Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Grades...What Are They Good For?

Absolutely nothing? Increasingly it seems like the answer is yes.

I have been thinking about grades recently as HoneyFern gets back to its mission, away from our brief segue into public school prep (through no fault of our own, we sort of lost our way for a bit but are now back). We are accredited through high school, so GPA matters for a number of reasons, not the least of which is gaining a scholarship that essentially pays for 95% of college expenses in Georgia.

I have actually been thinking about grades since I became a teacher; what does an "A" actually mean? Obviously, if a student can't answer that question when they receive their work back, or a teacher doesn't consider it when grading, it doesn't mean much.

Research also indicates that

"Today's young adults must be able to adapt to change, problem-solve, innovate, and manage large quantities of knowledge. To do so, they must learn to think critically about complex issues."

Current public education is so test- and grade-focused that there is little time to teach these skills, the recently-derided "critical thinking" that is so important for existence in an increasingly complex world.

So where do grades come into play in evaluating critical thinking? Only artificially, put in place to satiate the parental and administrative need for numbers and data. Here are more important evaluations of knowledge:

*If I cut myself deeply, what is the first thing I need to do?
*I purchased a GPS that is missing a manual or is broken; how do I handle that?
*I would like a raise, or I need a job; what skills do I need to develop, and how do I highlight them in a resume?
*I need to decide whether to fully contribute to my employer's retirement plan or open a Roth IRA. How do I figure out which is most profitable for me?
*Who do I vote for? How do I evaluate each candidate?
*What do I find joyful, and how can I convert that to gainful employment?

University College in London just released a research report that self-reported "happy people" live an average of 35% longer than unhappy people. There is no clear indication that grades, "A" or otherwise, create happiness in students, and they certainly create a pressure-filled environment that is not conducive to learning.

So why does public and private education insist on giving grades, even though there is evidence that much of grading is subjective and biased? It is easier, for one, to award a letter grade than to evaluate a portfolio of evidence. It is easier to assume that an "A" indicates work of higher quality (although many "As" are given for effort, even completely off-track effort); it is also easier to placate parents with grades than a concrete and detailed explanation of the skills their student has gained or still needs to work on, especially if the parent does not feel the missing skills are important.

Other than that, grades aren't worth much. Employers don't give them, and even when certain occupations (e.g., health inspectors) give a grade there is a detailed checklist of what items are necessary for improvement.

The thought process behind grades continues for me as I strive for clear evaluation that means something, evaluation that includes the student and their individual growth, not just a number on a scale.  The one thing that is certain: my students are more than a number on a sheet, and I intend to keep it that way!

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