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It’s time we hold tests and grades accountable

On my blog for the love of learning, I recently wrote a post called assessment simplified and it received the following comment:

I think we have to be really careful to assess based on criteria and not just what looks “cool” in the classroom. If as teachers we are not willing to teach and assess curriculum, then we shouldn’t be teaching in the public system. Furthermore, we need to have a realistic idea of what grade-level achievement looks like and be willing to accurately report it to parents when the time comes. I agree that traditional grades can hurt a student’s ability to learn, but at the end of the day, teachers need to be accountable to parents, and ultimately the students, by reporting accurately. Worse than giving a grade is giving one that isn’t based on fact.

This is a classic cookie-cutter response that I regularly receive when discussing the abolishment of grading and testing, and I would like to respond with a few points.

Testing and grading have not existed forever; they are modern day technologies that educators and education systems adopted relatively recently. With every technology there are sources of error. Remember that in order to reduce something as messy as learning to a number requires some underlying algorithms which are fallible. Your doctor will tell you that your cholesterol test has 20% error associated with it. Political polls like to believe they are gaining valuable insight into who will win the next election, but they advertise their error rate. In other words, many professionals attempt to make inferences based on samples from an entire domain. But do teachers or the education system acknowledge the error associated with grading and testing? Every time teachers, administrators and policy makers sell these grades as an act of precision, they are engaging in assessment malpractice.

There are only two ways you can test people. You can ask them to supply a response/performance or you ask them to pick an answer. The latter includes things like multiple choice exams which only came about around 1910. The former has been around forever. To claim the latter as a requirement for teaching in public education seems ignorant.

Any accountability system that shrugs at the harms done to student learning in the name of reporting must be held to account. Anyone who believes our mania for reducing everything to numbers is reporting real learning accurately has lost the plot. Grading and testing as a means of holding schools accountable is not like the weather – it’s not just this thing we have to get used to; rather it is a morally objectionable and intellectually indefensible political movement that must be opposed.

“Worse than giving a grade is giving one that isn’t based on fact” is a very powerful comment, but if Linda McNeil from Rice University is correct in saying that measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning than the traditional methods for counting grades may be based on “facts” or criteria that simply don’t matter all that much. If you talk to parents and ask them what they want for their children from a good education, they don’t say “well, I want them to understand standard deviation and coordinating conjunctions, and they better help their school score well on their accountability pillars.” I’m not sure how we can properly grade and test creativity, perseverance, initiative, intrinsic motivation, democratic citizenry, social justice, patience, thoughtfulness and diligence, but I do know our curriculums, programs of studies and state standards tend to ignore all these “cool” things. Some might speculate that giving a grade not based on ‘fact’ is worse than giving any grade, while others will say that there is a big difference between valuing what you can measure and measuring what you value.

The perceived need for grades is an argument built on the need for ranking and sorting children which have nothing to do with learning, and it’s time to hold such an argument accountable.


About joebower

I believe students should experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information.


2 thoughts on “It’s time we hold tests and grades accountable

  1. I see both sides here, though. I feel that on one hand, grades are ruining our students who have an almost Pavolvian need for them. It drives me nuts that my students seem to think that EVERYTHING they do needs to have an attached grade, whereas when I was in high school I was fine just getting tests back with grades and an acknowledgement or “check” for completing a routine assignment.

    BUT … of course, we need to assess via constructive feedback or whatever method we choose. After all, behind every great writer is an editor, right? And an editor can tell the writer whether or not and why his work is up to snuff. I’ve seen student projects that look cool but if you look past the presentation they’re really not all that great … and I think that’s what that question was getting at.

    AND, I don’t think testing or grading are going anywhere, as long as it can be used as a PR tool or political football for administrators, politicians, or whomever is involved with the bureaucracy of public education. You can say that testing, etc. has only been around since 1910, but in our current society, 1910 might as well be 1610. It’s been in place long enough that we have to acknowledge that this is how things are done and work to change them, and that starts with doing what we do in spite of the grades and enduring the grading and testing because it’s what we’ve been tasked to do for now.

    Posted by Tom Panarese | August 17, 2010, 7:49 pm
  2. Compelling post, Joe –

    I suspect that testing will go when the profits go to embedded assessment in computer programs.

    Let’s think of the current fiscal climate, a popular topic of discussion.

    Student information management programs cost money. Grading modules for those programs cost money. Stand-alone grading software costs money. The time teachers spend calculating, weighing, and gaming grades costs money.

    However, grading doesn’t cause learning. Feedback does. Supportive relationships do. Opportunities to fail safely do.

    Grading is unnecessary to learning. Cut it from the budget. Put the money back into student-managed projects, into state-wide sampled assessment of student portfolios, or into salaries that recruit and retain teachers who are ready to commit to the kind of specific, narrative, student-centered criterion-based reporting that actually gives students and idea of what they’ve accomplished instead of how they’ve scored.

    Those are two different things. Only one will make any difference in the world.

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 20, 2010, 3:54 pm

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