Allegory of the Grade

I have been thinking about grades lately and I am pretty sure they are dumb. The main problem is that it seems that many many many people (politicians, parents, students, administrators, some other faculty, and zombies) think that the grade is the THE THING to worry about. Really, it is just a pale representation of the real thing.

This brings me to the allegory of the cave. I know you remember this when you read Plato's The Republic, right? Here is a picture that explains the whole thing:


I don't know where this image came from, it was on a boat load of other websites, none looked like the original. But, I salute you allegory-cave-drawing-person.

The basic idea of the cave is that people are in a cave (duh) looking at shadows of puppets of real things. They don't see the real things. They can't see the real things unless they leave the cave.

Back to grades

All these people are seeing the shadow that they call grades. What is the real thing? Learning is the real thing. I think that we (as a society) have fallen into the trap of thinking mostly about grades because it is easy. Measuring real learning is complicated and difficult. You can't easily evaluate the level of understanding of 1000 students with a multiple-choice test.

Some examples

Here are some cases where people might be looking at the shadow called "grades" and thinking it is a real thing.

  • Official hired to raise math scores. I can raise math scores. It is pretty simple (and I wouldn't even need 160k salary for two years). Just take all the students scores on the math tests and add 20 points. Oh, maybe they meant that this person was hired to raise understanding of math? No one said that.
  • Parent to child or teacher: WHY AREN'T YOU GETTING BETTER GRADES! Did the parent mean "why aren't you learning more"?
  • "Louisiana needs to raise college graduation rates". Again, isn't this simple to fix? Just graduate more students. My favorite saying "if you have to have a piece of paper that says you graduated from college, it probably wasn't worth it."

More like this

I'd like to add the opinion that people don't even quite see the shadow of the real thing when it comes to grades...they see the shadow of a slightly different thing.

I guess it depends on whether you consider a student's performance on a test or assignment to be a measure of the student's ability/effort/comprehension OR a measure of the teacher's ability to successfully teach the material.

I've seen you write about this before, and I agree with the foundation of your argument. However, I'd have to ask, what's the alternative? Pass/no-pass? Something else?

Presumably when a university assigns a diploma they need something to determine whether a student has met the requirements for that diploma, and something on a class-by-class basis. What would you suggest?

I suspect that grades are analogous to the drunk person looking for his keys under the light because he can see there. In an environment where there is great pressure to provide quantitative measurements, people naturally tend to measure what can be most readily quantified. That means grades and/or test scores. The discussion which hasn't happened among people who can do anything about it is whether grades and test scores actually measure the things which the people who want the measurements want to measure. Rhett argues that they don't.

I don't have a good alternative to this dilemma. Pass/fail grading or variants thereof are useful when the question is whether the student has mastered the basic concepts expected of him, but they can only give a binary answer, and they are subject to the same kind of gaming that graduation rates are subject to. They won't satisfy anyone who demands a measurement which spans a range; on the contrary they make it easier to hide a gradual slip in standards.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 16 Jul 2010 #permalink

I graduated from a British university, in which the grade of the degree depended entirely on the examinations at the end of the three years. This does have its negative aspects, but one result was that there was an emphasis on questioning, learning and understanding rather than passing a multitude of small tests.

When I was first in a Canadian university I was quite shocked when a student asked how many marks there were for a particular assignment and, on being told that it would not be graded, replied that in that case there was no point in doing it.

By Richard Simons (not verified) on 16 Jul 2010 #permalink

We teachers are trapped in a system that depends on grades as a measure of student learning and teacher performance. Schools rank students based on GPA, student learning is assumed to correlate with SAT, SATII, AP scores, and state standardized graduation exams. Some portions of these exams do provide students with an opportunity to demonstrate a higher level of understanding of concepts, but most test for bulk memorization of content. There are lots of learning activities and assessment tools teachers can use to get beyond the shadow of grades. These all take time, skill, and resources. As with so many other things in our lives, this issue boils down to money. Parents and governments spend huge amounts of money paying for our education systems and they understandably demand an accounting of their investment. Grades are the simplest metric that satisfies this demand for demonstrable results. But if a teacher has 30 students in a biology or chemistry lab, the top priorities become safety and crowd control, not learning. Not until citizens and their elected government officials move education out of the ideological and political cesspool it is in now and find a more equitable and sustainable method of financing school systems will we find a resolution to this problem.