Tuesday, 24 June 2008

What Do Grades Have to Do With It?


Ah, grades... 

Remember the lovely, tight horror of seeing an entire year's effort nailed to a piece of paper in one letter or two digits? 

Now, when it's been announced, when you suddenly realize there is nothing at all you can do about it, you realize too late there was more you needed to do...

Had a conversation not too long about about the 'reality' of the fact that people will be grading you 'in the real world' for 'the rest of your life.' 

Well, someone else had that conversation at me. 

Wow, does it ever not match my personal experience. 

Even in the military, a very large organization that thinks it is forced to rate and classify, much the same way the school system does, people don't get 'graded by everyone for the rest of life.'

From this conversation, I remembered one that I'd had years ago with a principal who actually said out loud 
'grades are objective standards.' 
We were in a group setting, and my only response was a snort of derision (because sometimes even I can be restrained).

First, a couple of facts about grades:
  1. largely arbitrary, definitely judged by individuals, each according to their own scale or their own interpretation of the 'objective' scale,
  2. like the winner of the Stanley Cup, no more a statement about this whole person and their whole knowledge of a subject than any single game is a determination of the 'best' team in the league -- even when the grade is compiled from more than a single exam,
  3. determined from the grader's understanding of the material, which certainly may be based on dated information, and the grader may simply be less knowledgeable than the person being graded (this becomes a critical problem by post-secondary, when an instructor may be the person in the room with the least experience in the field in the real world),
  4. related far more, it has been very clearly demonstrated with some very creative and devious research, to the grader's opinion of the victim than the victims' actual knowledge (everything from 'the better looking the student the better the grade' to the instructor's prior knowledge of the student-- ask any third child in the same family going to the same school about this),
  5. related to the grader's preferred learning style-- expressions that match that style are marked more highly than expressions that conflict with it, even when they're both correct,
  6. sexism is alive and well in education, and grades reflect that bias, too,
  7. based on the unsupportable idea that what is known in 'this' context (whether that be 'right now during this test' or 'expressed in this assignment' or 'how extraverted the student is and whether or not said student participates enough in class'), which generally means that students with more stable lives have better grades overall, being the least likely to have something tremendously distracting demolish the score on even one assignment or exam,
  8. based on the hiliariously impossible theory that in a random, small group of individuals it is not possible for all of them to be extremely capable.
That last one really annoys me. 

I've been in groups of more than 30 people who were all, judging by their conversation and behaviour, true idiots. But if they were all in a classroom together, some of them would receive B's on their work anyhow. Potentially, some might even win an A. 

Conversely, I've been in a classroom with 17 geniuses who all understood the material at a very high level, and some of them actually got C's. 

This is the 'statistically unlikely' idiocy that makes people who don't understand statistics attempt to force 'averages' onto very small populations. 

The fact is, if there are 10 people in a group, the chances of them scoring on a bell curve in any metric is ludicrously unlikely. 

It is much more likely that there will be clumps of identical scores. Teachers, who often know more than is good for them but less than they need to, are uncomfortable with this reality and will not give out 5 A's in a small class, even if there are no differences between those 5 students' knowledge or skills. 

Of course, this also reflects the insanity of the system that would certainly flag that many A's in one class as 'probable cheating.'

Now, having mostly been in the 'smart class' throughout school, that statistical unlikelihood became a subject of some controversy -- because the grades on the transcripts are the same. Why would a smart person (it was argued) take a 'smart' class and risk getting a B or even a C, by doing much more rigorous work, when the same student could take a 'regular' class and be virtually guaranteed all A's? 

If it's all GPA then, seriously, taking the 'dumb' class is the way to a university scholarship.

Don't you just love it when the carrot and stick methods reward completely the wrong things?

And here is my point from the beginning, in that initial conversation:

Grades are irrelevant to 'real life'.

They are also almost entirely self-referential. That is, they are made to use within the school system, and refer to things entirely within that system...

And yet grades (and GPAs) are considered by everyone in, and everyone supporting, the system as 'valuable', even when no one can articulate exactly how grades are valuable.

The troublesome logic is thus:

I know that grades are meaningless, really, but there has to be some way to rate and judge people we don't really know because there are too many of them to know... 
...and we have to communicate those ratings and judgments to the people we don't know who need to know how everyone 'scored' so they can use those ratings and judgments to ... further rate and judge these people ...instead of getting to know them.

Or, such:

Obviously grades are a poor way of rating someone's knowledge, being so easy to:

  • cheat  

  • fake

  • hire 

  • or otherwise bluster to a higher-than-justifiable mark 
...so we certainly don't know what any individual's most-accurate grade really is. 
Because we don't know how many are cheating or how many are having others do the work for them and we don't know how many (upwards or downwards) are based on instructor bias or school standing... 
...but we need some way to convey what we know about this student to others, even if we all know it's inaccurate, even if they know it's inaccurate, even if everyone knows it's inaccurate. 
We need a metric everyone already understands, so we use this deeply flawed one.
Well, now, that makes sense...


  1. An interesting viewpoint on grades from a college adjunct professor.


  2. We DO need grades to satisfy us that the teachers know enough about the subject to be able to pass on to our precious offspring the necessary knowledge to thrive in life. Wait a sec, every kid I know learned all they really needed to know outside the school...hmmm...