Grades – the problem with modern assessment

Authors Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath and David Bott share an excerpt from their book, ’10 Things Schools Get Wrong (And How We Can Get Them Right)’

Today, grades are so deeply ingrained within our worldview that most people never stop to consider how bizarre and unnatural the practice of judging a person’s thinking on the basis of alphabetic or numeric values truly is. As Neil Postman notes, ‘To say that someone should be doing better because he has an IQ of 134, or that someone is a 7.2 on a sensitivity scale, or that this man’s essay on the rise of capitalism is an A- and that man’s is a C+ would have sounded like gibberish to Galileo or Shakespeare or Thomas Jefferson.’

Because grading is simply a tool, we learn little by asking questions like, ‘Will students learn better if we employ more nuanced grades?’ or ‘How can we organize assessment in a way that will improve student outcomes?’ The more instructive question to ask is, ‘What worldview do grades espouse?’ In other words, what does the tool of grading itself suggest about the world, how it functions and how it should be approached?

The underlying credo of grading can be summed-up in three words: reify, quantify, rank.

Reify

Reification is the process of treating an immaterial concept, thought or idea as a material thing.

For instance, ‘beauty’ is not a tangible object; rather, it is a highly abstract concept used to reference a variety of ever-changing physical, emotional and mental characteristics. To reify ‘beauty’, we must define it as something that can be tangibly located and identified in the same manner as the heart, the lungs or the spleen.

When biostatisticians proclaim ‘beauty’ is simply the degree of symmetry between the left- and right-side of a person’s face, they have effectively reified this concept.

Quantify

Once an immaterial concept becomes a concrete thing, we can safely (and seemingly objectively) assign a value to it. For instance, Brad Pitt’s face is highly symmetrical, scoring him a 96.7% on the beauty scale. In contrast, Ryan Gosling scores a respectable 73.1%, while Ben Affleck registers a paltry 65.5%.

Rank

Once a reified concept is assigned a value, we can safely (and seemingly accurately) rank it.  In this case, Brad Pitt is more beautiful than Ryan Gosling who, in turn, is more beautiful than Ben Affleck. Importantly, if anyone dares to question this ranking, we can assert that this is not mere opinion – it carries the authority of objective quantification and accurate organization.

In a very real sense, grading and modern assessment espouse a worldview where all human thoughts, skills and qualities must be reified in order to be considered real, must be quantified in order to be understood, and must be ranked in order to be useful.

The impact of grades on schooling

In 2015, The Washington Post published an article entitled, ‘What’s the purpose of education in the 21st century?’ The answer was perfectly illustrated in the very first sentence:

“Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker recently tried to change the century-old mission of The University of Wisconsin…by proposing to remove the words in the state code that command the university to ‘search for truth’ and ‘improve the human condition’ and replacing them with ‘meet the state’s workforce needs’.”

As Scott Walker recognised, the process of reification, quantification and ranking serves little academic or learning purpose. So, what are we ranking students for? The only plausible argument is to ensure universities and businesses can easily sift through candidates in order to identify those best suited for various positions.

When the predominant worldview reads reify-quantify-rank, then it’s easy to understand how education would sacrifice loftier ideals in favour of marketable skills.

The impact of grades on students

Narcissus. According to Greek mythology, this mortal hunter spurned the love offered to him by the god Echo. As punishment, Narcissus was led to a pool of water where he caught sight of and fell deeply in love with his own reflection. However, upon realising his reflection was not real and could never truly materialise, he suffered deep despair and committed suicide by falling into the pool of water.

This seemingly straightforward tale is one of the most misunderstood of all Greek myths.  It’s common for people to interpret this story as cautioning against the dangers of conceit and egocentrism: in other words, vanity cometh before the fall.

But read the myth again. Notice that Narcissus does not fall in love with himself – he falls in love with his reflection.

This is not a tale of egocentrism. It is a tale about the perils of externalising one’s identity: about favouring public perception over personal understanding. Narcissus falls in love with an unreal image of himself – an image created and reflected back to him by the world. Once he realises that this reflection is not his true identity, he opts to end his life rather than confront the daunting task of understanding himself, his desires and his values.

When it’s reported that students are increasingly narcissistic, this does not mean they are becoming more self-centred. Rather, it means they are farming-out their identity and becoming more dependent upon external validation: as the world says they are, so they must be. This is no better illustrated than in the proliferation of likes, favourites and thumb-ups driving an individual’s sense of self-worth and accomplishment.

Where on earth might students learn that external sources are best equipped to accurately determine value, ability and self-worth?

Reify. Quantify. Rank.

The impact of grades on teachers

When grades supply the prevailing ideology of school, then the practice of teaching becomes nothing more than a set of behaviours that either elevate or diminish rankings.  Techniques that raise grades must be standardised and scaled – techniques that lowers grades must be abandoned.

This interpretation of teaching is well illustrated in programmes that aim to systematise teaching by using quantitative research to determine the ‘most effective’ strategies to boost student learning (Visible Learning, High Reliability Schools, etc.).

However, an essential point rarely considered is what these programmes mean when they say ‘student learning’.

When the craft of teaching is reduced to increasing student rankings, it becomes difficult to see the value of employing human teachers

As you can likely guess, the data these endeavours rely on most often define improved learning as higher test scores and increased student rankings. Importantly, based on the ideology espoused by grades, this definition of learning is both accurate and effective.

When the craft of teaching is reduced to increasing student rankings, it becomes difficult to see the value of employing human teachers. Surely, an objective computer can adhere to a set of discrete teaching strategies far better than a subjective person.

But what if teaching is about more than increasing student rank? What if teaching is about helping students discover their passions; helping students ask big questions; helping students develop personal agency? When ‘academic outcomes’ move beyond reification, quantification and ranking, it becomes difficult to see how blind computers could ever replace conscious human teachers.


‘10 Things Schools Get Wrong (And How We Can Get Them Right)’ by Dr Jared Cooney Horvath and David Bott is available to buy.

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