What do grades in high-school classes reflect? Knowledge? Learning? Effort? The truth is that the grading criteria differ from class to class and, with some teachers, from student to student. As a result, parents, employers, colleges, and the students themselves inevitably misinterpret students’ transcripts. And students have insufficient incentive to focus on both of the qualities that people commonly assume are being reported: knowledge and productive behavior. I propose that schools issue separate grades for each.
My interest in this topic comes mostly from working as a high-school teacher and now as college faculty but also from being a student and then parent of students.
In recent years education policies across the United States have graded schools on students’ ability to meet specified standards. What many people outside of education do not realize is that a concomitant movement exists toward grading students based solely on their mastery of the standards in each course that they take. From this point of view, students’ attendance and other behaviors are not germane to their grade.
This follows the logic that many perceive colleges to employ. If a student could pass the final exam in, say, World History on the first day of class, then why make the student take the class? Why not allow the equivalent of “CLEPing out”?
In some ways, a high school diploma under this system would be like a GED – a report of knowledge that the student has displayed. However, the assessment of academic knowledge is almost always more varied in classes than on standardized tests. That allows teachers to pass students who clearly know their stuff but who bomb the major test(s).
I like this approach. As a teacher, I employ this logic in much of my grading and it provides clarity. If a student doesn’t show sufficient knowledge, even after expending reasonable effort, how can I pass that student? As a former student, I like it even more. Indeed, I benefited from this logic many times in high school, despite execrable attendance.
Is that all there is?
But, of course, high school is not simply ‘about’ academic knowledge. To many people, especially employers, a diploma certifies a basic level of self-discipline, which teachers usually refer to as “responsibility.” They assume that graduating students have attended reasonably regularly and applied themselves at a moderate level, or higher, to work that they would not ordinarily have performed.
And … they’re usually right! It’s a rare teacher at the secondary level who does not directly or indirectly include these productive habits in his or her grading. For example, s/he’ll assign a grade for effort on practice performed in class, rewarding attendance and effort rather than mastery. Indeed, this has been one of my winking ways of rewarding productive habits. But I tend to give relatively little weight to productive habits, whereas other teachers make it their focus in assigning grades. And most instructors make exceptions for students who, for whatever reason, excel in one area but not the other.
All that for this:
Why not make teachers’ jobs and the academic record clearer by:
- having teachers assign separate grades for
- academic mastery
- productive habits
- including these separate grades on each student’s official transcript?
Then parents, coaches, employers, and colleges (and potential spouses?) could make better-informed inferences about the student’s past and potential. This change would eliminate much of the mystery and faith involved in interpreting a student’s record. Students who demonstrated sufficient mastery of the required academic subjects – as on a GED exam – would graduate. And only those students would graduate. But each student’s record would also indicate his or her productive habits, which, shockingly, might be more important than academic knowledge for some purposes.
My hope is that, ultimately, this clearer system of grading – more transparent to parents, coaches, colleges, and employers – would provide an incentive for students to improve both their productive habits and their academic mastery, rather than working the ‘system’ to avoid focusing on one of these outcomes.
– Incentives For Students
(By the way, it’s not clear to what extent attendance affects learning. See one review of the literature at: http://www.cse.msu.edu/rgroups/cse101/AERA2000/attendance.htm. Indeed, the effects of attending appear to differ depending on the structure of class and, of course, on the grading scheme.)