Photo Illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Photos: Daniel Klasik, Harvard University Press
In their new book, Off the Mark: How Grades, Ratings, and Rankings Undermine Learning (but Don’t Have To) (Harvard University Press), Jack Schneider, an education professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Ethan L. Hutt, an education professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argue that traditional measures of assessment corrode student learning and heighten inequality. The book explores how our current grading practices evolved, the unintended consequences of those practices and what educators can do to restore assessment to its key purpose: helping students learn. Hutt spoke with Inside Higher Ed via phone about the book’s implications for higher education. Excerpts of the conversation follow, edited for length and clarity.
Q: Students spend their academic careers fretting about grades, and many professors view grading as the bane of their existence. So why don’t we just do away with them?
A: It’s a good and fair question. I think the reason we don’t do away with grades is they serve a bunch of important purposes. First, grades are a very useful way of communicating with students about their status in the class. Students tend to have a pretty acute sense of what different grades mean, so they’re a very good shorthand for communicating about how they’re doing. And when students leave, grades are very functional in terms of communicating to external audiences how they’ve done during their time in school. When you get rid of all that, you lose both the communication to the student, and the communication to that broader audience. That's one of the reasons why, historically, people have flirted with getting rid of grades but never actually followed through with it for very long.
Q: What exactly do grades communicate to students, and how do they affect learning?
A: When most professors and students grumble about grades, part of what we’re grumbling about is what we see as the misalignment between what the grade is for, and this sort of oversized attention to it. One really acute example that I’ve faced as a professor is the way that the message to the student and the message to the external audience gets entangled. Often I want to communicate to a student, “This isn’t your best work. I think we both know you could do better. And I’m giving you this grade as a reminder that you have to do a little bit more work if you want to do well in my class.” But because grades have this kind of long tail, this external audience that can linger—students imagine it’s forever, but it’s not—they don’t see me communicating, “Hey, you could do better on the next assignment”; they think, “Gee, you’re trying to make it so I can’t get into med school.” Part of what we argue in the book is that efforts to recalibrate our grading practices should be sensitive to the problem that basically, we’ve gotten to where it becomes hard to communicate to the students about their work through grades without also making them fear for their future.
Q: What exactly do assessments communicate to external audiences?
A: One of the unique features of the American education system—and this is particularly important for high school students going into college—is it’s very unstandardized, very unstructured. We have nothing like a national curriculum, and we don’t have a required national exam, like many other countries do. So one of the important parts of our assessment system is what we call synchronization. And while we don’t like them, we kind of need devices like the SAT, the ACT and AP exams to provide some kind of standardization across our students. When you look at a transcript, it’s a bunch of course names, but as we know from many decades of study, not every course labeled algebra is the same, and not every course labeled AP Calculus is the same. So having these mechanisms where we can really have some standard measure actually allows the system to function and preserves a lot of the variation that most parents and local communities want.
There’s a big movement to get rid of the LSAT or the ACT, or to say that AP exams aren’t what we thought they were. You can pull out the tools that you don’t like—because you think that they rank students or they increase stress levels on students—but what a lot of people misunderstand is that getting rid of those points of synchronization, getting rid of our ability to compare students across communities, doesn’t get rid of the impulse and need to do that. All you’re doing is saying every single grade a student gets is that much more important.
Q: A lot of colleges eliminated test score requirements for applicants during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many are sticking with that change. But you’re saying all that does is put more pressure on the other vehicles—grades, essays, teacher recommendations, and so on.
A: One hundred percent. And we also know that those are maybe the places where inequality comes in the most—who has access to teacher recommendations, or who has the ability to get another letter from their summer internship—all those places where we can't even judge the inequities that are built into the systems. At least with SATs, and to a certain degree with GPAs, we get accountings of how these things are going. Stuff like extracurriculars, we don’t have a way of peripherally monitoring and assessing the inequality in those spaces.
Q: So do you think standardized tests are the fairest measure of assessment?
A: I think they are an important part of our educational system. They work in concert with grades and the variation we have in our local communities in terms of curricular differences … And unless we want to go to a national curriculum or national exam, I think you're always going to find a place for these kinds of exams. I wouldn’t say that they’re definitely the fairest; I wouldn’t say that we don’t have room for improving. But I do think that people are fooling themselves if they think that simply getting rid of the SATs solves some real concrete problem in our educational system.
Q: In the book, you also discuss the pros and cons of alternative forms of assessment, such as narrative grades and portfolios. Where do you net out on those?
A: One of the challenges of narrative grades—which is getting rid of actual letter grades, but having professors write, like a letter of recommendation, though not always positive— is that it’s very hard for external audiences to characterize what those mean. Unless I have a way of calibrating the level of hyperbole of a given professor, it’s very hard to tell what this letter is trying to communicate to me. And so we saw, most famously, UC Santa Cruz get rid of its narrative grades, in part because students were worried about whether future audiences were understanding the message contained in the narrative.
Portfolios are another example. Regardless of what the subject is, you’re being evaluated on some set of work that you put together—often pieces that you’ve worked on for an extended period of time, that have been subject to feedback and revision. Yes, students could game it, and try to optimize the least amount of work they have to do. But portfolios are much more aligned with bigger values around learning. And that’s part of the message of the book: try to create assignments that even if students are engaged in some kind of “gaming” around them, at least their energies are directed toward something that we think is valuable.
We also talk about this idea of transcripts being “double clickable,” which is maybe not the catchiest term for reversing the idea that a transcript only has to contain the shorthand and doesn’t provide a deeper window into student work. There’s no reason now with digital technology that it wouldn’t be possible for students to electronically affix actual work to the transcript, so that someone looking at it could see, “What was that B-plus?” Or, “What did they do in that class?” There’s no reason that schools couldn’t develop ways of allowing students to preserve their work and to make that visible to interested parties.
Q: I imagine some of those alternative assessments put a lot of pressure on already overburdened faculty.
A: Absolutely. There is a kind of a bureaucratic equality around, “My A sits on the transcript just like any other professor’s.” If you mess with it and say, “No, it’s not just going be a letter grade; it’s going to be an extended amount of effort on my part to communicate,” that creates tremendous inequalities, and almost all of them reflect existing inequalities in the system. Professors at Harvard who teach a seminar with 10 students are going to have a lot more time to dedicate to writing narratives than a teacher at Appalachian State, who has 100 students, or 500 students. These things create real demands on faculty time. And if that’s not equitable, then it just reverberates in the system.
Q: Your recommendations for reforming the assessment process are very measured; you seem less interested in blowing up the current system than in changing it incrementally in targeted ways. Where would you begin?
A: Every year students are more anxious about their futures. So I think we need to be creative about creating spaces for our students to develop skills and take risks, but not feel the looming threat to whatever their aspirations are. There are a lot of ways we can do that. Not every competence or skill that we ask our students to do needs to receive a grade. Some things really can be just, “Yes, they can do this; no, they can’t do that.” And we don’t necessarily have to record every failure.
A lot of undergraduate programs could direct their students toward more sustained, authentic inquiry that we think is worth working on. Of course, that requires a lot of things we don’t necessarily like to do in higher education: we’d actually have to work with our colleagues and make sure that our programs are aligned, and that they mutually reinforce each other as opposed to just being little atomized things. But if we actually wanted to do it, and we cared about it, there are lots of things we could do to support students in this effort over a period of time—not just one course, but maybe multiple semesters. And at the end, we’re going to feel good that we gave them feedback all the way through it, and we gave them some final assessment that they feel reflects the totality of their work, which we’re not ashamed to communicate to some future audience. We could be creative in doing that kind of thing. But it’s hard, and oftentimes, it’s just easier for every professor to give a grade.