The number of the beast

My daughter came home with a math test the other day. She’s got a good teacher and he’d given her feedback on individual questions like, “You understand this, but made this kind of mistake.” But there it was: on the top sheet of the test, at the top center of the page, circled to help it stand out, was a single grade.

The school uses 1-4 to measure the students’ progress towards meeting standards, and not letters A-F. Still, there it was: a “2.” All the skills represented – or not – in the test, wrapped up in one neat little number meaning “approaching standard.” And that’s what the kids pay attention to. “So-and-so got a 4,” my daughter says when asked about the test.

Why are teachers constantly trying to – and being told to – summarize students’ performance into one neat little number or letter? What does it accomplish? We’ve been grading students for centuries. Is there any reason to assign a single digit or character to a test, project, quarter, project, final exam or graduating certificate? Are we doing this because it’s what we’re used to?

Start with the example at hand: my daughter’s test. It included questions about a variety of skills. She showed some, not others. She made careless mistakes. She understood various concepts. Her teacher noted some of these in his comments. All she took away, however, is that she got a 2. And that upset her. “I’m no good at math,” she said. The number didn’t provide me as a parent with any real information. She’s “approaching standard.” Which one? How closely or quickly approaching? For what reason has she not met the standard? When would she be expected to have met the standard: now or at the end of the year?

The grade is literally meaningless.

She’s in third grade: grades aren’t that important now. Let’s move on to High School, where grades are more important. I can envision my daughter in, say, 9th grade. And she brings home her report card. In Math (or English or whatever subject you choose), she’s earned a “3” for the semester. That means she’s met the standard. Let’s assume we know the standards and so forth. What does this grade mean? Is she working hard? Is she trying her best? Is she skating along, doing the bare minimum to get a decent grade or is she working extra hard and struggling – really earning that grade? Does she enjoy the subject or is she battling it? Does she get the concepts or is she just good at mechanically following the procedures? And so forth. Again, the grade does not communicate any real meaningful information to the student or the parent.

Move further on: she’s finishing high school and taking her International Baccalaureate examinations. The IB uses a 1-7 scale, so that a 3 is no longer a good grade. At the end of the two-year program, a student earns a certificate with a grade on it for each subject, incorporating both the exam score and specific assessed coursework. I can see my daughter eagerly and nervously awaiting her final grades – which can mean admission or rejection from a university. Really good grades can mean scholarships or university credit for work done in high school. So she gets her certificate and in Mathematics (or English Language and Literature or Geography – pick one), she earns a 5. All of two years of study, research, discussions,  homework, projects, quizzes, tests, etc. wrapped up in one neat little number.

So she earns a decent grade on her certificate. She’s happy. I’m happy. Her university is happy. Presumably she shows all those qualities in that descriptor. But does this single number encapsulating two years worth of work really mean much of anything? Can two years’ worth of work and learning be wrapped up in a single number? A 5, we are told, means “A consistent and thorough understanding of the required knowledge and skills, and the ability to apply them in a variety of situations. The student generally shows evidence of analysis, synthesis and evaluation where appropriate and occasionally demonstrates originality and insight.” That sounds good, but does it actually convey anything with real meaning? If she earns a 5 in Mathematics and another 5 in Chemistry, they both have this description. Same if she gets a 5 in Visual Art. Aren’t “analysis, sythesis and evaluation” different skills in Math and Art and languages? Don’t “originality and insight” demonstrate themselves differently?

Picture this: finished with school, my daughter is working for a large bank and has been given the task of managing a portfolio of investments. She takes millions of Euro and invests it in a mix of real estate and stocks. She manages it for a year and monitors the growth of the funds carefully, studying financial forecasts and company performances, moving funds to avoid risks and maximize return. Finally, she presents the results to her boss, who says, “That’s a 6.”

It’s when you take grading and put it in a non-academic context that it really becomes meaningless. Sure, businesses rank employees and compare them regularly. But rarely is it one single number or letter that encapsulates a variety of things. Sales people might be compared by how much sales they bring in. Investors might be ranked by their rates of return. But few managers will look over an employee’s entire performance and say, “You scored a 3 last quarter while your colleague scored a 4. So she gets a bonus and you don’t.”

Why, then, are schools still using grades almost universally? (And woe betide any school that attempts to get rid of them or even simply change the form! “Is that the same as a B?” or “So what grade is my child really getting?”becomes the standard parental question.) Isn’t it really all about sorting the kids out? Deciding who’s going to get into MIT and who’s going to go to community college? Steering some into academic tracks and others into vocational ones? Choosing which ones can get a scholarship and which ones don’t make the cut? Isn’t it all about making such sorting choices a little easier and defensible, because they’re based on numbers and averages of numbers.

So here stands my daughter: beginning her long school experience of being graded.

My daughter, the “2.”

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