Rethinking Grades and Assessment

By Mrs. Robin Johnston

The Western belief in the efficacy of examinations is a symptom of a widespread and deep-seated tendency,—the tendency to judge according to the appearance of things, to attach supreme importance to visible ‘results,’ to measure inward worth by outward standards, to estimate progress in terms of what the ‘world’ reveres as ‘success.

Edmund Holmes, What Is and What Might Be: A Study of Education in General, and Elementary Education in Particular, 1912

Assessment is becoming a hot topic, and for good reasons. In many schools, and especially in classical liberal arts schools, teachers are searching for ways to help students focus more on learning the content deeply, instead of merely getting a good grade. All too often, we find students only interested in the trophy of an A, rather than in truly learning and growing their souls. The two main questions of a liberal education are: What is the nature of reality? and How should life be lived? It’s nearly impossible to assign a numerical value to a student’s mastery of these big questions and their smaller elements. If the pursuit of wisdom, truth, and virtue are the proper and primary ends of education, then how can—and how should—teachers and schools best assess our students? To begin to address this broad concern, we need to begin by considering the history of grading and assessment, and their place in education.

What are grades? The word comes from the Latin gradus, meaning “step.” Grades are designed to measure as objectively as possible a student’s progress along a set of steps towards a given goal. A quick review of the history of grading (in terms of assigning a letter or number grade to a student’s work) will show that it is a fairly recent invention. Virtually no grades beyond a simple pass/fail were used anywhere in education, including in universities, until the late 1790s. That’s more than 2,000 years of education with zero grades, and only a couple of centuries with them. Perhaps we might start a conversation on ways to return to a simpler pass/fail option. (This would also help to eliminate the issue of students who struggle early in a semester and then blossom, but their earlier grades drag them down to a failing level despite tremendous progress and accomplishment.)

Assessment is a bit broader than grading. It refers to a variety of methods (including grading) that educators use to evaluate, measure, and document the learning progress of a given student. The word “assessment” comes from the Latin assessus, (past participle of assidēre) meaning “to sit beside,” “to assist, especially in the court of a judge,” or “to give advice and comfort.” Do we sit beside, assist, advise, and comfort our students when assessing them? Used widely as a verb in the centuries since Rome, the word “assess” was also usually tied to taxation and meant “the act of making a judgment about property.” In modern usage, “assessment” almost always means a test or a large project which will be assigned a letter or number grade. Looking at the etymology of the word can be fruitful in helping us teachers shift our perspective on assessment. Dr. M. Ben-Jacob of Mercy College says, “As it stands today, assessment is just a barometer for students to know what they must review in order to get a good grade.” This makes the grade, and not the learning itself, the end goal. That must shift.

We want our students to be lifelong learners, and the way we assess them—or don’t assess them—can help. According to educator Edgar Dale, people generally remember:

  • About 10% of what they read
  • About 20% of what they hear
  • About 30% of what they see
  • About 50% of what they both see and hear
  • About 70% of what they both say and write
  • About 90% of what they say as they do a thing (that is, teach it)

So what should we be asking our students to do? To read, yes, and see, and hear; but more often to say and write, and yes, to teach! This speaks to eliminating worksheets entirely, doing far more discussing and then writing, finding more creative forms of assessment, and requiring active learning from students. (Watch for a future blog post on this, giving specifics.)

Doing the Lessons
Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky

Assessment is not the bad guy here. We have to bear in mind that outcomes are a fundamental, legitimate concern. Knowing they will be assessed can actually motivate students to pay attention. This is true for adults too: accountability matters. We pay more attention when we know we are responsible for something. Appropriate assessment, however, always shows that the student’s genuine learning is the important thing. The trick is to determine which assessments to use and when.

One option: replacing letter and number grades with a simple “pass/fail.” To extend this option: instead of letter or number grades, the teacher can create a feedback-revise-feedback loop that can be repeated as many times as needed. When both teacher and student are satisfied, the assignment is complete, and the student “passes.” Ideally, this makes it easier for students to focus on actually learning versus trying to “get a good grade” on an assignment. One warning: students, not to mention their parents, may wrestle with this idea of not receiving numerical grades on all assignments, especially if they are older and accustomed to being graded on everything they do in class
(a fixation on the prize rather than the learning process and the content.) In older grades, teachers can ask students to reflect on their own learning and occasionally to assess their own progress in the mastery of the subject matter. The teacher may agree with their assessment or make changes to it, but either way this becomes a part of the feedback revision-feedback loop.

“Getting good grades” is an extrinsic motivation; what will happen once it is removed? Pass/Fail is a reasonable option for the K-8 years and perhaps beyond into high school years as well. Getting rid of the focus on number or letter grades helps to move the motivation for learning from extrinsic to intrinsic. Students will be the first to accept this shift away from grades—they will leap at it, in fact—then teachers second, usually, and parents last. Administrators may need to explain to parents that there is little pedagogical strength that is served by giving numeral or letter grades. Forming humane individuals is just as important—in truth, far MORE important—than making good grades. Students and their parents will gradually come to understand that we learn because learning betters us, makes us more whole, more wise, more human, more virtuous, and as a result, much happier.

The Banjo Lesson
Henry Ossawa Tanner

Clearly, firm objective standards and extrinsic measurements of knowledge and skills are necessary when the issue is proper procedures for dealing with physical realities. This is vital to protect the safety of those whose lives are impacted by the results, especially in fields like mathematics, engineering, science, and the medical professions. We all want safe bridges, buildings, medicines, factories, and so on. And no one is recommending that all grades or assessments be done away with entirely. Rather, the question is whether everything a student does in every class must be assessed. Furthermore, when the answer for any given assignment is “Yes,” then must those assessments always be given a number or letter grade?

Many times, the answer is “No.”

Listening Recommendation Podcast with Dr. Brian Williams: The History of Assessment (20 minutes)