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?