What are grades?



Should teachers rank-order their students against one another?

The fancy way to ask this: Do we want norm-referenced grades? As opposed to criterion-referenced grades?

Norm-referenced means grades are assigned relative to a class average, while criterion-referenced means grades are assigned relative to a set of objective outcomes. Put another way: Do we care about what order the runners finish the race in? Or do we just want everyone to finish the race? What is a race?

Norm-referencing is common at the highest levels of educational and professional attainment, like in law or medical school. First in your class. Fifth in your class. Last in your class. Criterion-referencing, meanwhile, is more common in lower-stakes situations, such as a driving test. As long as you meet some level of competence, it doesn’t matter how your driving test score compares to that of your neighbor, you both get driver’s licenses. (Curiously, the Bar Exam and certain Medical Exams are criterion-referenced, even if prior schooling for the students taking them isn’t.)

Aside from law and medicine, school grades represent somewhat of a middle ground between pure ranking and broad licensure or credentialing. School grades reflect performance relative both to established criteria and to the performance of other students in the class. Think about it: we’ve all at times done A work or C work or D work, which means there are objective tiers of performance criteria. Theoretically, nothing prevents multiple, or even all, students from achieving the same grade, if they perform at roughly the same level. Yet this almost never happens. And grades, though tiered, are still ranked; the A tier is obviously better than the C tier. You can’t say you just care about everyone finishing the race if you rank-grade their performance. So what are grades?

My answer? Depends on the class. Some classes are indeed more like driving tests, and ranking students in such classes serves little purpose if we’re just trying to get students driving. But other classes perhaps do benefit from a more granular assessment of performance, like the rank-ordering of law and medical school students. Surgery isn’t driving.

My–and I suspect many others’–gut says ranking is bad, inherently hierarchical, discouraging, and inegalitarian. Yet, at the same time, I fear the service model of education comports all too well with a credentialing-style approach to grades, where students expect to just “finish the race” with little thought to how much learning actually occurs along the way.

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