Comparison as a World View

I have alluded earlier to the notion that education (and indeed many other areas in life) are subject to a long unchallenged bias - that comparisons to an average are an effective basis for determining success or lack thereof. We looked at this in the light of standardized testing and also briefly in the way A, B, C, D, F grades developed about 120 years ago. Let's explore the latter example further.

What is in a letter grade?
The scale first appeared at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts in 1897. The idea was that students who scored 95% or higher on tests of content received an A, or excellent designation, 85 to 94 a B, etc. The numbers have changed over time, and in some circles, the meanings and designations have also changed. Remember our earlier discussion about “grading on the curve” and the washback effect of standardized testing? This is one way the meaning of the scale has changed. Over time, in some schools, C came to mean “average,” and one might even hear talk about a teacher “giving too many As.” The underlying belief is that it is not possible to have a large number of people so good at something in one class. Why not? Because normal distributions tell us this does not happen in nature. Of course, this is an assumption, and one that should be regularly questioned. If, for example, we score world-class swimmers according to the consistency of their strokes, then it is perfectly conceivable we could have a whole class of As. We rank them according to their times, which is an objective, readily observable and quantifiable measure. We should therefore be giving swimmers feedback on their strokes and coaching them with specific techniques they might use to improve their times.

You can see how this is much more complex and meaningful than a letter grade. The same can be said for giving feedback on a student’s deep understanding. It is the rare exam that clearly captures the level of someone’s understanding, but careful coaching from an expert teacher can do so, making the grade itself secondary.

The Grade is (not) The Thing
Grades are not in themselves a bad thing, especially if they are tied directly to learning goals that promote deep understanding of a subject and its real-world application or connections between subjects. Really, the focus should be on those goals. We should be asking about all learners “How well does this student understand this concept?” or “How well does this student perform this task?” A good example to show the difference is multiplication tables. We all memorize them when we are young, and that’s a good thing, but it does not necessarily follow that one who has memorized the tables and can recall them quickly genuinely understands the concept that multiplication is repeated addition. This is the most important learning, though memorizing the tables is not at all unimportant.

A “grade” in multiplication that reflects only memorization of the tables stops short of reflecting the most important conceptual learning. So it must be clear what the grade reflects. Otherwise, students, teachers, parents, administrators might strive only for the grades or the scores and neglect the understanding. When grade scales, systems, and meanings shift over time, the objective learning goals can easily be compromised when people chase the grades. It is not enough, therefore, to compare ourselves to others. We should be able to chart our learning according to the most important conceptual understandings in various fields. We will discuss this, and ways to go about this, in future entries.

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