Qualitative Over Quantitative: Grading in the Lower School
By Robyn Burlew, Dean of Academics
Examining our practices in light of our mission is an on-going endeavor. Administrators and faculty make it our habit to ask, “In what ways can our classrooms be more Christian?” and “What are we doing that was birthed by Progressive education rather than by the rich stream of classical education of which we want to be a part?” Sometimes the answers to these questions challenge assumptions that all of us have brought to the Veritas endeavor. Many of those assumptions have been absorbed through our own experiences, most of which has been in secularized and Progressive settings.
As modern educational systems increasingly sought efficiency, assessment became more data-driven and statistical. But not everything that is important in education can be turned into data. Hardest of all to measure are a student’s loves: one’s passion for truth, beauty, and goodness cannot be quantified and is best cultivated and assessed within relationships. Skills pose a challenge as well: writing and speaking defy precise measurement and are best coached. Informational content wins the data race: memorized facts and prescribed algorithms lend themselves to measurement, even measurement by machines.
At Veritas we believe that, while content is important, it ought not be king in education. We are, therefore, committed to giving feedback that is richer than numbers can communicate. Particularly in the Lower School, students need instructive comments on their work and guidance on how to improve. While a “C” can communicate “Do better”, a teacher comment of, “Make sure your verb tenses are consistent” gives a student coaching towards improvement. During these formative years as scholars, we want to give them what is most needed.
The younger the student, the more important it is to avoid circumventing learning by putting emphasis on summative measurement. Therefore, we are choosing to give Lower School parents increased narrative, qualitative feedback and little to no numerical grading. Teachers will provide robust comments on student work, praising strengths and identifying weaknesses. Parents will be told when work meets the grade level expectations or when and why it does not. Work that meets expectations is worthy of praise and a “Well done.” Habits of Heart and Mind—qualities that Veritas has identified as necessary for growing as a student—will continue to be reported to parents.
It is healthy for us to examine why we balk at changes in systems to which we are accustomed. Each of us has reasons why we believe quantitative grading to be necessary in education. Some of those reasons are philosophical and others are matters of practicality. Let’s examine four.
Cultural assumption #1: Grades are needed to motivate learning. We are conditioned to use grades as enticements and prods to learning. Statements like, “You’d better pay attention because this will be on the test” give students the message that learning’s purpose is to do well on tests. We must deal forthrightly with behavior that thwarts learning rather than using threats of grade deduction to manipulate behavior. Children are largely motivated by what the adults around them value, and educational research finds that extrinsic motivators—like grades—work only temporarily. Parents and teachers must partner to cultivate intrinsic motivation in our students—curiosity, diligence, and delight in a job well done. We must share a deep commitment to not saddle our students with the grade anxiety that plagues their peers, either out of fear of failure or out of perfectionism.
Cultural assumption #2: Grading systems keep academic standards high. We have come to believe that without quantitative grades, vigorous academic work won’t be done. Some alternative schools have given us reason to fear this; they have thrown off structures of all sorts in exchange for student-directed learning. Veritas is not that school. We do not share the belief that students will figure out what they should learn if given enough time or freedom. We believe that the curriculum—the course to be run by students—ought to be determined by the faculty and be based on principles rooted in more than two thousand years of classical education tradition. Standards are not lowered when evaluations are more qualitative; most students in our long tradition were evaluated through narrative assessment and feedback from their tutors. Most of the participants in the Great Conversation, whom we consider much better educated than ourselves, knew nothing of numerical grading.
Cultural assumption #3: Numerical grades are objective and, thus, more accurate. On the face of it, this seems a reasonable belief. On a ten-question quiz, missing one answer results in a grade of 90. Behind that seemingly objective score, though, are a number of subjective decisions that have already been made by the teacher. On a multiple-choice test, a teacher has decided what to include as the answer alternatives, and those choices will lead students’ analytical thinking in particular directions. Beyond that, the teacher has made decisions about what to ask, thus making a subjective judgment about what is most important. Even in grading something as seemingly objective as math, teachers constantly make judgments on how much partial credit to allot when a final answer is incorrect. Teachers know that there is no identifiable difference in what two students actually understand about Algebra when earning a 67 or a 73, even though one grade is considered a failure and the other is passing.
Cultural assumption #4: Grades make good vehicles for comparing students. Bumper stickers proclaiming the honor roll status of our neighbors’ children feed our desire to know how our kids stack up. We fall prey to this temptation as families, and we fall prey to this temptation as a school. We’ve chosen this odd path of Christian classical education, and we want to feel validated. Grades and test statistics give us the means to do this, and we feel insecure when we’re lacking the data for our comparisons. When we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we must admit that our children’s good grades make us feel good, and our students’ good grades make Veritas feel good. We share our children’s struggles. We, like them, are endlessly looking to find our worth in places that are poor substitutes for finding our worth in our identities in Christ.
We believe that our classical tradition offers us examples of a better way. While quantitative grading is reductionistic, narrative feedback is holistic and humane. Where we can choose this better path, we will, and that is the Lower School. Students can expect to still see numerical grades in Upper School when their maturity will better help them resist defining themselves by grades. But even when we are constrained by the requirement for quantitative grading, we as parents and teachers carry the responsibility to help our students see themselves, their intellect, and their potential, beyond their GPA and SAT scores.
While it may take all of us a bit of time to adjust to this change, a qualitative framework best aligns with our commitment to partner, and our Philosophy of Education. We look forward to a wonderful year growing together.