Why Grades No Longer Mean Anything (so why is everyone all bent out of shape about them?)

Commencement always takes place on the Saturday before final grades are due. I always found that a bit odd, and I have definitely had students walk across the stage in full knowledge that they have not completed the requirements for their degree. But, anyway...

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Faculty usually have grading on their minds as they mill about before the the commencement processional, during which we all walk out slowly like sultans and sultanesses who have journeyed from afar to celebrate a queen's coronation. Colleague after colleague asked me about my grades. Had I finished yet? Were they posted? How many Fs?

I had a longer conversation with a mathematics professor. He wanted to know how I handled that 50% or so of students who flunked my classes.

It was clear that he was struggling with doubt, frustration, and confusion about what to do with his own grades. He explained that some students just don't get it--math, that is. So he tells them that they only need to show up and try, and if they do that then they'll pass. But then they skip or whatever, and he's wringing his hands over how to be fair.

Think about that for a minute. This professor was tying himself in knots over the grading procedure. I know administrators tie themselves in knots, too, endlessly analyzing quarterly, midterm, and end-of-term DFW rates (D, F, Withdrawal). Students most of all suffer from grading procedures. They are the ones who carry their transcripts around for the rest of their lives. Their grades lock or unlock future courses, future degree programs, and future possibilities. 

Everybody in the whole system is tense about grades, and grades are irrelevant to learning.

Economist Charles Goodhart argued that as soon as a measurement becomes the target, it ceases to be a good measurement. The idea is that people will begin bypassing the meaning behind the measurement and begin targeting the measurement itself. 

For example, to estimate how long it will take you to run a marathon (26.2 miles), there is a half-mile workout called "Yassos 800s." The test is to run ten 800s (half-miles), with equivalent rests in-between. The average time for the 800s (in mm:ss) will be roughly equal to your marathon time (hh:mm). The "Yassos 800s" workout is intended to be a measure that represents marathon finishing time. Now, once the measure itself becomes the goal ("I want to see how fast I can run Yassos 800s"), a runner will train themselves to run ten 800s as fast as they can. They will develop anaerobic and metabolic efficiency of running at this much faster pace than the marathon. These systems are not the same systems the athlete will use when running the marathon, and thus their fastest Yassos 800s will no longer represent their best marathon time. It ceases to be a good measure.

That's what has happened with letter grades. Students no longer care about Counseling Psychology or Behavioral Research. They're no longer interested in listening skills or communication skills or analytic skills. What they are after are As and Bs in their Bachelor's of Psychology program. 

I told my colleague that, no, half of my students didn't fail. I'm not sure any of them did last semester. Most of them got As. I didn't spend that long grading. Maybe 20 minutes--or the amount of time it took to transpose/transfer students' self-assigned grades to the master record. I personally think that grades are silly. It is silly to rank everyone on a standardized scale of measurement when students are vastly different; they have different learning and professional goals; they have different skill sets; they have different interests; etc. One counseling student wants to be a social worker in a poor district. Another counseling student wants to be a scientist at a top-tier research school. How can I grade them using a uniform metric?

Where I do spend a lot of time is giving feedback. I don't grade an essay. I don't say, "Hey Monique, this is a B, okay?" I say, "Hey Monique, I see that you have written me an essay. Did you want any specific feedback about it? Maybe some general comments?"

Then Monique gets to think about how she'd like to improve her writing, and she says, for instance, "I have trouble organizing my essays. Like, I'm not sure what goes where. Does that makes sense?"

Then I say, "I totally get it. I'll send you my thoughts and suggestions ASAP." (Then I do it. I always love this sort of interaction. See? No bending things out of shape.)

By the way, students almost never want this level of feedback, and I'm okay with that, too. I'm not interested in giving feedback nobody cares for. Seems like a waste of time.

In the end, I don't get bent out of shape about grades. If anything, I shift the A-B-C-D-F up a few steps so that the highest grade is A+++ and the lowest grade is B+. That way students can forget about grades and focus on their learning goals. 

See: Life Beyond Grades and "How do teachers and students feel about grades?"


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