Fishman (2020) - Rethinking How and Why We Grade Students...

- Posted in Research by

Quotes taken from this book chapter.

"The reason for the tenure denial was Sid’s grading practices, and his refusal to change them at the administration’s request. He never liked letter grades. Sid told me that, when he taught high school, it broke his heart 'to squeeze these kids into one of the five letters of the alphabet.' He much preferred narrative evaluations, where he could offer feedback using 'all the letters of the alphabet.' By the time Sid was teaching in college, he had adopted a blanket grading policy where everyone in the class got a B. Nobody would fail, and nobody would get an A. In Sid’s way of thinking, this freed everyone to focus on their learning instead of their grades. At Temple, Kirschenbaum suggested that instead of giving everyone a B, Simon should give all As in order to get the attention of the larger institution and possibly spur a conversation about grading. This tactic worked; the administration noticed what Simon was doing and didn’t like it."

I don't know anything about Sid Simon, but if this story is true? The fact that the administration wouldn't stop to have a conversation with someone who is actually doing the work highlights some of the same issues we have today. People who are actually impacted by policies are being forced into utilising policies that they may not agree with are usually not considered when developing them.

I actually really love using narrative feedback (along with one-on-one feedback throughout projects), but I find it strange that he'd opt for a 'B' for everyone. I wonder if this is because my views on how grades unnecessarily impact students' lives plays into it, and a B can be seen as "bad" in today's hyper-competitive world.

"In response, a faculty committee was formed to investigate the research on grading, chaired by . . . Rod Napier. The results of this committee’s work indicated that the existing research did not provide strong arguments in support of traditional letter grading; a finding that continues to be true today."

"The conferences were followed by the establishment of the National Center for Grading and Learning Alternatives, led by James Bellanca, who until his recent retirement served as the Executive Director of the Illinois Consortium for 21st Century Schools and has long been active in the skills-based or mastery learning movement, variants of which are leading alternatives to traditional grading (more on that later)."

I don't know who Bellanca is, but I bristle at "skills-based or mastery learning movement" because something similar is attached to Common Core. (And while I'm not a proponent of content-based curriculum, Common Core is a questionable direction to go in order to achieve "skills-based" competencies.)

"What has changed in those fifty years? Not that much. The general finding that teacher-assigned grades are subjective and unreliable remains constant. More recently, however, researchers have increased an emphasis on non-cognitive skills including persistence, engagement, and positive school behaviors. Research also focuses on educational outcomes like successful graduation from high school or college, finding that grades can provide “a useful indicator of numerous factors that matter to students, teachers, parents, schools, and communities,” and have been shown to predict academic persistence, completion, and ease of transition from high school to college (Brookhart et al., 2016, p. 833). Grades appear to correlate with cognitive knowledge as measured by standardized tests. In this sense, grades can serve as a measure of success in school, although there’s a circular logic underlying these observations: Students who perform well on the dominant school-based performance indicator (grades) are observed to “do well” in school, both academically and behaviorally."

Surprise! Circular logic in our schools? Who would've guessed.

"A culture that views intelligence as innate, a curriculum based on social efficiency and transmission of knowledge, and a deep-rooted belief in “scientific” measurement and sorting of students produce the desire to see inherent value in grades as instruments of rational control."

A culture that views intelligence as innate is ableist, so I'm wondering if this chapter is going to point out how ableism (and the history of eugenics) factor into public schools and our systems of grading. (If it doesn't, it should.)

"The history of American education has been characterized as a struggle between psychologist Edward Thorndike and philosopher and psychologist John Dewey going back to the first decades of the 1900s."

If anything has ever made me want to scream, it's the bizarre fanaticism that so many education departments in the US have for Dewey. There were many other options and alternatives beyond him, and he receives credit for something that was often discussed among many (Dewey is a really good example of the "Great Man" theory playing out in education systems).

Note: Thorndike was part of the eugenics lineage in schools. It should go without saying that this article should be more forthright in explaining what his position was beyond the following passage:

"Thorndike was a proponent of scientific management, believing that the goal of education was to sort young people by their ability to improve the efficiency of the system. He believed deeply that 'quality is more important than equality' (Rose, 2016)."

"Scientific management" often gets to be used as a euphemism to obscure what it really is that many of these people were pushing for.

"Creating real change in education is hard, perhaps as hard as any societal challenge."

To be honest, this is probably because education is the centerpiece for all of these societal changes. In order to effectively change society, we need to change education. You cannot hope for change in society if you do not attempt to change education and the related structures.

For anarchists, this is where a lot of prefigurative politics fit in. (And I think it's also why a lot of anarchists, though their intentions are good, forget to talk about learning and education within societies in explicit tones.)

"Things like grades become deep cultural practices embedded in schooling, and the structures of schooling—for instance the use of transcripts designed to record only final letter grades and the use of the grade point average (GPA) as a summation of all individual course gradesreinforce the importance of grades. To change this, we need to engage in what Star called infrastructuring work, creating new structures—such as new forms of transcript—and practices—such as the way colleges use information from secondary school for admissions—that create value for information about learning beyond the final letter grade and GPA."

The structures of school are circular and self-justifying.

Something interesting is that there is yet to be consideration that the school itself is unnecessary and that we can replace it with something else. That would be a novel idea, especially as this "infrastructuring work"—while necessary in the current moment—still leads to the same conclusion: There is a 'final destination' in learning, culminating in a transcript, diploma, or certification.

That sounds like it is also a problem that needs to be solved.

"In Wad-Ja-Get? the authors distinguish between a five-point system of mastery and a two-point system, which is akin to Pass / No Credit, sometimes referred to as standards-based grading. It is difficult to pin these terms down clearly in either literature or practice (see Guskey & Anderman, 2013 for some useful definitional work). The key, however, is that grading in these approaches is based on clear demonstrations of what students can do and does not involve percentage-based grading or comparative grading such as curves."

It's important to recognise that two- and five-point scales are still grading, even if percentages are not part of the structure. We currently have schools that utilise the IB system (5-band scale from 0-8 per criteria, which then becomes a scale of 1-7 for the whole mark of the class), and they still rely on a lot of arbitrary values while focusing mostly on skill and mastery. You can't ungrade while still grading.

But they outline what mastery learning should look like:

"One key advantage of mastery learning is that it does not make time the main arbiter of learning, allowing for individual variation on the way to learning goals, with liberal use of formative assessments and feedback. Another advantage is that mastery assessment emphasizes what students know and can do, as opposed to merely ranking them against one another."

"The problem isn’t student resistance, resilience, or grit; the problem is that the whole system emphasizes ranking and grading over learning. We need to change the system to reignite a focus on learning."

This whole section on the infrastructure of grading (and how opaque university admissions processes) fuel the 'value' of grades and GPAs is really good, but it makes a mistake: it presumes that schools were designed for learning.

I know that people want to believe that the purpose of schools were for learning, but that purpose has largely been secondary for an overwhelming number of people. One need only connect the history of schooling to the arguments we have today to recognise that schools have never provided environments that were conducive to genuine learning for the majority of people: they have always excluded people, and they continue to do so today.

Remember that schools were used to further colonialism (residential schools for Indigenous and Black people), they persist in furthering imperialism and hegemonic supremacy (read a history textbook), and they were built using eugenics as a template (especially in SEN/G&T programs). Prior to movements for public schooling, they were inaccessible to the majority of people and were created for those with money. There was also a point where schools were segregated by gender, if girls were allowed at all.

Schools were never intended to be spaces of genuine learning, and everyone needs to stop pretending they were as they call for reforms.

"One technology that has enlivened the conversation in this area is digital badges, which can be used to denote learning or accomplishment in more granular ways than traditional grades and can be used to guide individualized pathways towards specific learning goals."

Going back to the original (which was riffed in Troop Beverly Hills): "Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges!"

I don't understand this desire for technology to be such an invasive part of our lives in so many ridiculous ways. Why do I need to have a 'badge' to prove that I've done something? It's almost like they want to turn learning into a collection of Steam achievements and trying to attach a meaning to it. I really don't see why, in most areas, people cannot just come and go as they please; learn and work as they want. We're still putting a transaction on it; you learned a skill, so here's your badge!

This still has the chance of perpetuating a major negative element of our learning environment: constricting pathways that don't enable people to try out or observe the work they want to do. It also doesn't do anything to decrease the likelihood of bullshit jobs that no one should need to do.

"Another element of infrastructure that needs to change in order to upend the dominant system of letter grades and percentage-grading is gradebooks themselves."

"LMSs are both ubiquitous and nearly invisible in schools; they are infrastructure. And LMSs typically have a narrow view of what grades and grading look like. It’s difficult to find an LMS gradebook that doesn’t start with the assumption that 100% is “perfect,” thus making the objective for students to maintain grades that—on average—are as close to 100% as possible. Gradebooks are hopelessly averagarian. In response, students game the system within or across their courses to maintain or maximize their average."

Yes, but also no. There are a lot of LMS systems where you can drop elements of grading entirely, opting for an alternative. Managebac, as much as I loathe it for the 5 million unnecessary questions it asks me every time I create a class/unit/assignment, has a simple "comments only" function for all teachers. If an LMS does not have this function, it is less the LMS that needs to be changed and more the outlook of the people running it. (It also means that the people designing these systems, as is often the case, haven't actually encountered the reality of what it's like to be a teacher.)

We keep missing the forest for the trees here, putting "infrastructural blame" on individual tools. LMSs don't just appear out of thin air; the biases and assumptions hidden in their programming by the people developing them are what need to be addressed.

But the author already highlighted this when discussing people being afraid to use non-traditional transcripts for entry into university and the potential harm it could cause to their students:

"Independent school leader Scott Looney was frustrated with the limiting aspects of the traditional transcript, believing that its structure limited innovation, discouraged interdisciplinary and engaged learning, and was more useful for sifting and sorting students than anything else: a strong echo with the arguments discussed above. Even more frustrating, he felt unable to do anything about this without jeopardizing his students’ access to top colleges. A college admissions officer friend suggested that, while it might not be a great idea for his school to do its own thing, if a consortium of schools banded together, it would make it easier for colleges to respond positively to an alternative transcript. And so the MTC was born, with the goal of developing a transcript that represented areas of mastery instead of course titles and grades."

So the issue is less the tool but more the people designing and implementing them. This creates a circular problem, and that circular problem isn't being pointed out. These reforms aren't fixing that.

"School is indeed a kind of game, but it’s a terrible game, with broken engagement and reward structures. Students are motivated to get good grades, but not to learn."

Now make this argument from the perspective that the point of school was never about learning, and you will be getting somewhere.

"A key to this approach is changing the frame for grading. Instead of starting with 100%—which you will most likely lose—in a gameful course you start with zero, but you can end up wherever you want based on the choices you make and the effort you put in. In this way, gameful learning is aligned with ideas from mastery learning. Learners are given autonomy, in terms of being able to make choices with respect to assignments and pathways through a course. Their feelings of competence are supported, in part through being able to make choices about what to work on, and through a sense of productive failure. What this means is that if a learner earns, for example, 60% of the points available on an assignment, this isn’t a failure at all (though it would certainly be viewed as a one in most standard grading systems), but instead represents progress. What did they learn? What hasn’t been learned yet? How should we focus future work by this student to help ensure that all goals are met by the end of the course?"

As a reform to grading in a broken system, I like this concept. However, I still question aspects of it: How do you determine a percentage of knowledge? Who is determining what it means to get that 60%? If your whole school hasn't bought into this idea, how do you navigate a situation where a student who has "made 60% progress" (like a download meter) in terms of traditional marking?

This also doesn't do much about superfluous assignments. If this is meant to engage a student by addressing their autonomy in a course, then an instructor needs to come to terms with how meaningful their assignments are (both in terms of doing the work to complete it and the feedback they will receive). This makes the assumption that the assessments they're given will be meaningful, which isn't always the case.

" Gameful courses also emphasize a sense of belonging, helping students to feel a part of something larger than themselves. In the study of academic motivation, self-determination theory has demonstrated that when learners’ autonomy, belonging, and competence are supported, they feel more intrinsically motivated (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Roy & Zaman, 2017). When these three elements are thwarted—as they are in much of contemporary education—extrinsic motivation is required to get learners to engage. For today’s learners, that extrinsic motivation comes from grades."

First, if you want to create an environment that where students have "a sense of belonging" and can help "students to feel a part of something larger than themselves," why not create a truly collaborative learning space and environment instead of continually modelling things on what already exists (and wasn't designed for that purpose)?

Alternative schools are doing this already, as there are a number of Democratic Schools, Secular Homeschool Co-Ops, and Learning Centers that provide space for learners to work with each other and without the artificial barriers of the classroom (how we divide subjects, how we divide learners, etc). People are intentionally trying to create spaces that do exactly that, so why not explore those?

Anyway, I agree entirely that motivation should be intrinsic.

But I disagree that the "extrinsic motivation comes from grades." Grades are a placeholder. What do people tell children when they get bad grades? They won't get into a good university. They won't get a good job. They won't be successful in life. They will be poor (implying that poor people are bad, which is gross). Grades are a stand-in for "you will be economically disadvantaged if you don't work hard enough."

When kids say that grades motivate them, ask them why that is. At that point, you will get the honest answers.

"I am happy to say that efforts to reimagine education through centers for academic and learning innovation are spreading across higher education more broadly (Kim & Maloney, 2020). The status quo around grading is in part a response to the perceived demands of college, so it is fitting that colleges should lead the way forward."

I need to point something out about academics that infuriates me: They think everything starts in universities and rarely want to accept that, just because something "is a response to the perceived demands of college," it doesn't mean that we have to start there. This is a much larger conversation than "What can universities do to help reform a system while refusing to change the values that got us here in the first place?"

Should universities change? Certainly. But should people in universities start understanding that there are options beyond creating systems that still enable people to perceive themselves as "better than" those who opt to do something else? Yes.

This "ungrading" hasn't yet figured out how to change culture; it's looking at how to reform what's happening instead of genuinely change it.

"The current combination of technology (e.g., digital badges), advocacy (e.g., Mastery Transcript Consortium, the growth of academic innovation centers in higher education), and crisis as it relates to education might bring about an adjacent possible favorable to advancing approaches to grading that enhance learning and equity."

The more I think on this, the more frustrating it is. "Digital Badges" are nonsensical; they don't promote genuine learning any more than Steam Achievements promote enjoyment of the games. If these badges are tied to "goals," these goals are determined by someone else; the only way that's not possible is if we're all creating our own badges, and that already means it's impossible to really use them.

If the goal is student autonomy and agency, the badges are just a nicer way of giving someone a transcript; they get to show off the parts they like or the bits that are relevant, but they still have the same end-goals in mind. (Also, this builds into "techno-solutionism," and the solution really isn't more technology.)

I also hate that this person is ignoring projects that exist in reality that are not in tertiary schooling. It's easy enough to find schools that have existed for years (like Summerhill in the UK) and people developing learning communities for kids required to get through compulsory schooling (like the Hedge School Cooperative in Austin, TX). It ignores projects like Flying Squads and other self-directed education projects.

When academics view the problem as "starting in academia," they ignore all of these and drive support to other fixes (that might not even be fixes). That attitude has to change.

"Historian and founding director of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research Ibram X. Kendi argues that the statistical methods we use to “measure” learning were developed by scholars who were also proponents of eugenics, committed to “proving” that the Black race was inferior to others (Kendi, 2019)."

It should not be at this point that someone mentions eugenics (which definitely targeted Black people, but it's worth noting that these methods targeted a wide range of people when they were implemented and depended upon location).

This point should've been mentioned when the author name-dropped a literal eugenicist and obscured their beliefs behind "scientific management," which happens again:

"Thorndike’s scientific management approaches to education played a key role in reinforcing and amplifying the inequality that has been there from the start."

Stop using the phrase "scientific management" when you mean "eugenics."

"Education is a system, and when we work for improvement, we need to focus on its multiple interconnected elements simultaneously."

Here's an innate issue in this framing: School is a system. Education is natural. Stop equating education with school; you do not need schools in order to learn anything.

"To the first objection—that we are lowering standards by moving to a Pass/Fail system—I ask, what were our standards in the first place? Let’s begin with the assumption that passing is the equivalent of a C or C- in the standard grading approach. If you aren’t happy with students earning those grades, why do they exist at all? Shouldn’t a passing grade mean that the student has at least learned the core goals of the course? To me, this objection is an argument for raising standards such that nobody can pass a course without mastering the core learning objectives. This objection reveals a lack of focus on learning in our current grading systems."

This is actually a really good point. Just on the basis of having a 5-point grading system (in the US: A, B, C, D, F), you have to wonder why it is that only the A (and sometimes the B) are "acceptable." (Side note: D's are often passing grades in compulsory school. In universities, they are passing grades for courses unrelated to you're program. If you're aiming for a History BA and get a D in a history course, you're retaking that class because it generally doesn't count.)

"The second objection—that without high grades to aim for, students will become unmotivated and stop working—reveals the devil’s bargain inherent in current grading systems, in which students are only working for grades, not for learning. Self-determination theory calls this the “overjustification effect,” wherein receiving a reward (a grade) for something you used to enjoy doing (learning) causes your enjoyment to decrease, and your need for extrinsic rewards (more grades) to increase in order for you to continue to engage (Lepper et al., 1973). If this isn’t a clear call to refocus assessment and grading on learning, I don’t know what is. This objection implies a lack of focus on care and equity."

I'd even argue that we don't need grades of any sort for this very reason and that the existence of schools necessitates an external motivator, even if they opt to use "digital badges" over traditional letter grades.

"The third objection—that this move is unfair to “hard workers” who were shooting for an A, or to students who need a good grade to improve their GPAs—again shows a lack of focus on care in our grading systems. The first group isn’t materially affected by the change to Pass/Fail. The second group can be supported with a note to their transcript, or in letters of recommendation. In any event, the real question here—if care is the focus—is what the best move is for most students?"

Even if we are to merely reform the system to Pass/Fail or Pass/No Credit, we could do something that promotes learning: Learning progression in a topic.

This still doesn't promote student autonomy (but it does enable more space for agency) because it still relies on someone to 'set a course', but we could extend models that exist in some vocational sectors (hair dressing, mechanics, etc): Passing parts of the class allows people to do those things and to help teach others those skills, while "failing" is reframed as "needing to improve" (and giving them space to work on those while retaining prior skills).