Critical Summary and Critical Review
Grades and Degrees:
New Educational Forum Weekly
Vol. 6, Article XI
Our current system of awarding college and university degrees relies heavily or entirely on grades. While I believe that we do this for convenience and expedience, it is neither efficient nor rational as a means of assessing student ability nor prospects for future success in the student’s chosen field. Further, the inherent limitations of testing make any real, broad uniformity impossible and therefore not only is a current system broken, it cannot be fixed.
This becomes evident as soon as one considers “What should form the basis of “grades?” Many of us, (we teachers) do not even consider this question for any extended period of time. Instead we simply grade as we were graded, further entrenching grading practices without critical examination. But should we stop to pause, we find that our system of grading is so conflicted and inconsistent that it forms no “system” at all.
To begin, consider the standard way of interpreting letter grades. “A” is for “Excellent.” “B” for “Good.” “C” for average. “D” is “Poor” and “F” is “Failure to satisfy the minimum standard.” Already we have an inconsistency. Excellent, Good, Poor and Failure are comparative judgments relative to some ideal standard. Average refers to performance relative to one’s peers. On this basis, one and the same performance can be excellent and average warranting both and “A” and a “C.” If we interpret all the letter grades as relative to one’s peers, then it is very likely that, in any mildly diverse group of students, there will be some who are excellent (no matter how badly they perform) and some who are poor performers (no matter how well they command the material).
It is tempting to claim that all grades should be judged on “competence with the material.” But upon closer attention we see that this really solves little. First, just WHAT competence is being assessed varies widely from class to class (let alone college to college) even among those courses allegedly covering “the same material.” Every student has had the experience of taking the same course or one closely related with two different professors and found that their teaching and testing styles vary greatly. Evidently they are NOT testing the same competence.
Further, even with the most objective course material (anatomy or geometry, let’s say), there will be differences with regard to competencies tested. It might seem that something as innocuous as “identifying muscles of the human body” is an objective competence which can admit of non-controversial grading procedures. But, what would such a test look like? Would it be multiple choice, essay, oral? Would one use a chart, a computer graphic, a video, a corpse? Would it be timed, open-ended, take home? Individual, group? A cumulative final or a weekly quiz? No matter how the individual instructor chooses to answer the above, it should be obvious that in each case one is assessing different competencies (e.g. the ability to work within a specified time frame, the ability to memorize or the ability to research, the ability to work with others, the ability to look at a dead human body dispassionately, etc.). One cannot craft an exam which merely tests a student’s ability to identify the muscles of the human body. One can only develop an exam which tests the ability of the student to identify the muscles of the human body, under certain circumstances and NOT under different circumstances. Please note that my point is not that a student’s ability to perform well on an multiple choice exam is no indication of his ability to perform well at, say, an autopsy. I’m claiming that ineliminatable and de facto differences in grading procedures frustrate any attempt to generate a uniform interpretation of what a stated grade means. Even if we regard a “C” as indicating “some mid-point between good and poor,” thus rendering all grading relative to an ideal standard of competence, the question would still remain “good or poor” at what?
The above problems are compounded exponentially when the material is less objective as with literary analysis or theological exegesis. If a student tells me he got an “A” (or any other grade for that matter) in a philosophy course, that tells me NOTHING until I learn more about the instructor or the institution who awarded the grade. It is not the grade that means anything, but rather the professional reputation of the instructor or institution that confers (or fails to confer) evaluative force.
Some schools have sought to dispense with (or never bothered with) formal grading. They merely claim that the student has completed the course of study satisfactorily or above satisfactorily in the view of the faculty. Such degrees are backed up only by the reputation of the degree granting institution. (And, ideally the degree granting institution’s reputation is backed up by demonstrated excellence of its faculty in their respective fields as well as the successful track record of its previous graduates.) I believe that this is a much more natural and reasonable approach to “grading.” If someone who has achieved excellence in the field stakes his or her reputation on the claim that the student in question also demonstrates excellence, I can think of no better recommendation.
Now granted such a program is not without its drawbacks. For one thing, there aren’t that many schools with so powerful a reputation that merely their say-so is a guarantee of competence. Admittance to such schools would be severely limited and ferociously competitive (even more so than now) an undoubtedly would become the prize of those with the most political and economic influence.
Also, there would be the ever present danger that such institutions would give rise to “cults of personalities.” Professors would become more prone to make evaluative judgments based on subjective appeal rather than objective merit. A student could be failed or passed by the whim of a professor. Such power, without the accountability of, at least ostensibly, objective grading procedures would give professors nearly unrestricted command over a students future career. This is the sort of power that begs abuse.
Still, safeguards in the form of equal opportunity scholarships, oversight committees and review panels could be implemented to minimize these difficulties. The questions then become, are we merely to live with the illusion of “objectivity” simply because we cannot think of anything better? Further, is system of awarding degrees based more on the personal and institutional recommendations really worse than the present system? Finally, is it really that much different in fact? After all, we do NOT regard all 4.0 transcripts equally. A 3.5 G.P.A. from Harvard University will impress most future employers, graduate schools, law and medical schools, etc. more favorably than a 4.0 from a community college. Why is this? Because they believe (rightly in my opinion) that the strength of the reputation of the institution and individuals doing the recommending is more important than the “grades.”
This is not to say that any graduate from the community college is “less qualified” than any Harvard grad. When I was an adjunct professor I often taught the exact same course (with the same texts, tests, grading scale, etc.) for both a “big name” university as well as a small community college. An “A” in my class meant the same thing regardless of which school was granting the degree. Nevertheless, we cannot be sure that this is always the case. More the point, we can be very confident that this is not always the case. We don’t have the same professors teaching with the same texts, texts and grading scales. It is therefore necessary to rely on long-term proven success and professional reputation of the instructors and institutions who are in personal contact with the students. With their professional experience to guide them and their professional reputations at stake, their recommendations are far more telling then haphazardly formed and often arbitrarily assigned grades. It is my claim that we should drop the sham of objective grading and return to the apprenticeship model of education and degree award.
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