Student Grades, Test Scores, and Rankings

How much does how we assess, grade, and rank our students do them a disservice? Why do we not simply have two grades -- needs improvement and meets the requirements?
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Some want to tie teacher evaluation to student performance on external tests. They may advocate a value-added methodology, which in theory should allow us to rank teachers by how much their students improve. While there are methodological issues about whether we can truly isolate what the teachers have actually contributed to the student performance, I found myself asking, if the way some propose to evaluate teachers is by how much the students improve, why are we not similarly evaluating students? Why do we insist upon artificial levels of performance, determined by percentage scores and weights, as if in converting things to a 100 point number scale, we therefore communicate something meaningful about that student -- s/he performed at an A level, or got a 93 percent overall. Is that really meaningful? Who has done more, the student who begins at a very low performance and then achieves at what we would classify as a C level, or the student who begins with a high A and stays there?

Here, I think of a class many moons ago. There were 27 students in a "Talented and Gifted" class, all 9th graders. 23 finished with final grades of A. Consider several students from that class whose names have been changed to protect their identity.

Natalie was early on getting 94s on my tests and written assignments when no one else was over a 90. I pulled her aside and told her that if she did not improve what she was doing, she would be wasting both my time and hers. She raised one eyebrow, then dedicated herself to her work. Her final overall average would have been around 98 -- and I am not considered an easy grader (an issue to which I will return).

Natalie finished her high school career as our salutatorian, never having a quarter grade other than A. She took 13 Advanced Placement Courses, which gave additional points for the difficulty of the course. She scored 5 (the top possible score) on all 13 AP exams.

Her high school record was "perfect." She was not valedictorian because someone else completed 14 Advanced Placement courses, and thus had a marginally higher Grade Point Average because of the additional weighted grade.

Both students were outstanding. Why do we have to distinguish between them?

We have since had twins finish first and second twice. We ranked one over the other. What is gained thereby?

That long-ago class had some incredibly gifted kids. The one whose performance I most admire was one of the four NOT finishing with an A. John was somewhat outmatched. He was not especially verbal, and his writing was atrocious. His first quarter grade was a D -- an "average" in the 60s. His final grade was a B. But for the second-half of the year, he had done A work, averaging over 90 percent for quarters three and four. His record of D-C-A-A averaged out to a final B.

That is not a fair reflection of what he had accomplished. For half-the-year, he performed at an A level, often higher than students whose final grades were A, but because of his early struggles, the grade on his transcript was that final B, and his overall GPA was affected accordingly. Did we punish him because he took on a more challenging course, and even though he rose to the expectations of the course, saw his grade affected by his early struggles. Does that send a message not to take on courses that might stretch one because of the impact upon grades?

I am a tough grader. Whatever my students can do when they arrive in my class, I expect them to be able to do far more at the end of the year. I wonder if those who had me might have felt disadvantaged because other teachers of such classes were not so rigorous in their demands? Might some attempt to "equalize" different levels of rigor by insisting upon absolutely uniformity in grading? Would that really solve the problem of adequately communicating what a student has accomplished?

I think back to that class. It challenged me as much as any I have taught in my 16 years in a public school classroom. I was prepared to let one student take over the class after two weeks. She is now, after several years of employment, a first-year student at one of the most prestigious professional schools in the nation. I know she will do well, not because of her grades, but because of her willingness to take on challenges, and the experience of rising to meet whatever confronts her. Lisa is one of my favorites, not because of her superb academic record, but because of how much she grew -- and how much she challenged me -- during the year I was her teacher. Similarly, Natalie and John both grew. He grew most of all because he started with less-developed skills.

His grade does not fairly represent what he accomplished. Natalie, being ranked second in her class, is at least on the surface, somewhat unfair. Even Lisa's superb academic performance does not indicate how much she grew as a student and person in her years at our high school. I was delighted to write her recommendations for her college applications because I could thereby explain some of that. I wonder why we cannot have similar narratives for all our students as a part of their record, for each course.

If our tests are supposed to measure what a student really knows and can do, why are they heavily multiple choice? Why are they timed, thereby giving an advantage to those who can think quickly, even if no better than those who want to reflect? Do the results accurately reflect what a student can do in the real world?

Why do we insist upon comparing students to one another? Should not our challenge be to have each student rise as high as s/he can, to perform as well as s/he can?

Why do we not simply have two grades -- needs improvement and meets the requirements? Why should students not be allowed to learn from their mistakes and gain credit for self-correction?

I wrestle with these issues. Our school keeps score. We rank. Do my students suffer because my standards are high?

There are many things we should rethink about our public schools. Should issues like those I raise be part of the discussion? How much does how we assess, grade, and rank our students do them a disservice?

Natalie, Lisa, and John. I can still remember them as individual students, not merely as the grades they achieved. Cannot we rethink what we are doing so that we will truly know what our students have learned and can do, and be able to describe them accurately as more than scores on tests or cumulative GPAs? Is not each child entitled to something more than that?

I hope so.

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