Grade fade

Robin J. Holt

December 11, 1992|By Robin J. Holt

IT was, of course, predictable. No sooner did Baltimor County announce its intention to move away from letter grades in schools than the howls of protests began, though oddly enough, most weren't from teachers, who will have to shoulder an extra burden.

As a teacher who has doled out some 14,000 grades in my nearly 20 years of college teaching, I have no small familiarity with grades and marks and tests and scores. Teachers have always been in the evaluation business.

If the abolition of letter grades at the elementary level (and perhaps beyond) encourages teachers to write more detailed assessments of student work, we have all gained. If it frees young minds, even a little, from the fear of failure (with all the accompanying labels), students might learn more willingly and more soundly. All students need feedback, encouragement and

correction. They need to be shown their strengths and weaknesses. The question is whether letter grades are the best means by which to accomplish this.

The worst thing about grades is not that they are biased (although they are); nor is it that they damage self-esteem (they probably do). The most damning indictment of grades is their crudeness as a measurement of achievement. Paul Dressell, of the University of Michigan, put it this way: "A grade is an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgment by a biased and variable judge of the content to which a student has attained an undefined mastery of an unknown proportion of an indefinite amount of material."

The intangibles we teachers purport to test -- intelligence, mathematical ability, language fluency, are not divisible into units that can be counted. As the scholar, Jacques Barzun, pointed out, they are abstractions, constructs of our own devising. Even today, after awarding thousands of letter grades, I could not articulate the precise difference between a B+ and a C- on a five-page essay. I only know the one is higher than the other on my abstract academic scale.

Converting letter grades to numbers is an even more spurious quantification. I write "88" or "51" at the top of a paper, but what does the number mean? Does it assure student X that she understands the concept? Does my excruciatingly calculated figure remind student Y to proofread more carefully? Reducing my evaluation of a student's work to a letter grade indicates only that I am complying with the system that employs me.

Much sport has been made (and rightly so) of the wonder drug called "self-esteem." People -- students included -- should "feel good about themselves" as a consequence of some achievement. But without the confidence that they can climb the mountain, students will never take the first step toward the summit. A willingness to learn is a necessary prerequisite for successful teaching.

Grades are status. Proud parents pin the "A+" test on the refrigerator door. Honor roll students look down on the underachievers, who, in turn, deride the former as nerds and weenies. Grades impress admissions officers and scholarship committees, but so would gold stars, oak leaf clusters or tattoos were we to deem them appropriate measurements of academic skill.

Human intelligence, the increase in one's comprehension, the degree of skill in a developing mind, cannot be adequately represented by a letter or a number. Our teachers are not counting beans in a jar or who has the most applies. We are trying to assess the understanding in a mind that is changing even as we try to determine what it "knows." Nor can we even agree on what it means to know. Does a correct recitation of dates signify an understanding of history? Does a score of 100 on a grammar test mean the student can write an intelligible sentence?

If schools begin to move away from grades, what will students work for? Perhaps they might be encouraged to value knowledge for its own sake, to appreciate the growth in themselves, brave enough to explore what they do not know. Because I teach at the college level, I see mostly students ZTC already badly damaged by 12 years of standard American instruction. They are fearful of talking in class because they might give the "wrong" answer. They cannot articulate a thought their own because they've never been asked to think for themselves.

And when I venture that there might not be a "right" answer to every question, a few become hostile. They have learned that reading and writing are tiresome chores one only performs in schools. (They did not enter school believing this.) Knowledge and skill have no value apart from the letter grade that will be earned.

I will never forget my first week of student teaching. I sent my history class to the library for some assigned reading. Later in the day, I encountered one of young charges and asked if she had found the reading interesting. Her reply still haunts me. "Will it be on the test?" she asked fearfully.

Yes, American education is in terrible trouble, but not because students can't learn. They have learned extremely well indeed. They know that only grades count. An inquiring mind is just a distraction from the final exam. There is neither joy nor pride in knowing what one did not know before. Growth in understanding, the widening of one's horizons, the wonder of discovery -- all these are trivial incidentals. What matters is the grade. Students have learned this lesson well.

Robin J. Holt is a Baltimore writer.

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