Outcomes Assessment and Grades

A couple of recent articles in Inside Higher Ed caught our eye – one on grades and grade inflation, and the other on the creation of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

It seems obvious to us that grading and assessment are largely the same thing. Barring sampling programs, or initiatives designed to assess program outcomes (aggregating student results rather than considering the success of individuals), grading IS assessment.

It’s just that the typical grade (A-, B+ etc.) is an extraordinarily blunt instrument.

Imagine reading a car review (okay, bad example – who is reading car reviews anymore?) or a film review that is simply a letter grade. Many reviews feature letter grades, but they come after a thousand words of measured criticism. And it is subjective criticism, but we largely accept the skill of a Roger Ebert and take their points seriously. They are assessing the film, and they do it through a narrative response built upon well-established criteria.

Education is even messier than film reviewing, because the letter grades awarded are all over the place. To draw the analogy out a little farther, imagine trying to pick a movie to see from the following:

  • 20 films, all rated B+ or higher (with no narrative or other information)
  • 20 films, each rated four times by separate reviewers, where the individual grades are all over the map but the averages are still B+ or higher

You wouldn’t know which film to see…and likewise our system of letter grades is useless for assessing knowledge.

Think back to your own college days. What did grades really say about the person? How well they had learned to play the game? How hard they worked? How much talent and mental horsepower they had? Probably all of these. And for this reason grades are a somewhat useful gauge for companies looking to hire college graduates. But they are no measure of learning, even with the amount of effort that goes into creating them.

One of my earliest engineering jobs was an internship at Unisys. I went to lunch with a group of managers who were discussing the internship program. An HR manager brought up the idea of raising the minimum GPA required to a 3.5/4.0 scale. The managers all looked at each other, and to their great credit laughed, and then (to a person) said that if those standards were applied they wouldn’t have earned their initial job at Unisys.

This may be a commentary on Unisys (which didn’t invent the iPod, eBay, Facebook, Google, or the Blackberry), but I don’t think so. It’s the understanding in industry that there is more to learning than a GPA.

5 Responses to Outcomes Assessment and Grades

  1. R. DeAragon says:

    The grade is the equivalent of the “thumb’s up” or “thumb’s down” of Mr. Ebert, but with much more nuancing. And, like a thumb’s up, it is an end product. We are not measuring student learning but student performance with grades. A student may learn a great deal in a class but be unable to articulate that learning in a way that is generally accepted as valid, such as papers, exams, projects, etc. Good professors state their expectations for these and provide feedback to guide the students to improve their performance on future tests, etc. The students generally have the ability to meet with their professor about their performance, even before the exam or paper deadline.

    GPA is a separate issue–those who place too much reliance on a single number are those looking for an easy way to separate individuals into groups for some purpose and I doubt that you’d get these people to read a paragraph, let alone a “thousand words of measured criticism.” Reducing anyone to a single number is wrong, but that practice doesn’t invalidate grades as a measure of student performance.

  2. 11trees says:

    R. DeAragon,

    Thank you for your comment. So much of this does come back to “good professors [teachers]”…

    The issue of grade inflation, which has compressed ‘grading’ into the range between “B-” and “A” indicates that, in aggregate, the system is largely saying “thumbs up”. I wonder how many films get a thumbs up from Mr. Ebert? I actually have no idea…but if 80%+ of students get a “thumbs up” then the thumbs up becomes largely meaningless.

  3. R. DeAragon says:

    How about turning that around–if 80%+ of the students received a “thumbs down” would the thumbs down become “largely meaningless?”

    The issue of grade inflation IS a problem, but there are many reasons why that may have developed. Putting the responsibility for grades and student learning on the schools rather than the pupils, “No Child Left Behind,” “self-esteem” philosophies of education, privileging of student evaluation in tenure and promotion decisions, etc. have all contributed to an educational system afraid to call a poor performance poor. Pressure is on all levels of education to reduce expectations and requirements and/or to provide more ways to “get an A.” When a student receives an A as a final course grade because of “extra credit” rather than her performance on the normal assignments, exams, projects, etc., that may make the student and her parents happy, but it does render the course grade problematic.

    I teach a required first-year humanities course at a private liberal arts college. I provide many opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning of the course material and skills, provide guides and advice to make clear expectations and requirements for assignments and exams, weigh more heavily their performance in the second half of the semester (when they have had a chance to understand my requirements), and make myself available many hours in my office and by phone and e-mail to assist them. The only extra-credit options I offer are of small value–less than a normal quiz score. Nonetheless, that course routinely has an average gpa of B- at midsemester. (It would be lower, but most students who do very poorly drop the course before that point.) I’m willing to accept student discontent expressed on their course evaluations because I consider it important to hold them to college-level expectations and standards. I do them no favors by letting sloppy writing, reasoning, and study habits get high marks. Low course evaluation scores, however, may prevent me from obtaining promotion and thus a significant raise in salary and academic status. I resent that but I haven’t given in. Many colleagues cannot accept the negative feedback or the loss of potential income and give in to the pressure to ease requirements, offer more extra credit, and/or lower expectations.

    As long as education is seen as a product and students as consumers, there will be serious if not impossible obstacles to reforming the educational system. Education needs to be likened to a gym–you can have the best trainers and fitness equipment available, but if you don’t go and devote yourself to the exercise, you won’t see results. The responsibility, therefore, is on the students’ shoulders to achieve.

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