What is the purpose of grading?

Grading has been a hot topic recently. I was in a Twitter chat last night (#mschat) that focused the entire hour on some of the issues and concerns about teacher grading policies.

Since my office has construction workers cutting a hole in my exterior wall today, I’m not going to be able to write that expansion post on Google Earth. Instead I’m going to reflect on my experience from last night’s #mschat (Middle School chat) on Twitter. If you want to check out a review about it you can check Todd Bloch’s Storify from last night. The topic revolved around grading. Not just how much grading teachers do but more importantly, how we reflect on the purpose of grading. It really was a fascinating conversation.

If you have never been involved in a Twitter chat for teacher you are really missing out. Just looking through the first 15-20 slide from last night I noticed that I was connecting with educators from Illinois, California, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Indiana, Texas, Georgia, New Jersey, and even from Toronto, Canada. In addition to this far ranging field of connected educators, their areas of expertise also varied greatly.

What is the purpose of grading?

The conversation started more about what the purpose of grading shouldn’t be, myself included. I mentioned that the reality and purpose of grading is outdated. When I asked my wife she told me that grading is to rank students. I couldn’t disagree with her even though I wanted to because it does seem to be what ends up happening even though most teachers try to avoid that.

Many participants spoke to the need to make grading more about giving feedback or progressing towards reaching a goal. I take exception to this. there is nothing inherently constructive about a letter grade that gives any indication that a student has ‘progressed’. If the feedback was a narrative with a rubric of goals and a continuum of progress that would be one thing but the A-F grading policy does not have room for an narrative beyond some canned comments that are clicked on a computer screen.

Grading in and of itself is is not feedback, at least not constructive feedback. It is more of ranking to see 1) if a student got something ‘right’ or not, and/or 2) if the teacher is appeasing the parent’s need to compare/rank themselves (and their kids) against each other. I don’t really like either of these purposes of grading but I’m talking about the realities of today, not what our ideal is. Looking forward to the future, it was great to see many participants talking about the need for two way communication of strengths/weaknesses and how students are achieving benchmarks. I have to give a shout out to my personal favorite comment of this question to @DesrochesMolly who said,

“I think grading is all about helping students develop their knowledge constructively”

And @janamaiuri who said,

“an attempt to rank kids in a standardized way that is understandable by higher ed/society/laypersons…”

This really gets at the central point for me. In a society where individualism is hailed and esteemed, how do teachers measure achievement, comprehension, understanding, nuance, and effort in a meaningful way so that others in our society can comprehend what it means? My personal comment on the subject revolved around the point that we, as teachers, are trained to grade. We don’t think about the purpose enough because the status quo dictates that we just grade and fill up our grade books with ‘enough’ grades to appear on par with our peers. The purpose of grading, to me, seems to be elusive at best and most of the time outright opaque.

@smartins3313 brought up a good point about wanting to replace the word grading with feedback. Personally I would love to see this…

Tomorrow I’ll tackle question #2 of the twitter chat.

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