You earned it, kid

At the suggestion of former NAIS President Pat Bassett, who signed off his blog in June with several recommendations for summer reads, I picked up “On Grades and Grading” by Timothy Quinn. I was not disappointed. Quinn, Assistant Head of the Upper School at the University School of Milwaukee, has produced a tidy volume of 121 pages that strives to create a single conversation out of some cacophony.

We educators certainly have many arguments to make about grades. We also have many opinions — usually negative — about grading itself. As Quinn pointed out in a post related to the book, the problem may stem from fundamental disagreement about what we are trying to accomplish:

Consider all the things grades can do: They can quantify, they can symbolize, they can describe, they can evaluate, and they can rank. Those are all transitive verbs, so they need objects. Here are some options: a student’s learning, a student’s skill level, a student’s performance, and a student’s progress. (Keep in mind that most of these can be measured either at a given time or over a period of time.) What’s more, is that each of these potential definitions of a grade need some sort of context — are they relative to a standard, to a student’s peers in a class, school, or grade level, or to all other possible outcomes?

Ultimately, grades will only begin to have meaning when teachers and schools define their grades clearly by answering these questions.

Quinn’s work offers a path for educators. He begins by asking why we grade at all (a question he raises repeatedly). In the introduction, he posits three essential reasons:

1. Grades can provide data upon which to base decisions.
2. Grades can have a tremendous impact on student motivation.
3. Grades can provide students with important feedback on their work. (xiii)

Notably absent from this list is the use of grades to rank and sort students for non-pedagogical purposes — namely, college admissions. Quinn states matter-of-factly that our purpose as teachers is to educate, not act as intelligence agents for higher ed (my phrasing). However, he also acknowledges that we cannot simply ignore what happens to our college-bound students. To resolve this problem, he argues that we must ensure fairness in our grading, for pedagogical reasons but also because we know that people other than students and parents read our students’ transcripts.

As Quinn picks his way through a laundry list of grading issues that teachers face, he raises many good questions. Here are just a few:

  • When we say that students “earn” their grades, what do we really mean?
  • Can we square belief in brain plasticity and promotion of a growth mindset with the vague expectation of a bell curve for students’ aggregate grades? In other words, do we believe somehow that a certain statistically significant portion of the student body should be struggling and failing even at the end of the year, or at graduation? If so, why? Are we implicitly sending mixed signals to ourselves, and by extension to our students?
  • In the working world, one’s performance is judged by one’s final draft. Why, then, do we sometimes average “originals” with “rewrites”?
  • Is grade book transparency throughout the term (as opposed to copious written/oral feedback) actually a good idea?

A work as short as this one cannot offer many answers. Quinn treads lightly on some topics, and I imagine that my more quantitatively-minded colleagues will take issue with parts of his argument. But Quinn does a fine job framing the conversation, and that is a gift in and of itself. I enjoyed the book and recommend it highly. I will resist the temptation to grade it.

3 thoughts on “You earned it, kid

  1. It seems to me that reason #1 (“provide data on which to base decisions”) could very well be “to rank and sort students…for college admissions.” Grades should be a basis for admissions decisions, I think, assuming the teachers are giving them honestly. I look forward to the book, and I’m wondering what grade you would give it, Frank, if you were to grade it?

    1. By decisions, Quinn means internal school decisions (sorry not to clarify that part). External school decisions are not “pedagogically legitimate” in his view. A purist’s perspective, perhaps.

      If you will force me to give it a grade, I’ll give it an “incomplete.” It’s a group project, after all. As educators, we must all make our own decisions about what we want out of a grading system.

      1. I would definitely call Quinn a “purist” then, or perhaps “inconsistent;” or maybe even “hypocritical.” If grades can be used for internal school decisions that matter why can’t they be used by others? Doesn’t make sense.

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