Monday, October 28, 2019
After spending the entire day grading undergraduate business law exams, I drove to my son’s elementary school for our first parent-teacher conference. On my wife’s advice, I mostly just listened. My legal and academic training have given me “a very particular set of skills” that I can use to construct and deconstruct arguments in a way some people find combative, so my wife's advice was probably wise.
The parent-teacher conference for our kindergarten-aged son went well. Most important to me, it was clear that our son’s teacher already appeared to love him and seemed committed to helping him develop. But I worry about what our education system may do to my son. Only two months into formal school, my sweet son, who has been in speech therapy since age two, is already receiving grades. Granted, the grades are pretty soft at this point – 3 for mastery, 2 for on track to complete this year, 1 for behind schedule. I hope he will not get overly discouraged. I also know he will not receive nearly as much affirmation in school for his impressive, budding artistic skills as he would for a photographic memory.
This parent-teacher conference, coupled with a handful of especially weak student exams, prompted a lot of thoughts about grading over the past few days.
As a parent, and increasingly as a professor, I am becoming convinced that we (as a society) over-focus on grades and our grades largely miss what is truly important. As a parent, I feel a good deal of responsibility for the development of my children, and as a professor, I obviously think education is an important part of human development. But before my oldest son started kindergarten this August, I wrote down some of the traits I hope my children will develop before they leave our home. In alphabetic order, they include:
While it is tempting to fixate on quantifiable things, like grades, I am attempting to model, praise, and teach the character traits above. And sometimes “failure” will develop these character traits better than “success.” I am seeing this in my son. He has already struggled more academically than I did in my entire educational experience, but, perhaps because of this, he is already significantly ahead of me in compassion and kindness.
As educators, if we are wed to giving grades, why do we only grade such a narrow set of skills? (For a debate in The Chronicle of Higher Education on the usefulness of grades, see here: useful and not useful.) For example, why do we often regulate athletic, artistic, and communication-based courses to pass/fail or effort-based grades, but mark academic work with such relative precision? (One theory is that teachers and administrators are generally naturally gifted in academic pursuits, but are generally not as gifted in athletic, artistic and communication-based areas.) In middle school, for physical education class, we were graded, in part, on our 1-mile time. If I remember correctly, under 6:00 was a 100% and you failed if you ran over 12:00. While it was only maybe 10% of our overall PE grade, I can’t imagine that many schools do that these days. And I understand the arguments against doing so – namely, some students have a significant genetic advantage over other students in endurance running. That said, the same can be said for test-taking. For most students, both endurance running and test-taking can be improved, but some students face much higher hurdles than others.
All of this thinking about grading has not led me to any definite conclusions yet, but I welcome thoughts in the comments. And, in coming semesters, I may try to diversify my grading even more, to capture more skills and to challenge a wider range of students. (The students who are most harmed by our current system may actually be the straight-A students who find tests easy, but who never or rarely face assessment in their naturally weaker areas). I already include a group project and participation as parts of the grade in most of my classes, but I could probably expand this to a higher percentage of the overall grade. That said, I also think that grades should reflect the level of proficiency obtained, so I think substantive knowledge will and should remain important.