Reimagining Assessment
Reimagining Assessment

Educators are rethinking the purposes, forms, and nature of assessment. Beyond testing mastery of traditional content knowledge—an essential task, but not nearly sufficient—educators are designing assessment for learning as an integral part of the learning process.

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This list examines K-12 education's false assumptions about grades, grading, and reporting on student performance, in the tradition of popular "Falsehoods" lists.

“You will know people by what they do.” Matthew 7:16

NOTE: The format for this piece is based on the popular Falsehoods Programmers Believe about Names, which led to a sub-genre of Falsehood lists.

The discussion of grades and reporting continues. John Holt wrote against grading in the 1960s. Alfie Kohn asked why we grade in 1994 (among other times). Ken O'Connor released A Repair Kit for Grading in 2007, and continues to speak—along with Rick Wormeli, Thomas Guskey, Rose Colby, and others—around the education world to apparent acclaim. And yet, when the San Diego Unified School District announces that it is shifting to a standards-based grading system, sections of the thinking class act as if snakes are coming out of the ears of their straw men.

“Yes,” they say, “every kid learns at their own pace, but how can education possibly exist without grade point averages and systems to deliver privilege according to scarcity-based, class ranking hierarchies?!?” (They don’t really say that. What they say is, “We need more time to study this.”)

Are we still talking about grading and reporting? Yes. Yes we are.

What do we believe about grading? No, not what do we say we believe. Standards-based reporting? The Power Law? Rubrics? We talk a good game, but If you look at our actions to discern our beliefs, then it becomes obvious that what we say we believe isn’t what we actually believe, and that what we actually believe isn’t necessarily truthful, helpful, or ethical.

Here is a list of those beliefs—I’m going to call them falsehoods—discerned from watching the system in action over the years (with appreciation to Carisa Corrow and Alec Barron for comments, conversations, and contributions). You can come at me with “not all educators,” but I’m going to push back and say, “Not relevant.” I indict all educators in this list, including myself, because we all bear the responsibility of fixing our broken grading systems, jettisoning corrupt assumptions, and devising something that actually works “for good.” The purpose of this list is to interrogate our assumptions. If you find yourself saying, “I don’t believe that!” ask yourself, “Am I acting as if I believe that?” Or is your system demanding that you act as if you believe?

Here is what, according to our actions, we believe about grading.

  • Grades are real
That’s the big one. Called “reification,” this is the assumption that lays behind the summative delusion, the refusal to allow kids to reassess after doing poorly, and the myth of the “permanent record.” It leads to the idea that a kid can “be a C student.” It is the ultimate expression of our epistemic hubris.
  • Grades are objective
  • Grades measure intelligence
  • Grades measure performance on the standard being assessed
  • Grades measure performance on the assessment
I’m sure someone is saying something like, “Waitaminnit, I know that grades are not a measure of intelligence!” And yet we do treat people with high grades as if they are more intelligent. Grades are subject to bias, AND we give money, privilege, and opportunities (e.g., scholarships) to kids based on grades. We work to mitigate flaws in their implementation—arguing against bias manifestations such as “grade inflation”—but our default is that we believe the system of grading is objective and truthful. We shouldn’t.

Grades are not measurement at all, they are reports of evaluations of student work. This is not a trivial distinction. If a grade is a report (a communication) then it has rhetorical content and is being deployed for a reason. Every communication has a purpose. A person never reports the temperature to you without trying to make a point (it’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s just right), and their point is designed to change behavior (take your coat off, put your coat on, come outside and play!). It’s the same with grades. Grades are rhetoric, not fact.
  • Grades are given fairly
Psychometricians and statisticians work so very hard to try to achieve validity and comparability. This should cause you to question the fairness of general classroom grading.
  • The same grade means the same thing for two kids
  • The same grade means the same thing for two assignments or assessments
  • The same grade means the same thing in two different classrooms, schools, and/or districts
These three falsehoods are perennial ideas that we almost universally recognize as untrue and just as universally act as if they are true. Three students with three 85s will have different stories about how they got to that 85 and the appropriate next steps after that 85 will, likewise, be different. The evaluations that lead to grades occur within context, they tell a story within the story of a kid’s overall learning. And yet, we group kids in our heads, “These are my B students, my C students. These are the high flyers.” This is using shallow data to draw deep—and damaging—conclusions. We aren’t so much seeing patterns as just making them up.
  • Grades are earned
  • Grades can be accumulated
Grades are linear and discrete. Learning is not. Ask any person about a great learning experience they’ve had, and it will not, I guarantee, include accumulating enough “pieces” of learning until they finally accumulated all of the learning (100%).

‘Earning’ is just one of the many ways that grades and learning are conceptualized as an economy. Grades are used as currency that can be accumulated, traded in, bartered with, or used to pay off debt (e.g., extra credit to “make up” for a bad grade). One effect of this metaphor is that grades, like currency, are seen as scarce and worthy of hoarding. What do we gain, as a society, by ordering folks according to their GPAs and so precisely (but not accurately) assigning them a place in this weird hierarchy? What do the kids gain?
  • A kid who is learning well will get good grades
  • A kid who is learning badly will get bad grades
Any teacher’s experience with kids (and possibly every person’s experience in school) argues that it’s not as simple as this, and the lie that we tell ourselves is that it is, in fact, as simple as this. When we say to a kid who’s getting bad grades, “You aren’t meeting your potential.” How do you know that? And why aren’t you reporting on whatever evidence you’ve used to discern their “potential,” rather than on whatever it is that generated the bad grades? There is a fatal disconnect between grades and learning.

The reasons a kid does poorly on an assessment (and gets a bad grade) are so varied that the poor grade should be the beginning of the assessment, not the summation. The reasons a kid does well are also varied. It’s true that a kid who has “learned well” will have a higher probability of “getting a good grade,” but the meaning of “doing well” is obscured by other variables (they test well, they got tutoring, they have a safe place at home, etc.) and thus their value as guideposts for future learning are obviated.
  • Good grades reflect hard work
  • Good grades should reflect hard work
Yes, these two contradict the previous two. We’re clever like that. If a good grade reflects hard work and a bad grade reflects lack of hard work, then you are reporting on effort, not whether the kid knows the thing you’re assessing them on. If the grade purports to tell you how good someone is at math, but the grade is low because they didn’t turn in assignments on time, then the grade is a lie.
  • Good grades reward learning
  • Bad grades incentivize improvement
Any objective or true report of student achievement should be received (and offered!) as neither a carrot nor a stick.
  • Grades can be meaningfully averaged or computed
  • Grades can be accumulated
The reification of grades is part and parcel of our reification of numbers. Is it just human nature that, when folks see a set of numbers, they feel compelled to compute with them, whether it makes sense to do so or not? It’s like a spasm. Not only does it make no sense to take an English grade and average it with a science grade and come to some conclusion about what kind of “student” someone is, but in the averaging you hide both deficit and excellence that may be used to improve how a kid does at English or science. You actually make the learning less transparent.
  • Grades don’t influence our perception of achievement; they only report on it
  • Achievement will be the same, no matter what type of reporting you use for it
The structure of the language you use to describe a thing alters your perception of that thing. (Thank you Sapir-Whorf!) This is why an evaluation of “Not yet” is better than “F” or “Does not meet.” The metaphors one choses—and grades are a metaphor—create boundaries around what one can and can’t see in students and student work, and they limit or open us up to possibilities in response to student achievement. If your reporting describes or tells the story of a kid’s learning, with all the twists and turns that story might imply, so much more is possible then if your reporting system simply “counts” the learning. Achievement is not a fact, it is a story written by our kids in collaboration with us. Stories are “to be continued.” That is their nature.
  • “You have to give grades!”
I heard this just yesterday. People say it the way they say, “You have to breathe,” or, “The sun has to come up tomorrow,” or, “I have to eat that last cheese danish.” First, the giving of grades is not an immutable law of education. There was a time before we gave grades, and, when someone started putting a number on top of a piece of student work, other people thought that was weird (See Neil Postman’s Technopoly for more info). Second, I understand that many systems do require you to give grades and they are the ones who sign your paycheck. I understand that the tension between navigating the system, changing the system, and collaborating with others who don’t agree the system needs changing is real and debilitating. It is a fact that doing the change work that we do, and trying to do the best by your kids (at whatever distance), feels both right and dangerous, not unlike civil disobedience. Keep doing it.

Photo at top by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

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Gary Chapin

Consultant and Writer, Educating for Good

Gary Chapin works with Educating for Good. For the past ten years he has supported practices, policy, culture, and strategic efforts to create systems of assessment that are truly equitable. He supports teachers and educators at every level of practice to implement ethical, equitable, and justice-based systems.