How courageous are you? This book is not for anyone who is comfortable with the status quo in education nor the one who trusts traditions. Some of you will dismiss it outright! However, Guskey poses the question that is rarely considered today as we continue to accept a practice that began in the 19th Century. What is the purpose of grading and reporting? There are a number of categories listed: communicating about students' achievement in school to parents or others, communicate to students for self-evaluation, select or identify students for certain programs or educational paths, provide incentives for students to learn, evaluate effectiveness of instructional programs, provide evidence of students' lack of effort or inappropriate responsibility.
First,Guskey stresses we need to identify the key questions to be answered in defining the purpose of grades on a report card:
1. What information will be communicated in the report card?
2. Who is the primary audience for the information?
3. What is the intended goal of the communication? How should the information be used?
Most often we gather various samples of a variety of report cards and select features from several we want to use. Yet, the samples we look at are based on the same principles we have been using for decades. With the advent of technology, the design may change, but the basic purpose or mix of purposes still creates a sorting process of information that may or may not be a clear picture of a student's measure.
An entire chapter challenges percentage grades. "Nearly every computer and online grading program available to educators today calculates percentage grades." (p.23) Although percentage grades give the illusion of precision, they create a multitude of methodological and logistical problems for teachers who must explain the grades, which are often highly subjective judgments of students' performance. Guskey also challenges the zero and minimum grade, as well as the plus and minus and half-grade increments. Grading on the curve and the challenge to bell-shaped grade distributions are documented with research. If those on the bottom of the bell curve drop out, as they often do, sticking with a bell curve creates a new group of potential drop outs each year. Sticking with a bell curve would indeed deflect grade inflation.
If grades are meant to discriminate among students to identify difference in their performnce, then normative grading is employed. If grades are meant to reflect the degree to which students have learned, accomplished, or achieved what they were taught, then criterion basis for grading is used. Guskey then challenges the computation of class rank. If the purpose as an educator is to select talent, then you must work to accentuate and maximize the differences among students. Once an item on the ACT or SAT test is successfully answered correctly by nearly all students, it is removed from the assessment. The removal has nothing to do with the importance nor the validity of the item, it simply no longer discriminates among students. However, if you decide your purpose as an educator is to develop talent, then you specify first what you want students to learn and be able to do. And then you do everything you possbily can to ensure that all students learn those things well. Ah, but then there could be that grade inflation issue again.
In a section on class rank, he points out that only 19 percent of colleges and universities now give class rank "considerable importance" in the application process. They recognize the striking differences in student populations at different high schools and tremendous variation in the way high schools compute students' class rank. Colleges are more interested in the rigor of the course work a student has taken, as well as the total number of courses completed as stronger predictors of college success than grade point average, class rank, or standardized test scores. Guskey also suggests some alternatives to valedictorians, a few of which I have seen during my time as an administrator.
Guskey challenges the use of the single grade. He points out the absurdity of combining measures of height, weight, diet, and exercise into a single number or mark to represent a person's physical condition. Yet teachers combine equally diverse measures into a hodgepodge grade that is just as confounded and impossible to interpret and no one questions it. Purpose should reflect students' performance based on specific learning criteria: product criteria, process criteria, progress criteria. Perhaps multiple grades or narratives might be an answer.
Questionable grading practices never occur in your school; however, in some sites teachers are averaging scores arbitrarily for a final grade, some are using zeros which completely weighs the grade down with little hope of successfully overcoming such a score, and some still lower grades because of behavioral infractions. Guskey challenges us to challenge using grades as rewards and punishments. Stop the practice of using grades to ensure compliance, the use of grades to increase attendance at certain events, or rewarding extra credit points for getting papers signed or bringing in items for the food shelf. The book is an easy read, but should stick with you for a long time bringing an itch under your skin to start planning with your team how to address grades and how they are reported.
Back in the days of Outcome Based Education, our district invited Johnson City, New York teachers to visit Proctor Schools and share what they were doing to improve student learning. Back in the 1980's the one thing these educators warned over and over, "Don't mess with grading. Parents will fight you tooth and nail on changing grading practices." Well, here we are over three decades later. Are we any closer to changing the grading practice? Ah, status quo is comfortable.