20 April 2011

The value of grades

An interesting discussion of different ways to scale grades using algorithms over at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.  The comments are at least as interesting as the post.  In the comments, the value of grades emerges as a central concern.

Grades have two main uses:

  1. Social
  2. Pedagogical
Both are important, but it's very clear that the main social use of grades--as a socially visible and efficacious mark which sets apart the "smart" kids from the not-so-smart ones--is predicated upon the sound functioning of the main pedagogical use--as a form of critical feedback that lets a student know relatively how s/he's performing. Grade inflation is driven by the democratization of the university and the concomitant rise of the social importance of grades. Since a university-level education is now regarded as a sine qua non for a decent job, and since universities use high-school grades as an admissions test (i.e., to make invidious distinctions between students), it's no surprise that enormous pressure is placed on teachers to give higher marks. Similarly, since university students now presume (rather unimaginatively, in my opinion) that a graduate degree is the key to social success, and since graduate schools look at university grades as an admissions test, university students correctly deduce that good grades are key to their social success. And since grades are presented with little context, enormous pressure can be brought to bear on teachers, since it hardly matters how a student gets good grades. The succesful wheedler can expect a level of social success (status and salary) equivalent to that of the class genius.
Students believe that this equation represents the world perfectly.  They are not entirely wrong.

With that in mind, the crucial context that makes it possible to put grades to any use is the relative expectations that presumably animate the teacher's instruction. I always think of this context as having three layers:
  1. The student's performance vis-à-vis his/her peers in this particular course (during this semester, with these students)
  2. The student's performance vis-à-vis other cohorts taking more of less the same course (i.e., compared to all students who've taken this course with me)
  3. The student's performance vis-à-vis the universe of students who have ever taken, are now taking, or will take a course more or less equivalent to this one, in any institution and with any instructor.
Comparing students only among their immediate peers can give a false impression of their performance, since cohorts and classes can and do differ in relative strength. Some groups should skew higher or lower, because the groups are stronger or weaker than other groups. I find this kind of contextualizing to be very difficult, and while algorithms can be helpful as a method, they are no substitute for the judgment that decides which of them to use or whether to use them at all.

There are several universities in the US at which students are given feedback but no grades. Hampshire College, for example, provides no grades: at the end of each course, the teacher and the student both draft a 300-400 word narrative discussing the student's performance. These narratives form the body of the student's "transcript." These transcripts are made available to the entire student body as well as to other institutions at the student's request.  I took two courses at Hampshire, and I found the students to be engaged, engaging, and highly motivated. (Since I attended a different school, which did give grades, my teachers gave me a grade, but I can tell you that the narratives they wrote are far more precious to me. I still have them.)

Even though they still publish evaluations of each student's performance, such institutions obviously have a strong position on the social value of grades. An interesting thought experiment that really pushes the distinction between social and pedagogical uses to its limit is to imagine a university that gives grades, but does not publish them. Students are told what grades they have received, but the records are then destroyed, so that no one can "prove" anything. The students' transcripts are simply the lists of the courses they've taken. Anyone could say he'd gotten an A, but only he and his teacher know for sure, and no on can prove anything. Wouldn't teachers and students then simply regard the grades are a rather autistic and reductive form of feedback? Would giving grades be worth the trouble? Would teaching per se be easier or harder? Relative performance would still need to be graded, in the strict sense of the word, but since the social value of the grade has been eliminated, the only value left is its pedagogical value. So what IS the pedagogical value of a grade?