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21 March 2013

Grades: Progress Marker or Finish Line?

I recently made my way through the backlog of SociologySource podcasts. They are great! (Co-host Nathan Palmer has told me that the podcast is on hiatus but will hopefully return in a few months so keep an eye out for new posts.) In their episode titled "Grading Students Fairly," Nate and Chris discuss, among other things, grading students on marginal improvement instead of or in addition to grading students against a gold standard. I understand the argument. As I blogged before,
Ideally, all students would graduate high school with the requisite skills to succeed in college, but there is incredible variation among this group.
Sociologically, we understand that there are a number of factors, including race and class, that have given some students advantages and other disadvantages as they enter college. Given this, we are right to be apprehensive about directly comparing (1) a poor, male student of color who is the first in his family ever to have attended college who shows significant improvement over a semester even if not meeting all of the course learning objectives to (2) an affluent, white, female student whose parents both have college degrees but shows little or no improvement over a semester even if she has mastered all of the learning objectives of a course. Does student 1 deserve an F for not meeting those benchmarks? Does student 1 deserve an A for effort? Does student 1 deserve an A for marginal improvement? Does student 2 deserve an A for meeting expectations? Does student 2 deserve an F for effort? Does student 2 deserve an F for not showing improvement? Should student 1's grade be at all related to student 2's grade? I think these questions really get at the foundation of what grades mean. (See some previous posts about grades here, here, and here.) It's an important conversation that we seem reluctant to have.

I do, however, have one major reservation. Grading on marginal improvement seems dangerous as it might mean that we graduate some students who do not meet the standards of a college degree, and by doing so, we run the risk of devaluing higher education. Both in terms of imparting a new way of thinking, new skills, and new knowledge and in terms of signaling employability in the job market, it seems to me that a college degree ultimately needs to be more gold standard than marginal improvement. I think, again, that the solution is to improve secondary education.

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