How One Weird Finding Changed My Perspective on Grades
Arthur Chiaravalli

Grades — there is also a larger perspective


I think you provided a lot of good observations. But this discussion doesn’t get into the many hidden assumptions about grades. To get consistent results applying your observations, it would help if these assumptions were examined somewhere. Here are a few examples.

1. Grade focus. For science papers, I’ve often used multiple grades simultaneously: Correctness of models, correctness of math, effort, creative thinking, research, paper organization etc. While giving a single grade to a paper is common, with focused grading, it doesn’t make sense.

2. Grade purpose. If we say to a group of people that we will be using grades, each person has their own interpretation of what the grade means. So it’s important to be clear about it from the beginning. For example, when I was working with a top-10 rated U.S. high school, I started the year with the following explanation. I told the students, because they had been accepted to the school, they could already be considered “A” students in general. So, giving out conventional grades that were all “A” wasn’t going to help them. I was changing the role of grades for them. From that point forward, in my classes, grades should not be considered a goal to reach. Grades should be considered “self assessment” guides.
 I explained that, every time they did an assignment, they had a personal assessment in their mind of how good they understood the subject. But with the high stress of the curriculum, they often free-loaded on their effort. Going forward, they were to consider the “grade” as their friend. It was like a “guardian angel”. It was going to tell them if they were living up to the potential they were setting for themselves. If they got a low grade on a daily test, for example, that didn’t mean they were deficient, somehow. They needed to compare the grade to how they “really” believed they should have done. If they knew they hadn’t prepared, then the low grade was consistent with their self-assessment. If the grade and their self-assessment didn’t match, however, then there was something wrong that they needed to dig into.

3. Grade continuity. If the teacher knows each student’s personality and background pretty well, then watching the grades over time is like a crystal ball into their larger world. A student that has run a string of straight “A”s researching Crohn’s disease, for example, that abruptly drop to “C”s in the effort focus, is probably having a problem at home, or in a personal relationship.

So, in summary, grading fails in our education system for reasons similar to why other parts of education are failing — lack of understanding the complexity of the underlying details of what we are doing.