Teaching and Grading

For a while, it looked as though iI might be headed toward a non-academic vocation (that looks very unlikely now); at that time, I looked forward to never again grading somebody. Our family’s homeschooling has long involved the happy premise that we did not need to characterize our children’s learning with the rough tools of four or five alphabetical short-cuts, and I lobbied heartily at Seabury against institutional structures that depended on grading.
So I read with interest Bob Sommer’s essay in Inside Higher Education which seems to speak with two minds about the subject. On one hand, “For me personally, grades are a secondary and derivative issue at best, an anguished responsibility at worst”; on the other, Sommer seems sufficiently unperturbed by the avalanche of problems he cites with the systems of grading and testing to declare, “My objection is not to all testing, only to summative (end-of-course) testing for an official record” (apparently overlooking the aspect of grading, at this point).
I very emphatically approve of teachers and students articulating an honest sense of progress and achievement in a given setting. Bravo! Brava! Hip, hip, hooray!
I’m not at all convinced, though, that letter grades provide the best possible, or even the most functionally appropriate, means for articulating that honest evaluation. Sommer notes that “In small classes one can replace grades with written narratives, if anyone cares to read them, but this will not work in large classes” — but even in small classes, narrative evaluation does not of itself satisfy the need for effective assessment and communication.
One thing’s for sure: Sommer’s article and the very ardent comments that hang from it raise once again the intensely important question of whether the relatively recent innovation of “grading” contributes to learning, or whether there might not be another way of assessing accomplishment that complements, rather than detracts from, the telos of teaching.

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