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Grades: Problems for Students and Teachers

What is the main job of teachers? The answer seems obvious: to teach. Yet if this is true, why are they not evaluated on this basis? Teachers can go decades without being observed in the classroom. Whether they are good as instructors seems to be irrelevant since no action is taken either way. Conversely, grades are scrutinized by administrators every semester. When something goes wrong, immediate action is taken, implying that the real job of teachers is to assign grades.

As a teacher, I was reminded annually that my primary task was to judge and sort students rather than educate them. This reminder came in the form of a memo saying that if class averages fell outside of a certain range, “teachers should meet with the principal to justify their grades”. Initially, the premise seemed reasonable. Low averages implied that students were not learning or that expectations were unrealistic. High averages implied that standards were lax or that grade inflation was a problem.

Grade inflation happens when teachers yield to pressure, causing averages to rise despite unchanging student ability. Since the grading ceiling is constant, grade inflation is also called “grade compression”, as the bell curve gets squeezed toward the high end of the grading spectrum. The existence of this phenomenon is not universally accepted. Critics claim that grade inflation is a myth. They point to one study of college transcripts that showed a small decline in grades over a twenty-year period. However, college enrollments increased by more than 50% during this period. The author of the study himself said that the decline in grades was “not surprising given the overall increase in participation in higher education”. In other words, high enrollments may have diluted the talent pool, keeping grades low.

Despite a few doubters, most researchers agree that grades can increase over time. In the largest study of high school transcripts ever published, it was found that averages increased by 11% between 1990 and 2000. Increases were seen in all subject areas and academic levels. When faced with this evidence, critics are not dissuaded. They argue that students are earning higher grades because they are smarter and working harder than previous generations. But this explanation is difficult to accept since standardized test scores have remained constant while grades increased.

Regardless of whether grade inflation is real, administrators try to prevent it by ensuring that averages are similar between classes and that grades are distributed along bell curves within classes. Sometimes this is an unspoken rule; sometimes it is an official policy. In Arkansas, a statewide “Grade Inflation Index” is used to equalize grades across high schools. Such well-intentioned attempts to maintain standards have serious unintended consequences. Instead of striving for universal excellence, teachers need poor performances to make their averages work out, creating a conflict of interest. Teachers cannot serve as advocates for students if they are also expected to act as judge and jury.

In graduate school, I took a course that can best be described as surreal. Each student was given a thick manual of photocopied articles compiled by the professor. The strange thing was that the pages were not numbered. Rather than, “Turn to page 132,” we were told, “Open your manual to the three-quarter mark. Look for a picture of a lung. It’s four pages before that, on the back of a graph.” That was weird, but the most absurd part of the course came when the final exams were returned. Our professor, Dr. Forrester, informed us that he had incorporated “insult marks” into the calculation of exam grades. This was a new concept for me. Apparently, insult marks arise when one of your answers is so insulting to the collective intelligence of humanity that a zero is insufficient. Think of it as academic antimatter. Exceedingly stupid answers receive negative marks, which then annihilate some of the positive marks from other questions. Dr. Forrester had an equally bizarre perspective when it came to questions that students aced. He would say, “Question five was pointless because everyone got it right; good questions have normal distributions that separate students.”

The belief that students should compete for grades is not new. It is called “grading on the curve” or “norm-referenced” evaluation. The opposite is “criterion-referenced” evaluation. Generally, I avoid these terms because they are bombastic and because there is no practical difference between them. For example, is the SAT a norm-referenced or criterion-referenced test? In theory, all students can get a good score. In reality, the test is carefully designed to ensure a bell curve. Thus, the SAT is a norm-referenced test, with the “norming” done in advance. The same is true of teacher-designed tests. Teachers rarely grade on the curve after the fact; they arrange this beforehand by adjusting the difficulty level of assessments. A test that is too easy is followed by a more difficult one and will be made harder for next year’s class. Since teachers are expected to keep averages within a reasonable range, they give norm-referenced tests that masquerade as criterion-referenced tests. Even if the true intent is to measure ability without sorting students, this is defeated when grades are used to decide honors, scholarships, and college admissions.

Our focus on sorting students, rather than ensuring mastery, means that many students do not receive proper intervention and correction, causing them to grow increasingly despondent. Their response to failure is shared by most people – and most dogs.

In 1965, Martin Seligman was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. While performing learning experiments on dogs, he was surprised to find that some did not respond to mild electric shocks. Upon further investigation he discovered that, in previous trials, these dogs had been restrained while being shocked. Since prior attempts to flee had been futile, they learned to accept shocks, even though their circumstances had changed to permit escape. This phenomenon, now called “learned helplessness”, arises when subjects believe they cannot control their environment and become passive as a result.      

Learned helplessness manifests itself in schools as absenteeism and apathy. It is the direct result of our dysfunctional grading system. When a student receives 60%, they are 40% wrong and are being punished for their mistakes since no opportunity is given to improve their grade. The threat of poor grades forces students to check their work and raises standards. Unfortunately, enthusiasm and self-confidence are the cost. Students learn that nothing they do is good enough and that they are powerless to control their environment. Constant academic insufficiency also hurts teachers, who discover that nothing they do impacts learning or interest. They feel powerless because lessons are never fun enough, assignments are never marked fast enough, and grades are never high enough.

Teachers as well as students may be inappropriately passive, and it is possible that learned helplessness is implicated in poor teaching, discipline problems, withdrawal, dissatisfaction, absenteeism, and turnover on the part of teachers.

– Christopher Peterson

Let me make a suggestion. Grades should never be used unless followed by clear explanations and opportunities to correct mistakes. Giving a student 60% and then moving on to a new topic means we are giving up on their learning. It is disrespectful, destructive, and has no place in a sane learning environment. The only reasonable response is, “Okay, you don’t really understand what we’re doing; let’s do it again until you get it right.” Rather than accepting or encouraging failure, we should insist on complete understanding from all students, all of the time. A student who does poorly on a task should revisit it until mastery is achieved. The consequence for a poor performance should not be a bad grade but the additional time required to fix inadequate work. Rather than “I’m stupid” and “I can’t do this,” students should be saying, “I need to work harder” and “I can do this if I invest enough time.”

It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.

– Albert Einstein


next: The Technology Solution


This is an excerpt from Chalkbored. Order the book here to learn more about ...

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