Do we care whether colleges like our grading systems?

The dust has settled from the start of the academic year, and a few educational bloggers are suddenly plunging into excellent, broad questions about the nature and purpose of school. For example:

  • Annie Murphy Paul has opened a discussion about the degree to which the purpose of schooling is to acquire skills to successfully compete in the global economy.
  • Grant Lichtman has bravely posted twice on the question: “Who is the School’s Customer”?

Thoughtful bloggers are asking great questions. It’s a fine way to start the new year.

Let me, in turn, ask a question that in some ways relates to both discussions above. At my school, students are settled into their first readings, units, projects, and activities. Soon, they will begin receiving grades of various sorts. These grades provide information about various aspects of their education.

Information for whom?

When I posted earlier on Timothy Quinn’s “On Grades and Grading,” I noted that Quinn believes that grading systems should be designed exclusively with pedagogy in mind. In his view, the needs of college admissions officers or employers are irrelevant. After all, they want to rank and sort students, and where is the pedagogical value in that activity? In fact, he suggests that educators might do best by their students by eliminating succinct grades entirely.

Since I posted this piece, I have had some good conversations with friends and colleagues. Some praise what they see as Quinn’s purity of purpose. Others find his dismissal of college admissions detrimental to the prospects of students in their care.

To be fair to Quinn, let me provide his own elaboration on the subject:

Admissions officers and employers can use whatever grades are provided to help them do the sorting, but producing grades that are user-friendly for these two groups should not be a concern of educators. Admissions officers and employers may be dismayed at the prospect of having to do more work in sorting students, but in the end, they will be happier if they are getting better-educated applicants due to more pedagogically sound grading policies. (14)

On one level, I find this perspective quite refreshing. As a participant in a 1:1 iPad pilot this fall, I find myself experimenting with new ways of providing feedback that are more sophisticated than what I’ve achieved in the past. Moreover, I think that there are sound reasons why schools might consider pass/fail or other options for new students in their communities. I am open to those arguments. Let me also warmly acknowledge the fine secondary schools, private and public, who have already experimented with (or proudly uphold) the elimination of letter or number grades altogether.

Yet I also pause to consider the ramifications of a four-year secondary transcript without succinct grades. Colleges are already calculating student G.P.A.s and ranking students using their own preferred methodology. If we do not use a transparent, comprehensible, and (on some level) concise grading system for these external actors, are we losing even more control over how colleges “read” our students? How often will overworked admissions officers actually read our copious documentation, our complex notations, or our course-specific check boxes? Will they misinterpret what we provide? What exactly is our obligation — if any — to our peers sitting at those desks? What is are our obligation to our students?

Will they really know that our students are better educated based on the more pedagogically sound grading systems we use, as Quinn suggests?  I would hope so. But I wonder.

Perhaps I am overreacting. Your thoughts?

Remembering Sergeant Darren Manzella

Yesterday I learned of a tragic accident that claimed the life of Darren Manzella, an army medic who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2008. Manzella was twice a soldier, first in Iraq and then back home, fighting against the government injustice that cost him and thousands of others their careers.

Manzella was the keynote speaker at a diversity conference that I organized with students in early 2009. He shared an extraordinary story. After anonymous soldiers threatened to out Manzella, he preemptively spoke with his superior officer about his sexual orientation and his boyfriend back home. Under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” such notification should have led to immediate discharge. Instead, after a short time Manzella found himself cleared of all charges and ordered back to his unit.

Whether through favoritism, sympathy, or just dumb luck, Manzella had been given a second chance. Yet he could not erase the guilt he felt at serving while others were being thrown out. The capricious nature of military investigations upset him to the point that he decided to share his story publicly, knowing that he would be discharged. He sacrificed his career for the purpose of fighting an unjust policy.

Manzella’s talk was unsettling, not simply due to the military policy in question. How many of us, under similar circumstances, would feel emotionally and ethically compelled to act as he did? Would we really be prepared to live by our school motto of being not for oneself? In person, he was generous and kind; he patiently answered many questions. In many ways he was the perfect guest speaker for our community.

In the past two years Manzella celebrated the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and signed up for the Army reserves. He married his boyfriend this past July.

It is a senseless loss. Manzella served his country well. May his memory be a blessing for all who mourn.