By Rick Stiggins
Letter and number grades have outlived their usefulness as a means of communicating about student achievement in American education. It‘s time to move on. In this information age with all of the communication technology we have at our disposal we can do far better.
Consider all of the problems we have had to deal with over the decades regarding the grading process: For example, among other things, we have long been debating:
• What to factor into them (achievement, ability, attitude, classroom behavior…?),
• How much evidence is needed,
• How they should be calculated,
• Why we grade anyway: whether they are to be for communication, sorting and selecting, or for motivation. And often these purposes come into direct conflict with one another.
• How to grade students in the same classroom who are shooting for different learning targets—some gifted and other academically challenged.
As a result of vast philosophical, policy, and procedural differences within and across classrooms, schools and districts about these matters, often, parents see the grades reported for their child but are left to wonder what they really say about that student’s achievement! Enough is enough…
It’s time to build a new and more effective communication system. Let’s begin with clearly articulated achievement standards for each academic discipline arrayed in learning progressions from beginner to advanced topics and let’s build a continuous communication process that keeps everyone informed about where each student in on each progression as they ascend to ever-higher levels of attainment. That’s it and it’s quite simple. Current technology can handle this easily.
If there is to be a sorting and selecting mechanism for high schools, let it be based on students’ levels of attainment in each progression, perhaps accompanied by the pace at which they arrived there. Or, we could command that the ACT and SAT be redeveloped to tell us how each student did in mastering each learning standard tested. But, the very least, we will know that all communications about achievement will have a clear and appropriate meaning and it always will be clear what comes next in each student’s learning. Who could ask for more?
Who is likely to protest such a plan? Certainly not potential employers or non-competitive post-secondary educational institutions. They will be assured of access to the information they need to evaluate and plan. I expect competitive colleges and universities will object due to the absence of a high school GPA and rank in class upon which to sort candidates. But they certainly could rely on such a new system to decide which students have attained levels of achievement that prepare them for the clear and specific learning targets that underpin their instructional programs (if they have them). In any event, a high school faculty’s job shouldn’t be to do the college admissions officer’s job for them. Let’s build high school curricula, in-course assessments and communication mechanisms in ways that maximize student success. Let’s make the college admissions officer’s job as difficult as we can by flooding them with very highly qualified students!