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“The Grading Dilemma”

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 “Between all the necessities in time, among all the problems, I choose to devote everything I have, intelligence, soul, heart, physical and moral capacities to the problem of educating people”, this need was identified by the reformer Jules Ferry 140 years ago. (Gumbel P., 2010). And it seems that today the necessity to provide a substantial and engaging level of studies to what is called “free, public and mandatory school” (l’ ‘école gratuite, laïque et obligatoire) is more imperative than ever. There is this ongoing debate in the education community -educators, reformers, policymakers, experts- whether the summative assessment methods used to evaluate the learning outcomes of the student at the end of an instructional unit do really match the pedagogical goals and objectives. And most ultimately if they meet the essence of education: self-study, self-exploration, self-empowerment in order to perceive education as the most powerful weapon which we can use to change the world (Nelson Mandela, 2003). Nowadays, the method for measuring the student performance and the effectiveness of the school system which is established commonly by the majority of public schools and the one that is adopted by the workforce of the school sector is the grading system. Marks: letters (generally from A to F), a range of numbers (for example on a scale of 0 to 20, 0 to 10) or percentages and more have been attributed around the world as a method of evaluating the learning results of a student throughout a course. It is in one of my biggest concerns that the school does not help people any more to build a character (ἦθος, ethos) and morals for our “knowledge acquisition” (Aristotle, Organon), but it is a perpetual pursuit of grades and of our academic excellence . Under such conditions, do the school grades and in any kind of evaluation system of performance help people to thrive in their life and motivate them to move forward? Or do they reduce students’ interest in the learning itself and challenge students’ critical and creative thinking? All in all, how do we, as responsible citizens, committed to the value and the ethics of education, keep facing the problem of educating people and educating ourselves without making any harm, without perturbating the development of our spirit? Along the following lines, I would try not only to draw up facts and thoughts for the use of grades as an assessment tool for school performance but also to determine ways so as to target the quality of students’ learning, their interests and their motivation.

 For decades now, the grading system is used in schools as the most prevailing way of communicating and reflecting the student’s mastery. We live in a data-driven society in which recording marks and calculating the cumulative grade-point averages of students is a way to calculate numerically their quality performance through their school life. There are several reasons why the grading system is attributed to do so. In the first place, it is alleged that the learning process of a person is inhibited by the kind of pressure that we use at schools to motivate performance and higher-level learning outcomes. And it is yet considered that taking graded assignments at school or in a whatsoever learning space can assist the motivational enhancement of an individual. This aspect of motivating students can effectively work in both ways, positively or negatively. For instance, “low grades” can motivate a student to work harder to succeed while “high grades” can work as a confirmation and amplification of student’s efforts. A complementary idea to this could be also the point of view of the American reformer Horace Mann expressed back in the 1800s in which “the hierarchical ranking” motivates students and advances their performance. In addition, an other role that the grading system is playing until today is to give positive or negative feedback on the mindset growth of a student and to his overall knowledge and skills after the completion of a unit. It seems that parents, teachers, school principals and inspectors and many more want to be aware of the ultimate functionality of the pedagogical curriculum and the school environment. Clearly, students’ feedback can be used by the majority of their parents for their reassurance that “so far, so good” (“jusqu’ici tout va bien”), by teachers in advantage of improving their instructional planning, customized to the needs of the students and by school administrators as a strategy to diffuse results in public for reputation purposes. Additionally, grades can serve as guidance for an individual during his learning path. For example, the grades at school can reveal much information to students for their inclination towards a several area/subject or to a parent, to a school counselor, to an expert so as to recommend them courses and activities and provide them a better orientation in life.

 On the other side, it is known evidently that for the moment that a child is enrolled in a school, most importantly in a public one, he/she is enrolled into a never-ending series of contests and competitions. It is usually the case of who has the highest grades, who wins honors at school, who scores better in standardized tests, who performs better. And there is no greater defeat for our society than knowing that students have a strong belief that the modern school is all about grades, not for their learning, and is all about persuading them to achieve something because there is a reward in the end for them. This perception is what forced Alfie Kohn, a well-known American author, in 1993 to strongly suggest the need to abolish grades in-between the educational system and to abandon rewards -and punishments- at school if we want to see the capacities of our children to flourish. In regards to this idea, we need to have a closer observation on the reasons why traditional grading methods have been proved throughout the years inadequate and obsolete. Firstly, grades are used as a superficial method to measure the knowledge acquired and the performance of a student since the majority of people nowadays study for a certain course or exam and then after one day, they fail to remember what they have learned. This is what is called “rote learning”, and this is the type of learning which is omnipresent today at schools where students memorize information from books/tutorials that after a certain period they fail to recall and they do not put them in use in the future.People have learned to collect and process information only as “panoply” that will secure them a good salary (Polony N., 2011). Furthermore, it is claimed that grades in most of the cases are not objective, reliable or valid. As teachers are the ones who are responsible on surveilling and focusing upon the student’s performance in class, those are also the ones that determine the class ranks. Uses of assessment to measure and communicate students learning varies from teacher to teacher, from course to course, from school to school even if the performance of a student remains the same. Similarly the grades devalorise the real pedagogical approach of teachers since usually they do not take account of the current physical and psychological mentality of a student and his personal learning difficulties in real life such as his social origin, his private life and his personality (Polony N., 2011). The situation is even worse when teachers feel that their own professional work depends upon playing by the rules, where the “rules” are often perceived to include some pressure to “resist grade inflation” by keeping class averages at or below a certain level. Moreover, pressure by parents and schools to achieve top scores has created stress levels among students—beginning as early as elementary school—that are so high that some educators regard it as a health epidemic. (Stanford Report, 2005). It is certain that if the students are living in a stressful situation like this, they would be more apt to cheat on exams and surely to perceive cheating as an acceptable and justifiable norm. Besides, this deceptive situation because of grading is diminishing the relationship between the student, the educators and his peers.

 “Grades are here to stay, no doubt — but that doesn’t mean we should rely on them as a major source of feedback», a phrase quoted by Grant Wiggins (2012), encourages the idea that in order to move from a grade orientation to a learning orientation at all schools we need much effort and time. For the moment, we have to find ways to neutralize the potential risks that affect students’ school performance and of course their personal, future development. Unfortunately, we do not live in the world of Plato’s Utopia, neither into the Thomas Moore’s Utopia, when one can demand the destruction of the grading system and its re-built from the scratch. We have to live with it, take time and precautions. As long as the alternatives existed do not seem effective enough to manage crowded classes and persuade the opinion of education stakeholders, we need to manage to balance the aforementioned situation. A school should focus on improving the cooperation not the competition between students. In order to do find a common intersection, it is advisable that the teachers need to apply to their learning approaches some of the following methods. There are ample propositions indeed made by Kohn (1993) as far as the grades are concerned so as to keep stability in our current society. Initially, the teachers should reduce the number of the tasks assigned to their students that involve grades. Students are becoming more and more addicted to get grades, to be “on the honor roll”; they even demand them in any case so as to simply perform a task. Undoubtedly, the main goal of educators should be to help students to learn, and not use grades as an indicator of proficiency; after all they are not meritocratic.In addition, we can change the perception of grading as long as we change simply the way in which they are delivered. For example, (1) the use of A/B/C or 0-20 in France should be forbidden. Instead, the teacher could evaluate a student’s workload with as “check or check minus or check/plus” grade, or (2) even delivering only notes such as A and different than A. Last but not least, it is compulsory that in any case and in each education level, the education community set as its priority to bring students to the evaluation of their learning process as much as possible. Students as rational beings are in a better position to judge in every moment the qualitative dimension of their learning, to identify themselves their sense of improvement, their engagement throughout the learning procedure, the augmentation of their knowledge, the feasibility of their efforts. Methods such as self-evaluation, peer to peer evaluation or even co-designed evaluation processes can much refine the student’s capacities and to emphasize out their learning outcomes, better than traditional grading.

 The long-established debate whether grades are the best form of assessment of educational results will continue perpetually. It is certain that our future as citizens of the digital world reserves many challenges in education, in the look of the learning spaces, in the curriculum content, in the communication between people, and surely between the classical model of teachers and students in a class. As it was mentioned above, the grading system plays a high role to the skills acquired and to the learning process of a student throughout his school years. To conclude, the use of assessment methods, exams and the constant evaluation that people experience from a very young age works as an incubator of the future challenges that we will face into the society. So many years at school of monitoring and evaluating our performance, then later the crucial and stressful period of national exams so to enter to Higher Academic Institution, curriculum vitae, interviews for a job, lifelong learning, all these in order to assure a certain standard of living in life. I really wish our life would stop to be the constant pursuit of re-evaluating our personality, our competences, our professional skills and that would be changed into a tempting hunting of knowledge and vigilance, an endeavor to reach Happiness.

 

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