One of the primary goals outlined in our mission statement is to “offer a rigorous course of study in the Western liberal arts tradition, teaching students to discover goodness, truth, and beauty in every discipline as a reflection of God.” A great deal of preparation goes into the fulfillment of this statement. The governing board supports the school by upholding the mission in decisions on policy and finances. Administrators and teachers work faithfully to plan, research curriculum resources, and curate good books. Students enter into learning every day with joy and excitement. Parents support the learning process at home and make their partnership tangible by being consistently present in school activities. And to confirm that the mission is actually being fulfilled by these actions, each of these important contributors needs to be constantly assessing his efforts (and the efforts of others).
People assess every day. I know that I am successful in making a good meal when it ends up tasting good and my people enjoy it. Likewise, I know that I still have room to grow in my ability to keep plants alive when a plant on my windowsill shrivels and perishes.
When we consider school-related assessment, we often think of it as the numerical comparison between students. For this reason, assessment carries a connotation of failure, judgment, and stress. It can translate into a final judgment not just on our work but on ourselves: “No one liked Tuesday’s supper, so I’m a bad cook.” Or “I’m bad at math.” Even worse, if we are honest, assessment can translate into a final judgment on the subject matter itself: “No one liked Tuesday’s supper, so I’ll never make it again.” Or “Math is stupid.” Assessment received in this way can sometimes drive students to perform better, but it will not inspire students to love the work more.
A Better Way
We propose a better way to “do grades.”
Assessments and grades serve a good purpose; they relay needed information about a student’s progress to teachers, administrators, and parents. However, we want to approach assessment in a way that still “teaches students to discover goodness, truth, and beauty in every discipline as a reflection of God.” That approach requires a cultural shift. As part of Cedar Classical Academy’s culture, we seek to steer all of its component people—board, administrators, teachers, students, and parents—far away from the temptation to use grades as comparisons between students or final judgments on a student or a student’s ability.
To explain our approach to assessment, we begin by describing how grades developed.
The History of Grading
Grades as we now think of them were invented and implemented gradually between the 13th and 19th centuries to solve an institutional problem. Prior educational institutions relied on teachers’ continuous, or formative, assessments of their own students to know how they were doing in their studies. In a medieval school, discussion, debate, oratory, and oral cross-examinations were the primary mode of these formative assessments.
As civilization grew up and economies of scale were applied to educational institutions, paper final examinations (summative assessments) replaced teachers’ formative assessments of their own students. Calculable numerical values replaced the individual opinions of a panel of teachers who sat present in a cross-examination. As school populations grew larger and as industrialization remade teachers from guides of humanity into trainers of economic workers, grades became an institutional mechanism to attempt objective and impersonal measurement of a student’s aptitude and performance. (For more on the history of grades, seek out the work of Dr. Brain Williams from Templeton Honors College.)
Objective and impersonal measurement is not a bad thing. Summative measurements of students’ past work can certainly serve the school to measure its own effectiveness, and thereby serve the students. These measurements can make teachers, tests, lessons, and homework better. Our thrice-annual literacy assessments (DIBELS), for example, serve our teachers in helping them evaluate their own teaching technique when it comes to reading instruction. These kinds of tools can be very good for students—but only if student improvement remains the primary concern of the assessment and the assessor. If student improvement takes a backseat to other institutional aims, like high GPAs or SAT performance, then this numerical and comparative measurement approach no longer serves the student or the mission of the school. It can, in fact, have many unpleasant side effects and unintended consequences for the student herself, as in the cooking and math examples above.
Who are grades for?
So the question is: Should grades and assessments primarily serve the school or the student?
It is easy to see what a system of assessment would look like if it were designed to primarily serve the school. It would be perfectly uniform across all subjects and grade levels; it could measure the percentage of accurate mathematical work the same way it measures a student’s skill in vocally imitating a line of music. It would eliminate unnecessary data, such as how well a student enjoyed the book she read, so that it could be a reliable indicator of the strength of the curriculum and of the teachers’ skill. It would incentivize behavior that led to higher summative performance, and disincentivize behavior that led to lower summative performance. Finally, it would be a shorthand system that could communicate institutional excellence and get acclaim from higher learning institutions.
Are these characteristics also best suited for student learning?
Consider a 2019 randomized control study that surveyed 12,000 students over nine years at the United State Air Force Academy to evaluate the role of professor quality in students’ achievement. The Stanford Education Outreach Project, an organization associated with the Stanford Graduate School of Education, records and analyzes a surprising bonus finding from this study: students who struggled through courses with difficult professors and frequently received poor grades tended to retain more from the classes than “good” students. Difficulty in mastering the subject, not high grades at the time, proved a more reliable indicator of the student’s future success in that subject field.
SEOP explains this by describing the neurological phenomenon that the brain responds to failure much the way a bicep responds to muscle strain; it gets stronger. Since, statistically, getting an A from a class does not signify retaining the knowledge taught in the class, the SEOP article concludes that “the grade a student gets from a course simply measures performance during the course itself.” In this system of assessment, a student can memorize information, regurgitate it on a summative exam, and forget it the very next semester and it doesn’t matter; the 4.0 stays 4.0.
Put even more simply, a system of grading that tells the school it’s doing well (a flawless record of 4.0s and As) does not also indicate that the student is doing well—at least not if “doing well” means actually learning and retaining the material.
Assessing for virtue’s sake
If grades are for students, then they should serve our purposes for students: teaching moral and intellectual virtue. Virtue-centered assessment will demonstrate different characteristics from institution-centered assessment. It will not be perfectly uniform across all grade levels—particularly between the Lower School and the Upper School, which involve different approaches to instruction. Virtue-centered assessment will seek to include and reflect non-academic data that ascertains a student’s love for goodness, truth, and beauty. It will incentivize a love for the material that transcends performance. Finally, it will be communicated in such a way that tells parents and students the next step for learning, rather than in such a way that tells a watching world how well the school already did.
Numerical grades are a form of external control on a person’s behavior. External controls—such as schedules, policies, punishments, or fines—guide a person toward good behavior or performance. Over time, however, in the lives of our students we strive to replace external controls with self-control and self-government. For example, students in 1st Grade ask to leave their seats to sharpen a pencil; students in 8th Grade may get up without asking because we expect them to already possess discernment about the proper time to interrupt a lesson.
Common systems of assessment often prop up children’s lack of interest with unrelenting external controls, failing to cultivate self-government within them. Good grades can indicate excellence, but they are not the only sign of excellence. Conversely, as the SEOP study showed, bad grades do not contraindicate excellence. Grading systems, however, can be a danger to students no matter how well they perform because of the impact those systems can have on students’ behavior, attitude, obedience of the heart, and enjoyment.
We want wisdom to be its own reward. This requires pursuing a system of assessment that encourages students to strive for mastery of the material for its own sake, regardless of the grade. Here is how we define mastery: deep understanding of the concepts and procedures, written work that is neat, complete, and factually correct, well-explained reasoning, coherent and well-organized explanations. That level of achievement, coupled with a genuine love for the material, is a high bar. Too high, one might argue, for a simple A-F scale to reflect.
This brings us full circle to how we aim to implement and use grading and assessments at Cedar Classical Academy. Since we think of education as a lifelong process, not a K-12 checklist, our system of assessment reflects this. Grades should support the goal of education: the cultivation of moral and intellectual virtue in your students. A good system for assessment will provide opportunities for good conversations between teachers, students, and parents about where a student is in their learning journey. If an assessment doesn’t lay that conversation groundwork, it is not worth giving to a student.