Making Sense of Grades
In this edition of Education Canada we look at our assessment practices, with a special focus on the thorny issue of grading. What are grades for and what do they actually tell us? How accurate are they, really? What are the alternatives? And what is the effect of grading on student learning?
Having a bright son with ADHD opened my eyes to some of the real difficulties with grading. He was admittedly tough to assess because of the inconsistencies in his performance. But what were we to make, for example, of the fact that he scored just shy of 80 percent on a Macbeth essay, yet failed the essay assignment? How was that even possible? Well, the assignment included a lot of preparatory and presentation requirements (the bane of any student with ADHD), and the value given to these materials actually outweighed the essay itself. His attention to these details was sketchy. According to the grading scheme, the fail was legit. But it did not reflect either his understanding of the play or his writing ability.
So what a grade should actually measure is one of the first big questions in grading – and the more complex the learning task, the more grading becomes a tricky exercise in judgment. Ken Draayer recounts his struggle to define and measure quality in composition, and to encourage students to strive for improvement. Swedish researcher Eva Hartel discusses the value of comparative judgment and exemplars in helping to arrive at a shared understanding of quality work. Chris DeLuca and his colleagues examine grading practices across Canada, including the complex factors that go into assigning a grade. Another sticky wicket is the fact that grade-based college/university admission requirements make it difficult to change traditional grading practices at the secondary school level. David Burns and his colleagues share their learning from a pilot project in Burnaby, B.C., using portfolio-based university admission as an alternative to grades. Our web exclusive articles consider the use of student self-assessment of “work habits” (Stefan Merchant) and the relevance of knowledge acquisition in the internet age (Myron Dueck).
Whether used as a learning tool or as admission criteria to an elite program of study, assessment and grading practices have a significant impact on our students and on our education systems. This issue challenges us to rethink how we can evaluate learning in a fair and equitable way for all students.
Photo: Dave Donald
First published in Education Canada, March 2019