A is for Arbitrary

Report Card
Midlife is a time when things start to slip away. I'm sure I've peaked as an endurance athlete; if I ever again run in a marathon, there's no way I'll come close to the 4:19 PR I set at the age of 40. Much of the detritus I accumulated in my early adulthood now seems redundant, so a few years ago I shed about 75% of my book collection. Eight years ago, I had to accept that I would never be the school parent I had always wanted to be; 700 miles is just too far away to help with homework, attend parent-teacher conferences, or be my kid's biggest fan at a concert. (Teaching high school and being in a relationship that includes adolescent children has given me another shot at this last one lost opportunity.) And memory--ah, memory. The brain becomes so crowded with past experiences. Many of them blur together in a way that I see the Game of Thrones writers compositing redundant characters and plotlines. Realizing that's happening, that my subconscious is constantly editing my memories into a more efficient plotline, it becomes all the more special when I can recall a specific moment from long ago.
One such moment came back to me last night, as I was talking with Amy about the paper tiger that is scholastic assessment. In 1973, the sixth grade me received a copy of My Weekly Reader that had a cover story about grades, and about school districts doing away with them in favor of more realistic assessments that actually told parents something useful about their children's intellectual development. I was horrified at the thought: take away my grades, and what would I have left? I was a shy, pasty preacher's kid with coke-bottle glasses who was never going to be popular. The one area in which I could receive praise and admiration was my Straight A report card.
Turns out that article was just blowing smoke. Don't get me wrong, assessment reform has always been a priority in teacher colleges, and some progressive private schools do a spectacular job of individually assessing their students. And you may be aware that elementary students are by and large free of the "ABCDF" grading system, being evaluated instead as to whether they meet or exceed developmental expectations. But in reality, little has changed; it's still ABC with a different name. As a music teacher, most of my grading has been in the area that used to be called (and still is, in some places) "citizenship," that is, how well students participate in class, and whether they make it to concerts.
Here's a story: my first semester of seminary, I took a course with the misleading title "Introduction to Ministry." I thought that, like the "Introduction to Teaching" course I'd taken my sophomore year of college, this would be an omnibus exploration of all the different things involved in being a pastor: visitation, counseling, worship preparation, preaching, praying publicly in a variety of settings. Every entering student at Perkins School of Theology (SMU, Dallas, TX) was required to take this course, so the large lecture hall was packed. Three professors team-taught the course. And what did they teach? Mega-trends. Pop sociology. Pastoral theology--not, as you might think, about being a pastor. There were a couple of useful experiences we had outside the classroom, doing a case study of a church and participating in an "inter-ethnic experience" at a church where people were a different color than we were (mine was at a Spanish-language Episcopal church). Class time, though, was usually a joke. We were all frustrated, knowing how useful this could have been, furious as what it really was. Early on, we wrote essays on one of those sociology books we were reading. I write well; I've never had any problems with expressing myself on paper, and I know I answered the question being asked comprehensively. My score for that essay was, I believe, an 82.
I took it into the professor demanding to know why it was such a low score. He launched into an explanation of how, a few years earlier, the faculty had realized they were inflating grades, and had decided as a group to lower the grading scale by 5 points. That meant the best grade one could get at Perkins was a 95. The worst was 70. This school had a 25-point grading scale that ran from 70 to 95. He want on to insist that, in his experience, the students who made the best pastors scored in the low 80s. Any higher than that and they should stick to academics. He never explained why my essay was only worth 82 points.
I walked out of that meeting understanding many things: Perkins professors clearly were not professional educators, and most likely had never reeceived any training in assessment; academic achievement and pastoral effectiveness were two completely different things; and any system of letters or numbers used to measure achievement is to at least extent arbitrary, irrelevant, and cruel.
The main point of assigning grades is to be able to compare students to each other. A student with poor grades needs assistance in improving his or her performance; a student with high grades needs a different kind of attention, to assist her or him in maximizing gifts for whatever subject the grades are measuring. "A" students are good candidates for higher education, while "C" students should probably be looking at vocational training, instead. As far as university admissions go, this is founded on the assumption that grades mean the same thing at Philomath High School that they do at Punaho School in Honolulu. In fact, though, for all the efforts at standardization, grading is still in the hands of individual teachers, and apart from reading and math, the subjectivity involved in measuring performance obliterates any ability to compare achievement between students at opposite ends of Burnside, let alone from different states, different types of school (public, charter, parochial, military), or even neighboring classrooms. Consider my final cumulative Perkins GPA of 89. Given that it's on an arbitrarily lowered scale, that 89 would be a 94 on a "normal" 100-point scale, solidly in the A range. But if I were to be applying to graduate schools to, say, pursue a Doctor of Theology degree, how could that be compared with the GPA of a student graduating from a seminary that used a more traditional ABC system? And how could either of those GPAs, coming as they did from schools staffed by professors who, though expert at ministry, never took a single course in educational methods, be compared with the GPA of a philosophy major from UC Berkeley? That's the dilemma admissions offers face, and it explains why higher education turned to standardizing testing (the SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT, GMAT, MCAT, etc.) as a tool for comparing prospective students from a variety of secondary schools and colleges in their decision-making process. Standardized testing has a plethora of problems of its own, but its one advantage is knowing that everyone score in consideration uses the same criteria, however irrelevant they may be to ultimate academic success.
That's what my seminary professor was getting at: the numbers assigned to essays, tests, and final grades really had no bearing on a student's ultimate success in the real world. I've found this to be true in both the vocations I chose. My success as a teacher has developed over time, and with experience. My 3.66 college GPA (and 3.75 graduate GPA) were lousy predictors for my first--and almost only--year in the field. Any school administrator will tell you that the first year is a hard one, that it takes experience to hone a teacher's skills, and that master teachers have that mastery thanks to many years of practice. Yes, some new teachers have gifts that set them apart from the pack of recent graduates, but it's the practice of teaching itself that shapes an excellent teacher. It's true with pastors, as well. The high marks I received in most of my seminary classes demonstrated my mastery of texts, but said nothing about my native ability to do the most important work of ministry: talking to people. As it turned out, my aptitude for and interest in that task were not up to the standards of this profession. I really was better suited for the classroom. Put another way, pastoring didn't love me. Teaching does. What that grizzled veteran professor told me was true: the numbers say nothing about how effective the graduate will be.
So the grades are arbitrary and irrelevant. And one more thing: they're cruel. Why do parents call up teachers, distraught over a D in history? It usually is because they're genuinely concerned about how well their children are performing, and wanting to know what they can do at home to help them improve; but it's also because they can see what an impact a low grade has on their children's sense of worth. I received two Bs in high school, and was shattered by them. (There would have been more, but my parents succeeded in having a school policy changed just for me so I could take PE pass-fail and protect my GPA.) All I had, I really believed, was my grades. Students who regularly receive low grades, despite working hard, can feel defeated, discouraged, inadequate, and if they've got nothing else going on in their lives at which they can excel, report cards can feel abusive.
The worst part of all this is how utterly unnecessary this cruel system is. As far back as the 1970s, competency-based education was already happening in Oregon. The legislature had approved a set of skills which, it was believed, were necessary for a young person to succeed in the adult world, skills like balancing a check book, applying for a job, following a set of instructions. These competencies were tested throughout high school, in the context of classes in which the skills would normally be taught, and they were pass/fail: either you could do them, or you couldn't, in which case you got special attention until you mastered them. Any subject being taught can be broken down into such skills, and while mastery need not be a binary pass/fail matter, a simple rubric can still be used, not unlike the meets/exceeds criterion in place for elementary report cards. In fact, I can guarantee you that this is exactly how every teacher really does assess students. It's how curriculum resources are structured, how textbooks are written, and how most courses are evaluated...but that's not what you see at the end of the term. All those individual competencies are shoehorned into an ancient, arbitrary system of letter grades, fed into a computer, and come out boiled down to a single letter that tells students and parents nothing about what really happened for four and a half months of interaction between student and subject matter.
Why do we do it this way? Why don't we supply every student, throughout the term but especially at the end, with a printout of every task assessed over the course of a class, and the degree of mastery exhibited on each one?
Perhaps, you might be thinking, it's the time involved, but no, that's definitely not the case. Grading is no longer a paper-and-pencil chore. I enter all my grades into a program called eSIS. It's an ornery program with a clunky interface, and my district is actually transitioning to something more refined, but it has provisions for recording every graded activity in a class; and both students and parents can log in, and check each of those activities. I enter these grades daily. It's simple to provide each student with an itemized record of all his or her assignments and assessed activities. It would also be simple to present those data in a graphic format. There's no need to boil it all down to a an arbitrary letter grade. Every student can have a complete copy of his or her line in the grade book, sort it by categories to know which areas need improvement, and adjust study and work habits accordingly.
But still we use that single letter. Because people want it.
Remember "No Child Left Behind"? (I prefer to call it "No School Left Unscathed.") I don't know a teacher or administrator who was in favor of that one-size-fits-all approach to grading schools and punishing those that couldn't bring their diverse populations up to arbitrary levels on reading tests with reduced funding. But legislators loved it, and so did voters who wanted a simple standard for comparing schools to each other. Nobody wants to hear that it's complicated, that inner city schools and schools catering to migrant workers and schools with large special education departments really can't be fairly compared to private schools that can selectively admit the cream of the academic crop for their student bodies. No, we want to point fingers at the faculty and administration of "low performing" schools, and insist they do better, get those test scores up, or else. The NCLB regime is, thankfully, finally being relaxed, but at enormous cost to an entire generation of students who have experienced school as a testing mill.
And that is why we still assign these arbitrary, irrelevant, cruel letters to students, telling them whether they are excellent, good, fair, poor, or failures: people want it. The thought of giving up those letter grades is as alien to them as it was to my sixth-grade self. Legislators are not professional educators. Nor are voters. Change is frightening. We want to be able to say, "My child is a straight A student, just like I was." (Or just like I wish I could have been?) We could have report cards that say, "Here are areas you have mastered, and here are areas in which you need to more time with the subject matter, and perhaps different methods for learning it." And get this: There is such a system already in place for students on Individualized Education Plans. I've been in IEP meetings both as a parent and as a teacher, and they're wonderful, personalized, encouraging, compassionate, everything assessment should be. They take more time, and time is money. There's no getting away from that. They make a huge difference, though. At present, only students who are at risk of serious academic failure due to physical, psychological, or emotional disability are required to be on IEPs, and because there is such an investment involved in having a student on such a plan, public schools only place students on them when they are required to by law. Again, there are some expensive private schools who make this kind of investment in individual students, but they are both expensive and private.
It comes down to money, then, but only to an extent. Americans still prefer grades. But ask yourself: what would be better for me and my child, and the child next door, the child across the tracks, the child living in a migrant trailer park, for every child, however bright and challenged, who will someday enter the work force, fix your car, take your temperature, prepare your will, teach your grandchildren? The answer is clear to me: put the grades on the scrap heap with land lines, fax machines, and steam-powered automobiles, and put every child on an IEP. Our nation will be a far better place for it.


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