1 Jon Collier Writing 150 Professor Rebecca Clarke 24 April 2013 Making the Grade: Evaluating the Effects of Traditional Assessment in Higher Education Every college student and professor is familiar with the question, “Will this affect our grade?” This question, sometimes spoken, sometimes implied, heard on every campus across the nation today, is partly the product of a society that is increasingly focused on ratings, rankings, and statistics. We see the influence of these factors unmistakably in sports, politics, and business. But what happens when this mentality creeps into the halls of higher education? Many educators and education professionals have expressed concern with the standard A through F grading system and its effects on the quality of student learning, prompting the suggestion of numerous alternatives (Kohn 28). These alternatives, though imperfect, offer insight into the core objectives of a college education and allow us to see how we can better prepare students for their lives after graduation. This paper will examine how aspects of traditional grades suppress student motivation, learning, and preparation for post-collegiate life. We will consider alternative methods of grading, and examine how those can be implemented in the current system. The Purpose of Grading and the Case for Letter Grades The difficulty of effective assessment in higher education is not new, and educators across the world face this challenge even in the strongest education systems (Yorke 677). Solutions have been suggested, discussed, and dismissed for years. In the words of Green and Emerson, “Grading is one of the least liked, least understood and least considered aspects of teaching” (495). This highlights the need for serious consideration regarding the way we evaluate learning and performance in higher education, since grades are seen as an indicator of both accomplishment and potential. Potential for future accomplishment is precisely what grading is intended to indicate, and grades fulfill their purpose best when they effectively give such an indication. In his defense of college grades, Wilbert J. McKeachie states that “grades are fundamentally a form of communication” (320). He goes on
2 to explain that students expect grades to provide them with an accurate picture of their proficiency and potential in a given subject, professors expect grades to reflect the student’s knowledge and work habits, and prospective employers expect grades to indicate how well the student will perform necessary tasks in the future (McKeachie 320-321). With these objectives of assessment in place, we have a framework established within which we can examine the justifications for and purposes of the traditional grading system. The simplicity of the traditional grading system constitutes one of its most compelling arguments. Grades on a percentage scale or an A through F scale allow students, educators, and other interested parties to see a simple representation of a student’s accomplishment through a glance at a page. Although not an advocate of traditional grading, education professor Sidney B. Simon of the University of Massachusetts concedes that “it allows certain administrative conveniences—permitting assistant principals to decide who goes on probation and who can take an honors course” (“Whadjaget?” 61). This largely explains why the traditional grading system was formed, and how it has endured throughout decades of complaint: it is convenient and efficient, especially for education officials and administrators. This efficiency is also tied with the theoretical objectivity of letter grades. Some educators are concerned that alternative assessments allow evaluations to become too subjective, and the simple, numerical nature of traditional grades provides more universal accuracy (“Whadjaget” 61). Students and employers increasingly expect objectivity from educators and universities, and many fear that departing from the traditional grading structure would result in a loss of that objectivity. In a world where objectivity in selection is increasingly emphasized, letter grades are repeatedly justified on such grounds. The Weaknesses of a Traditional Grading System Despite the justifications for traditional grading, the letter grade system is plagued with problems when measured against the main objectives of a university education. The primary weakness of the current grading method and the root of many other problems is an excessive emphasis on assessment—on the grades themselves. This is a time-honored principle, as revealed by a Zen maxim which states, “If you have one eye on how close you are to achieving your goal, that leaves only one eye for your task” (qtd. in
3 Kohn 30). Though it may come as a surprise to some, research has shown that when students are unduly focused on the way their performance is measured it distracts from the performance itself (Kohn 29-30). In fact, Maehr and Midgley pointed out that “an overemphasis on assessment can actually undermine the pursuit of excellence” (qtd. in Kohn 30). When grading is over-emphasized, students find themselves clamoring for grades rather than exploring the possibilities of their chosen field, which leads to increased memorization of decontextualized facts and decreased creativity with synthesized information. The increased emphasis on grades also fails to prepare graduates for careers and other postcollegiate situations by emphasizing “competition and reward, not learning” (Potts 30). As explained by Culbertson and Jalongo, many students who were competent in basic computation on tests were not able to correctly distribute change when presented with a payment. The skills that were taught and tested were not able to be translated to their real-world application (131). The problem with traditional grading is that it rarely encourages this synthesis of information—it favors students who test well, who can memorize, and who know how to meet a professor’s exact expectations. These skills, while important to a student’s success in school and useful in careers, fail to give a complete understanding of the achievement and potential of a student, especially for students who excel in alternative learning styles. Jalongo and Culbertson go on to explain that informal assessment is far more common in post-collegiate life than grades—for instance, we would care very little if a server received an A on a standardized “server’s examination,” but we would rate them informally based on their speed, their knowledge of menu items, and their ability to provide quality service (131). Beyond this example, a study of students and grades at the University of California Berkeley showed that employers placed more emphasis on written teacher evaluations (outlining specific strengths and weaknesses of the student) than on grades or GPA. The same study also showed that although grades were heavily emphasized in graduate school admissions, they held little correlation to future success in graduate school (Miller 19). Based on this information, our grading system should reflect as accurately as possible the types of assessment that will be important to students after graduation.
4 In order for students to prepare for their post-graduate lives, they must learn to take risks, and this attribute is discouraged by traditional grading. Although much of the criticism of traditional grading is focused on the disadvantages of those who do not perform well, this particular effect is especially evident in those who excel in that system. Several studies have found a tendency of students in a graded system to choose the easiest possible task (Kohn 29). Having spent most of the last few years around students who routinely receive top marks, I can clearly see this effect in the choices of my friends and classmates. Even remarkably bright students who consistently earn high grades will usually shy away from a difficult course because it will “ruin” their GPA. Students are not taking important risks that could yield remarkable growth because they are operating in a system that offers greater rewards for lower amounts of risk. In addition to developing a preference for easier courses, students who receive high marks tend to see the highest available grade as the limit of their learning. Often students, including myself, will know that they do not have a complete grasp on the information presented in a course, but as long as they see an A on the report card, they feel no need to improve their comprehension of that subject. This effect shows how letter grades “[discourage] the development of intrinsic and lasting intellectual interests and of selfdefinition and evaluation” by rewarding students for performing below their capability (Miller 19). This “cap” to student achievement seems to hinder students’ motivation to fully explore a subject and integrate course concepts into their post-collegiate life. Even the aforementioned justifications for letter grades, such as simplicity and objectivity, can become some of its great weaknesses. English educator and theorist Peter Elbow described traditional grading as, “summing up one’s judgment […] into a single, holistic number or score” (qtd. in Potts 30). Problems such as this led the National Council of Teachers of English to issue a resolution stating that “grading student writing is actually detrimental to student learning.” Especially in subjects such as writing and the liberal arts, summing up a student’s entire performance in a clear-cut, numerical grade is an particularly inaccurate evaluation of that student. This was another principle demonstrated in the Berkeley study, which found that traditional grading lacked accuracy and uniformity (Miller 19). These findings
5 highlight the weakness of the “objectivity” argument, showing that grades vary widely from professor to professor, from school to school, and from state to state. Since some level of subjectivity is inherent in assessment, education officials and educators should consider alternative systems which simulate postcollegiate assessment. Alternatives to Traditional Grades Clearly, no panacea exists to cure the grading epidemic, but certain treatments have been devised and met with success. The most popular of these is a pass-fail system, where students earn credit or receive no credit for a course (“Whatdjaget” 61). This system eliminates rampant competition in classrooms, allowing educataors and students to focus instead on integrated learning experiences. This system has been proven, surprisingly, to promote students motivation despite a lack of any further reward for their efforts (Yeh and Krumboltz 8). In a study at Stanford University, students enrolled in a career and personnel counseling course were graded on a non-competitive system. Most of the students found that this system encouraged them to concentrate on meaningful learning, learn from other students, and “take more risks that challenged and empowered them” (Yeh and Krumboltz 8). Studies such as these show the powerful effects of a non-competitive pass-fail system in allowing students to take control of their own education. Competitition, however, is not inherently oppositional to learning. Sometimes students need to know where they stand in relation to their peers. A solution that allows this comparison without requiring grades and ranks is that of written evaluations (“Whadjaget” 61). Narratives, or written evaluations, are sometimes used in conjunction with grades, but when they are presented together, the value of the written portion is overshadowed by the grade. “When comments and grades coexist, the comments are written to justify the grade” (Wilson, qtd. in Kohn 31). Research has shown that students, administrators, and employers generally ignore written evaluations unless they are used in the absence of traditional grades (Kohn 31). But when written evaluations are used independently of grades, they allow the student to see how the professor views their progress and achievement with clear feedback that tells much more than a grade.
6 The benefits of these methods are especially valuable in universities, where students are given time and resources to live up to their learning potential. University students are at a rare time of their lives when their primary focus is education, whether because of their parents, a desire for a high-paying job, or an inherent desire to learn. Whatever students' motivation for attending a university, they have been shown to perform well when given unique learning experiences and non-competitive grading systems (Yeh and Krumboltz 6). Because this is often the last form of education that students will have before beginning their careers, it is important for them to learn in a manner that will prepare them for post-collegiate life. The feedback methods of written evaluations prepare students for feedback from employers and friends, rather than teaching students to expect a clear-cut grade (Kohn 33). Students who engage effectively in alternative assessment during college will be better prepared for their lives after graduation. One university took these methods to heart, and founded their entire grading system on written evaluations. The University of California at Santa Cruz formed a “narrative evaluation system” on the premise that “students are more than sides of beef,” referring to the similarities between how both meat and students are often graded (Schneider 27). This university provides a fascinating case study for alternative grading in higher education, being one of the only universities in the United States to completely abolish letter grades. The university found that some students who completed exceptional homework and papers yet struggled on tests chose to come to the university because they knew they could learn there while avoiding the pressures of testing (Schneider 28). Other students found that they could be more involved in learning experiences such as student government and extracurricular activities because they did not have to worry about their GPA taking a hit (Schneider 28). But what makes the Santa Cruz story even more compelling is that the university recently moved to require letter grades, abolishing the system that stood for years (Schneider 27). The example of Santa Cruz highlights some of the shortcomings of alternative assessment, especially in a society where traditional grading is the standard. One of the sacrifices made in a pass-fail system is the loss of a clear distinction between exceptional students and average or below-average
7 students (“Whadjaget 61”). UC Santa Cruz found that this created problems, especially for potential employers. Though the students attending the university were equipped with written evaluations, many employers found them to be too lengthy and not clear enough when sorting through candidates for specific jobs (Schneider 28). Another major issue the university encountered was that of “slackers” (Schneider 27). Many students would choose to attend the university in hopes that their poor performance would be masked by lengthy written evaluations, while motivated and competent students would often transfer to other universities because they wanted to be recognized for their achievements. What deterred these capable students was not a lack of praise in their written evaluations, but the unwillingness of the general public, employers especially, to accept written evaluations as an equal alternative to letter grades (Schneider 28). These struggles eventually doomed the narrative system, but many teachers and students lamented its loss, citing many of the previously mentioned problems with traditional grading and the ability of the narrative system to encourage many students to live up to their potential (Schneider 29). The example of Santa Cruz shows us both the benefits and challenges of alternative assessment, especially when used in a society permeated by traditional grading. A Proposed Compromise Making a broad, sweeping change across the board from a flawed system to a slightly less flawed and yet less proven system is not only impractical but also ill-advised. If we are to abolish letter grades, it will take time and frequent evaluation of new systems. But if we are to make this transition, or make any sort of education reform, we need to take steps in that direction. Incorporating concepts from the alternative systems previously mentioned will allow us to understand and evaluate student growth more clearly, and inspire students to reach their potential. To decrease the inhibiting emphasis on assessment, school systems can eliminate percentagebased grades from student evaluations--in other words, to assign a grade at the end of the grading period rather than making the final grade a compilation of all assignments and tests on a percentage scale. This involves eliminating or at very least de-emphasizing grades on each individual assignment, and instead deciding on a final grade based on the student’s work over the course of the semester. Some proposed
8 grading reforms suggest that each assignment needs to be assigned a number or even several numbers to show different aspects of student learning, and Mantz Yorke notes that â€œassessors in higher education are often faced with the need to grade student work on lengthy scalesâ€? (677). But many alternative assessment advocates have noted that when students are given a chance to re-evaluate and learn from their work (rather than having their first result directly determine their grade) promotes a higher comprehension and retention of subjects (Kohn 32). Students need not be graded and ranked on every action they take, and reducing these sub-grades will help take the emphasis from assessment and place it on learning. To create these final grades without grading each individual assignment, it is important that professors and their assistants conference with students, incorporating self-evaluation and peer review. Students are shown to be quite accurate in determining their own grades, and when they evaluate themselves, students gain more from their efforts, as shown in Glenda Pottsâ€™s article. She cites a study in which 188 students were graded using both traditional and conference-based assessment, and only 30 of the final grades differed slightly from those that would have been awarded in a traditional system. Those that were not the same usually differed by less than four percentage points (Potts 35). Beyond that, students who are involved in their own assessment tend to learn more from it (Kohn 33). As teachers conference with their students as much as possible and allow students to evaluate both themselves and each other, students become more invested in the grading process and get more out of their grades. It is not likely that we will ever see a day where grading is perfect. Perhaps we will constantly have to re-evaluate the way we evaluate, but without change there can be no progress. I hope to see the incorporation of changes that place emphasis on learning and fulfillment of potential in higher education so that students will not only be more motivated to give their best efforts, but they will be assessed using methods which facilitate their growth both in college and throughout the rest of their lives.
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