Thursday, February 12, 2015

On Grades and Hierarchies

I've been reading John Holt's book, Instead of Education, slowly over the past couple of months. There are some parts that I've found very intriguing, others that seem kinda... meh. But one section really made me sit up and underline half the chapter-- when he spoke about grades, and "why Schools need to fail."
Schools say, and many School people believe, that they really want all children to succeed, to learn all that the Schools are trying to teach them. But if someday, somewhere, a Teacher ever did the job he was paid to do, and got all his kids to learn all the stuff he was teaching, he would have to give them all As. (p160)
He goes on to explain how if a teacher did give all his or her students As, everyone-- from the school faculty to the parents-- would complain, demanding why the teacher was giving everyone such good grades, demanding that the material be harder so that the grades "mean something." Demanding that the material be difficult enough that some percentage of the class, by necessity, will fail at it. We claim we want all kids to succeed, that we want "no child left behind," yet we have no real expectation of all kids actually succeeding, and if they do we start griping about grade inflation and how clearly those high grades can't have been earned-- that's inconceivable.
The first thing any new Teacher had better learn is that nobody wants all the kids to win. From the university down to the elementary school, giving all high grades is a sure way to get in serious trouble, even to be fired. One teacher is a large state university sent me a copy of a letter from a dean, telling him that by giving all his students high grades he was undermining the process of selection which was one of the chief functions of the university. 
As long as Schools are allowed to give grades, they cannot afford not to [eg use pass/fail instead of letter grades], for to give no grades is to give the worst grade of all. By the same token, they cannot afford to give all good grades, to say that all of the students are winners. They are, after all, selling tickets to jobs and careers. The more good grades they give, the less their tickets are worth. The "best" colleges and universities are those that can say that their standards are so high that almost no students are good enough to meet them. (p161)
I remember a few teachers in high school and many professors in college grading tests on a "curve", where regardless of how well or poorly the class as a whole did on the test, there would be a certain number of As, Bs, and Cs given, determined by the distribution of test scores along a bell curve. Everyone accepted this as "fair" or maybe just the way you did it. Something always struck me as so strange about that grading system.

There certainly were times when I was glad for the curve. One of the last courses I took in college was a class on evolution. I found the class fascinating, but it was incredibly difficult as well (it was a mixed under/graduate class). I was super nervous about taking the final, as my grade for the class would be determined by my score and I needed to pass the class in order to graduate that semester (I needed the credits to fulfill my biology minor). I went in to see the professor a day or two after the exam, to speak to him directly to ask if I had passed or failed. It turned out I got a 64 on the final... which, thanks to the curve, turned out to be an A, because most of the other people in the class got scores in the 30s and 40s. I was thrilled to have "aced" the test despite the "failing" grade, and thus pass the class. And yet, if most of the class got 30s and 40s on the final exam, doesn't that mean there's something seriously flawed? With the test, or the course as a whole?

Back then I couldn't put my finger on why I disliked grading on a curve, maybe because it was just so accepted that it felt like I was the odd one to question it. But after reading Holt's words it seems obvious...

By grading on a curve, you strip away all pretense of using grades as a measure of retention of information learned by each student, admitting that really those grades are purely a way to rank students against each other. The students are not graded based on what they learned, but on whether they can perform better than the others in their class. I guess this is part of what's "accepted" about schools, especially up into college-- that teachers are there to "weed out" students and purposefully flunk a certain percentage of each class. But how can we even try to claim that we want all students to succeed, if this is the system we have set up?

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