Art by Tessa Bushfield and Mila Barry

Artists’ rendition of their “Big Head” cartoon thinking about how chaotic the grading system is.

An Incongruence of Philosophy 

Societal emphasis on the quantifiable is changing the meaning of education. How can students and educators mend the gap between values in the grade book and the value of learning itself?

February 14, 2020

The world of educational philosophy is at once timeless, and in constant flux. From short-lived fads to the enduring Aristotlian argument, teachers work with an uncommon amalgam of old and new. 

The digital age however, has pushed the world of education into unexplored territory. Perhaps in response to our technological fancies, cultural sentiment has come to encourage quantification and standardization. The concept of “factory model” teaching, to produce graduates with a common skill set, has become a prevalent, and literal, reality. 

This may have been the trajectory we were on long before computers and tablets were at the widespread disposal of educators and students. However, the introduction of this new tool is certainly accelerating the process. 

It comes down to an incongruence of philosophy. Is it right to be motivated by receiving good grades, or by the value of learning itself? Who’s to say what system of measurement can best describe a student’s abilities? And how can one expect that same system to work as accurately for math teachers as it does for English teachers when the content and processes are so wildly dissimilar? 

Most importantly, how is our culture shaping the way we think about these questions? There may not be an easy answer.

But exploration into our online grade book, SchoolBrains, provides telling insight. Our grading system feeds into the culture of quantification. The accessibility and flexibility of it are making kids less inclined to learn for the sake of it, thereby undermining the true meaning of education. 

I’m not arguing for the abolition of grades, or even a total redesign. They are valuable, effective, and often constructive.  But the focus on them has become extreme. Together, we must reflect and improve upon our models of measurement.   

To begin the process, several teachers agreed to be interviewed on the subject. 

At Gloucester High, SchoolBrains was implemented during the 2016-2017 school year. That was the year English teacher Fraser Watson began teaching at GHS.

“I’ve definitely seen the student concern about grades spike,” said Watson.

The ability to access your grade constantly, and watch it fluctuate as assignments are added, has created a new level of intimacy between the student and the means of assessment. Teachers have less autonomy in choosing what their students receive; instead they must rely heavily on what the mathematical averages dictate. 

This sounds like it could serve to eliminate bias, and it likely does. But there is a fatal flaw in this system. 

Numbers don’t always paint the whole picture. 

For teachers whose subjects revolve around abstract analysis and creative thinking, the quantification of ability can seem somewhat arbitrary. It’s hard to put a number on a person’s ability to think critically.  

As Watson explained: “One of my big issues with the numbers is that they are, in some ways, kind of meaningless.  Realistically it’s hard to quantify what a student can do. It’s hard to quantify what they can do independently. Through different levels there are different expectations and supports.”

It is equally challenging however, to find another way. 

“I don’t see SchoolBrains being a reflective tool to get students thinking, ‘how do I improve my work?'”, said Watson, “[but] I don’t know what would shift the mindset. [Maybe we could try] less entries, a more holistic grading strategy, self evaluations? Everything seems to get only a part of it and miss the whole.”

Beyond those suggestions, there are pre and post assessments. Even the restructuring of report cards so that teachers could add personalized comments, could be beneficial. 

Perhaps the simplest solution, though, is just adjusting the percent values of different assignments. For reference, most GHS teachers work on a formative/summative basis. 

Formative assignments, used to practice skills, are worth about 30 percent of a student’s grade. Summative assessments, used to gauge mastery, are worth about 70 percent. Though these values fluctuate between classes, their purpose is shared.  

“You could argue that changing the percentages in School Brains would increase the value of learning vs the value of the outcome,” suggested Watson, “It’s more a philosophical question at that point, are we teaching the information, or are we teaching kids how to learn. Depends on what you value there.”

Chemistry teacher Carol Cafasso has a far less common take on the matter.

“I would love no grades,” she explained, “Just doing the tests and seeing how well you do. There are advantages and disadvantages of thinking a number defines you. Maybe in a utopian environment where everyone would work to learn, be self driven, and motivated [this could be a reality].”

More succinctly put: “I’m a teacher, not an accountant. If you want me to be an accountant, it won’t always be accurate.” 

I’m a teacher, not an accountant. If you want me to be an accountant, it won’t always be accurate.

— Carol Cafasso, Chemistry teacher

But a reevaluation of the grading system is important for reasons beyond that of accuracy. As information becomes increasingly available to students via their phones, it seems imperative that our grading system should encourage kids to learn for the sake of understanding, instead of just passing. 

The information age and the rise of “fake news” have changed the American culture of knowledge. And not always for the better. 

“Having the facts is different from being creative with them, and using them to solve problems. [We have] advanced,” said Cafasso, “But there are drawbacks to being totally dependent on [external] fact retrieval.”

Watson had a similar evaluation. 

“Digital presentation and how we access technology have changed personal responsibility for learning and knowledge. Why do you need to know something if you can just look it up? That’s more a societal ripple than just academic.”

This disregard for the true meaning of education has been acknowledged by students. They see that there is a problem, but it’s challenging to change their mindset when such emphasis is put on grades at school and at home. 

Tessa Bushfield, a junior, summed up this sentiment with an anecdote.

“When I went to ask a teacher about my end of term grade, the teacher said I shouldn’t be focused on the grade, and instead on my critical thinking skills,” said Bushfield, “But grades are what matter now. Colleges can’t see my critical thinking skills.”

Grades are what matter now. Colleges can’t see my critical thinking skills.

— Tessa Bushfield, student

She has her own opinion on how this problem could be remedied. 

“I feel like we should go back to letter grades, so we can have a wider margin. It shouldn’t be totally based on numbered assignments.”

Of course, not everybody agrees that the system could be improved upon. It has strengths. Many teachers embrace SchoolBrains just as it is, and see it as an improvement over less accessible analog platforms. 

“I think it’s great that people can see everything and get clarity. Numbers can be vague, it’s good for them to see where it [all] comes from,” said history teacher Philip Cook, “When you spend everyday doing something meaningful, it adds up.”

It’s valuable to note however, that this difference of opinion often overlaps with disciplinary lines. Teacher’s whose content more easily lends itself to quantification (for example, formulas and dates) reported feeling far less constrained by the current system than did those who taught more abstract skills. 

As Ryan Kaiserman, a math teacher, explained: “I think we’ve put a lot of effort into designing the assessments, and matching them to the curriculum. If a student earns a score of 80 percent it’s a fairly accurate reflection of a certain level of mastery.”

In other words, “The numerical value doesn’t always give the whole picture of ability, but it tends to be a good indication.”

Additionally, teachers who teach more quantifiable skills saw little impact of digital culture on student work ethic. Kaiserman actually reported more student accountability since the introduction of SchoolBrains.

 “The conversations initiated by students are less like ‘What’s my grade’, and more like ‘My grade is this, what can I do to change that?’,” he said. “I’ve always had these conversations, but they are more student initiated.”

So what’s the answer here? 

Let’s face it, there’s probably never going to be a perfect grading system. And there will certainly never be a point when all students come to school motivated solely by the urge to expand their minds. But it doesn’t make sense to use one system uncompromisingly, especially such simple measures could be taken to improve accuracy. 

The standardized ideals of our grading system may increase equity, facilitate communication, and be conducive to the collection of data, but they fail to show the true breadth and depth of student skill. This is especially relevant in disciplines that deal with abstract skills. You cannot measure creativity. You cannot measure the delicate spontaneity of a human thought. The key here is finding a balance. 

How is it that we can’t have both indelible averages and personalized report card comments?

How is it we can’t have clear communication and more holistic methods?

And if the system works well for some, shouldn’t we just expand its capabilities, so it might better work for all? 

It boils down to this: the pendulum of society may swing toward the quantitative, and it may swing toward the abstract. But there’s no reason we can’t have the best of both worlds.

Looking for more information on this debate? Full interviews with all the GHS teacher’s quoted above have been published on The Gillnetter. Click the hyperlinks connected to their names, or see the links below to peruse individual questionnaires and responses. 

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