Changing the Grading Game

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Mark Oppenheimer‘s recent Washington Post article, “There’s Nothing Wrong With Grade Inflation,” widens the lens in useful ways on the conversation around grading in higher education. The inflation of grades is not the problem, he suggests, though it is problematic in many ways. The real problem, he says, is grades in general, and I tend to agree.

Grades have historically been viewed as markers of a student’s progress, knowledge, and skill, both to students themselves and to potential employers and graduate schools who may be evaluating them in the future. The fear over grade inflation generally circles around the idea that if everyone gets an A, an A becomes meaningless. How will institutions distinguish top candidates from the rest, people wonder. How will students be motivated if measures of their achievement are artificial?

But as Oppenheimer points out, grades don’t serve either purpose particularly well, regardless of whether they are inflated. In other words, that A is already meaningless. Employers and grad schools have realized that grades are poor indicators of an applicant’s abilities and are seeking other measures. And while students may appear motivated by grades, that motivation seems to extend only to the grade itself, and not to the learning that is supposedly associated with it. As a result, students learn to take the path of least resistance to a high grade–often a shallower, more superficial learning experience. Jessica Lahey echoed this idea at a recent talk at Dartmouth:

Extrinsic motivators like grades make us less creative, less dedicated and less personally invested in the task at hand.

We know this; research has reflected this for more than 40 years (Oppenheimer cites studies from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.) And yet we continue to employ grading as the primary, if not only, mode of student assessment and fight mighty battles over the tragedy of inflation.

Add to these relative failures the fact that grading is a tool that perpetuates inequality. Ironically (tragically, predictably), it is the students for whom grades matter less–as Oppenheimer says, “students at elite schools, who get jobs based on references, prestige and connections”–whose grades have generally risen over time while the grades of their counterparts at less elite institutions have fallen.

Oppenheimer goes on to express the thing that, as a teacher, I found most alarming about the whole grading process:

I’ve taught humanities subjects for 15 years, and I still can’t say very well what separates a B from an A.

Grading, at least in fields where there is no “right answer,” is largely subjective and varies dramatically from instructor to instructor. While efforts to bring objectivity to the process–anonymizing student work, incorporating descriptive rubrics, providing models of successful artifacts–bring greater clarity to the process for students, they do little to alleviate the interpretive nature of the task.

So, grading is a problem. Oppenheimer says, “We need to move to a post-grading world. Maybe that means a world where there are no grades — or one where, if they remain, we rely more on better kinds of evaluation.” My experience at a somewhat non-traditional graduate school helps to illustrate some of the alternative approaches Oppenheimer’s article suggests.

Applicants to Antioch University New England do not have to submit GRE scores, and students are not given traditional grades. Coursework is evaluated using descriptive comments, and overall performance reviews are delivered in narrative form. As a student, I felt complete ownership over my learning and was compelled to define the purpose, meaning and outcome of the experience for myself. I had rich, personal relationships with my professors that helped to guide me in this pursuit.

And while this was wonderful for me and, I think, a generally admirable model of education, it is simply untenable as a large-scale solution. In his last few paragraphs, Oppenheimer cautions against simple solutionism, explaining how meaningful evaluation of this kind takes more time, a commodity not freely flowing in education. He goes on to say that this kind of educational approach privileges those with greater privilege as it is: students at smaller schools with lower student-teacher ratios, faculty with tenure and time to give. It goes without saying that this is a minority of students and teachers.

There is a need for connected, systemic change in places where innovation is bubbling on the margins. Badging and e-portfolios offer alternatives to traditional grading structures. Team-based learning and peer assessment can help to shift the conversation. Schools that embrace the move away from standardized testing requirements are a bright spot in the landscape. There is reason to be hopeful for a change.

What are you seeing that is changing the grading game? What approaches can scale? What structures might we build to enable different possibilities?