Does grading school work hurt learning and society?

This is my third post in a series looking at assessment and how the questions are increasingly being asked about how, when, and why we assess in schools. I will be again explaining how New Zealand has started solving assessment issues whilst boosting learning. In this post, I wanted to concentrate on the core activity of grading work, a seemingly essential ‘tool’ in the education “factory.” Rather than just give my opinion, I think it’s best to explore grading from multiple perspectives.

In the last month, two math professors from opposite sides of the globe appeared in different posts presenting two very different arguments against grading. This is a good place to start. Math after all would be the subject many people think of first when it comes to testing and grades. My 20 years of experience working with math teachers would indicate that most would struggle to imagine a world without tracking and reporting test scores as a measure of success.

Grading versus Learning

The first post included math professor, Jo Boaler, who argues against test scores on behalf of learning. Boaler contends that the test becomes the focus instead of the math, and even the core math facts get emphasized purely for their own sake and/or for a test score and not for the multiple purposes regarding why students are being encouraged to learn them. Boaler pushes strongly for “Assessment for Learning,” which New Zealand has baked into its education system as the official and nationwide approach to assessment.

Grading versus culture

The second Math professor argues a strong case against grading for cultural reasons. As the world grapples with acknowledging its institutionalized racism, New Zealand’s Bobby Hunter highlights that “practices of ability grouping, the prioritising of individual success and ethics of competitiveness are not universal cultural values — particularly for Māori and Pacific peoples.”  The practice of ranking and streaming students based on test scores is highly questionable if it fails to take into account the cultural starting point and the various levels of value different cultures place on such a practice. This leads me to my third perspective, Science.

Grading versus Science

My favorite contradiction in schools is how we teach the importance of the scientific process but conveniently ignore such rules when testing and making conclusions about learners. Every Science teacher would laugh at an experiment that randomly applied a variable like heat and then drew conclusions that one material or chemical definitely reacted more than another. The Science teacher would demand to know if the same heat was applied to both or the conclusion is meaningless. So what do any grades mean if schools simply ignore all the variables that impact the results? The lack of scientific rigor in school assessment is as consistently unethical as the meaningless conclusions we draw from them when deciding the pathways we open and shut to young people.

New Zealand versus Grading

As I, in my last post, and the first Math professor, Jo Boaler mentioned, Assessment for Learning is a simple shift in focus to learners being made aware of their progress, current level, and next steps. It leads to conclusions drawn from multiple forms of evidence over a sustained period of time. It encourages a community of learners through peer-critique and learning discussion. Tests are not outlawed but are seen as self-diagnostic and just one part of the evidence that helps the learner measure their own progress and set the next learning steps based on very visible guidance for each level. It is with yet more pride I can say New Zealand is working hard to break the old grade/report habits in schools (especially high schools) and making great progress toward its target to have Assessment for Learning as standard practice nationwide.

Originally written for Intrepid Ed News (USA). Check out their great thought leaders here.