Let’s get right to it! Why do we grade?
First off, grading is not necessary for learning. Learning can and does happen without grades. The easiest way to think about this is to reflect on your own learning. Think of the many things you have learned where no one graded you. Perhaps we go after these things because we are interested. We all know that our classes have some parts that are not as interesting as others. Can we then use grades as some sort of reward or punishment which may lead to motivation? Can we use grades to augment interest?
In my opinion, grades have one main purpose. Many of the ideas I plan on discussing on this blog require some degree of agreement on this. The main purpose of having grades is to communicate achievement. This seems like a very simple idea and on the surface, most people agree in principle. Do they agree in practice?
Traditionally, grades were often used to sort students. I think that is why we needed so many levels. If you look at a “normal” letter grade scale, there are 13 different levels (A+, A, A-, B+, B, etc). From a communication of who is smarter than who standpoint, it is nice to have several levels. The best in the class gets the A+, the average is the C. Some are a little above the average, but not quite where we want to say they belong with the B crowd. Good thing we have a C+ for those students.
When you look at the history of grades, the above distinction was not followed exactly. Instead, we used the percentage scale to back up the categories. These are still used today and depending on their use they could communicate achievement or they could simply sort students. Now, we may have the different grade ranges correspond with a given percentage range. If this was followed precisely, it could say that the grade was communicating achievement. Most teachers know how easily it is to manipulate percentages either by careful assessment writing or by simply fudging a point here and there.
Isn’t ranking students still a way to communicate achievement? The student who achieves the most gets the highest grade. That is a clear communication. I wonder about the utility of such communication. How helpful is it to know that a student is the smartest/highest achiever in the class or even the school?
As promised by my title, I will answer this by using my experiences from the dog world. My wife and I train and test Deutsch Langhaars. They are a German versatile hunting dog, which means that they are used to hunt a variety of animals. This experience has gotten us into the hunting dog world. For me, the experience has shown so many parallels to education. Our dogs are tested through an organization that uses a standardized testing procedure. More on that later. Many other dogs are not “tested,” instead they are “trialed.” This is a competitive event where a whole bunch of dogs go out and do whatever tasks are required of them. At the end of the day, the dog what was the best wins a prize. There are multiple venues for this with each venue requiring different things. Some trials are for pointing dogs (dogs who indicate where game is by stopping and pointing with their nose), while others are for retrievers. Most of the dogs are judged by a combination of speed to complete the task as well as style while doing the task.
Now, back to grades. In the dog field trial, isn’t the most achieving dog the one who gets first place? Isn’t achievement being directly communicated? This certainly is true, but like the classroom example, what is the utility? Since there are so many different venues, how can we use the information? If a dog is a national champion in an AKC field trial, is it the same, better, or worse than a dog who is an American Field national champion? What about NSTRA or UFTA? If you wanted to purchase a puppy, how do you know you are getting the best and what does the best include? If a dog is a national champion, what does that mean?
Back to education. If students are ranked by ability using grades, then we are certainly communicating something. Is an A+ in my class the same as the class down the hall? Is a B in my school the same as in the school across town…across the state?
Grades need to be used to communicate achievement. What achievement do we want to communicate and how do we do that? More on that later, with some more dog examples.