Monday, February 7, 2011

The Primary Purpose of Grades

What would be your answer to the fundamental purpose of student grades? We asked this question of teachers last month, in response to Doug Reeves latest book, Elements of Grading: A guide to Effective Practice (Solution Tree press, 2011).

As you can imagine the answers were widely variant and included:

To measure how the students have gained and to how well I have taught. I use tests to determine what I need to reteach or what I am doing well.


As an overall indication of the student's ability to turn in assignments and perform on tests.

To determine whether students learned the materil presented and can independently perform a given task without assistance.


So students can know if they are mastering the material and teachers have solid information to use in promoting or retaining a student in a particular subject.


In order to assess the level of learning the students have achieved and what areas they still need additional instruction in.


We use grades to maximize learning, to measure competency and growth of skills/knowledges/reasoning, to have students/teachers reflect on what could be done better.


If anything, I learned over the years grades are merely one form of feedback to our students (as well as other educational stakeholders such as administrators, parents and the community at large).

And the consistent problem we encounter with grades as a form of feedback, is that it may or may not be an accurate reflection of what a child really knows.


Reeves, in Elements of Grading, makes the point that the primary purpose of grading is feedback to students to improve performance. And my initial response was - "Wow - that is not the current reality in most schools" I wonder, what is your degree of certainty that your current PLC Team grading policies achieve this purpose described by Reeves?


Over the years, I have watched a funny thing happen as students get older. In 3rd grade, the primary purpose of student learning seems to be "Getting the work done" and then re-working the "work" until it is completed at an acceptable level. The idea of a 9 year old not doing an assignment is not an accepted practice. 3rd graders are expected to their work! Grades per se are more of an afterthought.


Somewhere, usually around 7th grade, the primary purpose of student learning seems to shift to "Getting a grade". And now not turning in work or doing assignments becomes a tolerated practice, because I can still assign you a grade - even if you do no work or really poor work. And this reality is in direct tension with Reeves claim for the primary purpose of grades: Feedback to students to improve performance. It seems then to achieve this purpose - a first goal of assessment must be to insist on a performance entry by the student. And 15 year olds can be a bit more difficult to convince they should get involved in the learning process than 9 year olds.


And yet, it just might be that our current system of grading is the problem too. Do summative testing moments have a degree of certainty in terms of accurate reflection of knowledge (Would student test grades widely vary depending on who was grading the test?) Is there a failure to provide timely, immediate and corrective feedback with expected learning loops for student reflection and analysis on the test performance - with the opportunity to learn from mistakes on the test? Do student grades reflect a tolerance for any K-12 student to exercise the option of not doing the expected assessment work? And, do the components of a grade reflect consistent practice designed to provide Feedback to students to improve performance?


Every PLC Team, every School and district would be wise to read the Reeves book and ask the fundamental question, in our school, our grade level, our course, our district, what really is and should be the fundamental purpose of grades - and do our adult actions reflect that intended purpose?


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post...I'm just getting ready to read Reeves' book w/ interested faculty next week. Great question to get us started thinking!

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