meaningful and objective. Unfortunately, many people don't understand what Paul Dressel meant when he said:

A mark or grade is an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgment by a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an indefinite amount of material.

And Alfie Kohn puts it this way:

What grades offer is spurious precision, a subjective rating masquerading as an objective assessment.

I am also bothered by how Anonymous condones Carol's anger. 

With grades, Carol and other students are encouraged to focus on the wrong inequalities in school - grades force kids to see the credit inequality rather than the learning inequality. If we want to make kids into little narcissists who only look out for their own skin - their own grades - then I can think of no better way of doing so than implementing a rigorous grading system; however, if we truly understand how collaboration trumps competition, we would never pit students against each other. 

Remove grades altogether, and we improve the chances that students like Carol will see students like Johnny as human beings they can help rather than someone to hate because they are garnishing undeserved credit.

I think Harry S. Truman summed up much of this discussion when he said:

It's amazing what you can get done when you don't care who gets the credit.

Maybe, just maybe, we could stop wasting our time being pissed at each other and spend our time learning. After all, it's hard to be serious about striving for excellence, inspiring learning and nurturing hope for all when we distract students from real learning with something as arbitrary and contrived as grading.


  1. I hate grading. I don't like the fact that grades mean nothing. At least, grades mean nothing consistent. If I am an employer looking at a high school students transcripts and I see they received a B in a class that is relevant to the job. Does the B mean the student tries hard, even though they might don't do very good work (Johnny)? Or does it mean that the student does great work but didn't put in their maximum effort (Carol)?

    Again, I don't like grades. Unfortunately our system is as wrapped around grades as it is wrapped around Carnegie Units and seat time. But, as long as we have grades shouldn't they have some sort of uniform meaning.

  2. Joe,

    Carol should be pissed.

    She should be pissed because she's been lied to.

    Because she's been led to believe that grades mean something and that her grade is somehow cheapened by someone else's.

    She should be pissed because her love of learning was stolen from her in favor of meaningless letters...

    Rock on man!

  3. I just cant' figure out why we can't just have a type of 'developmental continuum' - objectives tick boxes - or 'Johnny has covered these areas well.....these areas need work...... I really just don't get why we continue to use grades (apart from fitting neatly into society boxes!!!!)
    I cringe every time my son's report comes out - he tries hard and is not really 'A' material - his confidence just drops every time - it is just not right!!!

    Love the above quotes - I enjoy your blog...

  4. Yes!!!! This is one of your best posts Joe. Thanks so much for being a leader in getting this message out. People like you are ahead of the game and need to continue to communicate this important message!!!

  5. Hi, This is my second comment as part of an assignment in Dr. Strange's class in EDM310. I will now post a summary on my blog This post is great! I loved what you said about how students attribute their success on exteral sources when being graded. You have really made me think about how grades need to be done away with. I believe grading is part of the reason why kids today are so focused on themselves and their natural abilities rather than working together and helping each other.

  6. My stance on this issue is clear. Emphasise the feedback. Remove the grades. It will take time. It will take more than one person, but in 6 months I have my students looking for their feedback before considering a grade. Baby steps.


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