The Reflective Educator

Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Menu Close

Day: March 2, 2011

An argument against summative grading

Beth Still asks in a recent blog post

After being on Twitter for nearly 3 years I have learned to spot a bandwagon from a mile away. The latest bandwagon to come along has the words, “Let’s Abolish Grades!” written on the side of it. Maybe I am not as forward thinking or as innovative as I thought I was, but I don’t get this movement. Grades, whether they are letter grades, percentages, scales, or something else help students, parents, and teachers measure growth and progress and also indicate the level at which a student is performing (average, below average, above average). Students are admitted or denied access to certain programs, classes, and other things based on grades. Many times grades dictate scholarships and scholarships dictate where a student will attend college. This decision will have a lifelong impact on a person.

I responded

"I have no choice but to put zeros in their gradebook." Surely this isn’t true? A zero on an assignment is a slap in the face, and it certainly does nothing to encourage learning. You are not grading the student’s achievement, you are grading their behaviour. Those two areas need to be kept distinct from each other.

Here are my arguments against grading:

1. They are a shallow measure, they don’t tell the whole story. As a parent, I’d much rather have a complete picture of my son’s abilities rather than a brief summary.

2. They have a very high margin of error but are used for ranking students. Different teachers grade differently, use different assignments, but then students are all measured as if this wasn’t true. This is the equivalent of one scientist measuring in feet, and another in inches, and having them compare results without converting units.

3. They are so final! They end the learning rather than being an indicator of where further growth is. "Okay, well we finished that end of unit exam, here’s your grade. We’ll never think about that topic again."

4. They communicate the wrong message to students. Here is your F, clearly you know nothing about American History, or here is your A, now you know everything. Really? You can tell that a student knows nothing because of a letter they received?

5. Generally you know within a few DAYS of working with students what grades they will end up with at the end of the semester. To me, that says that the system must be rigged, because how could we possibly know what our students are likely to learn in advance of them learning? It’s like knowing the entire outcome of an experiment you’ve never done before.

6. They are used to rank students, schools, parents, communities. If you don’t think ranking is all that bad, remember that some educators careers, and student’s aspirations for the future are often dependent on a tiny variation between a "passing grade" and a failing one.

7. Grades are a cheap and easy substitute for parental involvement. "We absolve you of actually getting to know your child’s strengths and weaknesses within a subject area because we are going to give you the final summary of what they know in a single grade." Parents don’t have to feel guilty that they don’t know their children because they know their grades instead. This might be a little far-fetched, but think of the parents who act upon the final grades that their kids receive with punitive measures, rather than taking the time during the semester to be part of the learning process with their children.

I grade my students at my school, while recognizing that it is not a perfect system. It is a substitute for having sufficient time with parents and students to communicate the detail I think they deserve about their learning. We split the grade into "approaches to learning" and a summative score, which does help mitigate at least one of the issues Beth brings up in her post but I still find students searching for the final grade rather than being more curious about their learning progress.

I had a student recently who came to me after an exam, and told me she felt like she hadn’t done well. We sat down and went through her exam, and I gave her feedback on each question. We clarified what she understood, and where she had difficulty. It took about 30 minutes to go through the entire exam. I didn’t give her a mark, and say, "yep you did poorly now go away," I took the time to listen to her, find out what she felt like she understood, and give her the feedback she needs to improve her learning.

I recognize that I can do this because I have very small classes, and spending 30 minutes here or there with students to communicate feedback isn’t as big an issue as it would be with gigantic classes. To me, the biggest argument for a reduced class size is not that the students are "easier to manage" or that there is less grading, it is that you actually have the time to give students real feedback about their learning rather than a quick and dirty summary grade.

Cost of switching to Open License materials

I’m curious about the cost of textbooks in British Columbia, because I wondered, after doing some brief calculations in my head, how much textbooks cost in British Columbia, and how much an open source licensing system would cost by comparison. I need some help with my math, because I can’t understand why are still using the current system.

There are currently 649, 366 students listed as registered in British Columbia, according to the BC education ministry data website. If even half of those students have textbooks of some sort, and those textbooks cost an average of $25 per year for a typical 5 year replacement cycle, and if students take an average of 6 academic subjects then the total cost of textbooks in BC is about $50 million dollars. (I’m not able to look this information up easily, as most of the school districts in BC lump the cost of textbooks into their budgets for supplies). Let’s halve that number, in case some of my estimates are incorrect, which means that the cost of textbooks alone in BC is at least $25,000,000.

Of course this cost doesn’t include transporting the books, replacing lost, stolen, or damaged books, storing the books, and paying people to manage textbooks for schools or school districts.

What would an open source system cost? Imagine a system where the textbooks are written by authors, and then licensed under a creative commons license. The authors are paid a far wage for their work, but then not granted royalties once the work is complete. Please note that this is what I envision these "textbooks" looking like.

I would imagine that each course might have an author who is responsible for keeping the work up to date and maintained. If each of these authors earned $80,000 a year for their work, and we had an author in charge of each of 6 academic subjects, for about half of the students (so half of the current grades), then the total cost of the authors salaries would be $2,880,000. We’d probably want to have an chief editor of the project, so let’s add $120,000 for someone in charge of the project, to bring the salary total to $3,000,000. Further, I’m sure we would want to have a few consultants hired from time to time, expenses so that authors could attend professional development, type-setters to ensure the content looks clean, so perhaps the total budget for the project would be $5,000,000.

The authors would likely work in collaborative teams, so that although each author would be "in charge" of a specific textbook. Content changes regularly, so you would have to keep these authors on staff full time, as they would be constantly revising and upgrading their digital textbooks. The quality of the works would actually improve over the current model since any changes that needed to be made to the textbooks could be done so immediately, and then those changes pushed out to all of the digital copies of the textbooks students hold.

According to this analysis, you would save at least $20,000,000 a year using an open source model of publishing, with a conservative estimate of how much textbooks actually cost our province. I’m sure other educational districts could do similar analysis and see savings as well. Note that this savings does not take into account savings generated by not having to transport, store, maintain, upgrade, and replace textbooks.

Some other advantages of this system is that different provinces could collaborate and share units and modules of the text. We wouldn’t have to use just print resources, as I’ve argued before. Errors and omissions could be fixed on very short time-lines. The best explanation of a particular topic could be the one used, rather than relying on a single author (or small group of authors) to provide explanations. Textbooks could be shared with whomever wanted to use them. Parents and teachers could collaborate to provide translations of the textbooks.

A serious flaw with this argument is that many students in BC do not have devices capable of displaying digital textbooks and in some cases their existing devices that would work are actually banned in schools. This is an issue that needs to be resolved, however I think that $20,000,000 would go a long way toward providing students in need with some sort of electronic reader, especially if we leverage a lot of the devices students already have. (We remember that the replacement cycle on an ereader is about once every 3 years, hence we actually have about $60,000,000.)

To those who argue that this would further standardization of content across our province, you are right it would. However, currently the resources teacher use have restrictive licenses, while at least under a creative commons license educators, students, and parents could customize their textbook to suit their needs. There will always be a need for some form of a container to hold information, and for schools that container has traditionally been either the teacher or the textbook, in this system the container would more customizable and could adapt over time as our needs change.

There must be a flaw with this argument, something I’m missing. I was sure when I did these calculations I was going to end up with a different story, so please let me know what errors, omissions, and mistakes you see in my logic.