What is a Grade?

an exit sign hanging on a wall.

I had the pleasure of working with about 15 people yesterday on moving to standards-based grading next year. We started off with a long discussion about what grades are and what they mean. It's easy to get into what they should be, but I wanted to make sure we all had a solid understanding of what grades actually do in most of our classrooms.

I had a couple of guiding questions and one that generated the most interesting response was the following:

A student rarely comes to class and when they do, work isn't turned in. At the end of the semester, that student easily passes the final exam. Does that student pass your class?

Lots of eyebrows furrowed.

There was some uneasy looking around.

About half said yes, the other half said no.

Now, there are major assumptions here. Is the test valid and reliable (standards-aligned)? How did the teacher intervene? Did a student show growth before taking the test in some other way?

All issues aside, the root of the question forces us to consider whether a grade in our class represents learning or compliance.

I also wonder why we're more accepting of the inverse situation: a student who has not taken the class who passes the final is allowed to skip the course (or is given credit, etc).

If we're comfortable with allowing students to skip a class (be given credit) by testing out we should be just as comfortable allowig a student who "shows no effort" to be given credit for hitting the same benchmark. The difference is our perception of that student.

Challenging our biases is important, particularly long-held assumptions that dictate our perceptions about "good" vs "bad" students. Grades are the output of those biases in many cases.

What do you think?


The featured image is Br... flickr photo by Peter Schüler shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

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