As we finish a semester, the inevitably uncomfortable process of grading begins. Every year, I get more and more uncomfortable with the way grading is handled. I understand the purpose of it within the educational bureaucracy, but I’m at a point where I tend to think that grading does more harm than good for students. The biggest issue for me, at the moment, is the way it prioritizes specific skills and de-emphasizes others.
For example, who hasn’t had a student who demonstrates a great capacity for the material but can’t turn in homework on time, or at all? In many classes, this student will be destined to fail the course simply because they haven’t developed the mindset or skill of conscientiousness. Don’t get me wrong; it is important to have this skill. However, is it something that should be prioritized over, say, an understanding of the course content? Of developing discipline-related skills? Of mastering the ability to collaborate productively? It seems to fit in somewhere within that matrix, but often our grading systems unintentionally prioritize “ability to turn in work, however poorly a student performs on that work” over pretty much everything else.
Furthermore, grades are the least descriptive form of assessment a teacher can give, especially in this time of grade inflation. Every teacher’s definition of an A differs dramatically, and the idea that there is some universal standard that will ever be possible (sorry, Common Core, it’s not happening) is flatly ridiculous. Students honestly have no idea what an “A” actually means, other than “one step closer to getting in to college early decision!”
The entire process of grading de-emphasizes the importance of the experience within our classrooms and schools. Students see the courses they take as means to an end, not an experience in and of themselves. Moreover, the publication of these grades to students every 2-3 weeks (or, with the development of online grading systems, anytime students want to see them) makes the entire process of grading a constant negotiation about the end result, rather than the concept/skills/mindsets the student is or is not acquiring.
Hopefully, with the growth of online tools, such as portfolio makers, teachers will be given more options for adequately and holistically assessing student progress without such arbitrary methods as letter grades. Developing adequate portfolio-style assessments of students will ask teachers to do significantly more work to give better feedback, but the impact on students would be dramatic.