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Remember the old quip “The easiest way to turn C students into A students is to admit them to graduate school”? In most of doctoral programs I am familiar with, grades range from A to B, with a B tantamount to an undergraduate D. 

Three recent articles in The New York Times brought that old wisecrack to mind. One, entitled “Do Schools Need to Do More to Hold Students Accountable?,” claimed that snowplow parents and bad school policies have rendered grades meaningless and made it nearly impossible for low-performing students to fail. Some districts reportedly don’t allow teachers to give a score of less than 50 percent on any assignment—even in cases of plagiarism or student absence.

A second article, on grade inflation, is entitled “If Everyone Gets an A, No One Gets an A.” It notes that an “A is now the most popular high school grade in America,” and that in 2016, “some 47 percent of high school students graduated with grades in the A range.”

The third article, entitled “New SAT Data Highlights the Deep Inequality at the Heart of American Education,” examined the correlation between SAT scores and family income. It dismissed the standardized college admission exam as a wealth test, noting that nearly a third (31 percent) of students in the top 1 percent of family incomes scored 1300 or more, compared to just 2.4 percent in the bottom quintile.

Testing and grades are ideal clickbait. They’re highly charged topics but far less likely to prompt readers to drop their subscriptions than coverage of conflict in the Middle East.

If you look at the readers’ comments, you’ll be struck by how starkly polarized the opinions are. Some readers condemn what they consider a flight from accountability:

“When, as so many elite publications assure us, objective reality is a ‘colonial idea,’ and ‘truth’ is a ‘social construction,’ it is logical for students and parents to expect nonobjective grades.”

Others take a diametrically opposed point of view, dismissing grading and testing altogether:

“The dirty secret about grades is they are (and always have been) a ridiculously inconsistent, subjective and vague metric for how a student is doing … Grades serve no bearing whatsoever on developing students who are capable problem solvers and empathetic citizens.”

Debates over grading and standardized testing aren’t new, but they are colored today by two issues that were less prominent in the past. The first is equity—whether grading practices or standardized testing perpetuate or exacerbate inequalities. The second involves students’ self-image and mental health—whether grading and testing demoralize, dishearten, discourage, depress and deflate.

There are many arguments advanced against letter grades. That:

  • Grades fail to provide the specific feedback students need to improve.
  • Grades reduce learning to a competition.
  • Grades boil down a range of skills, effort and achievement into a single letter or number.
  • Grades prioritize extrinsic motivation (i.e., working for a grade) over intrinsic motivation (i.e., genuine interest or love of learning)
  • Grades deter students from pursuing topics or subjects from taking risks or pursuing creative endeavors if they fear these efforts won’t result in a high grade.
  • The pressure to achieve high grades is a significant source of stress and anxiety for students.
  • Grading is often inconsistent and can be subjective and reflect an instructor’s conscious or unconscious biases.

Standardized college admissions tests prompt similar arguments. That:

  • The tests’ validity in predicting college success is in dispute.
  • In addition to correlating with socioeconomic status, test scores tend to reflect the quality of the school, classmates and teachers that a student encountered.
  • The tests emphasize certain skills at the expense of other attributes like, creativity, leadership or grit.
  • High stakes tests induce significant stress and anxiety among students, which not only affects their performance, obscures their true abilities and negatively affects their mental health.
  • Standardized tests reduce students to a number and fail to take account of the unique talents, experiences and attributes that might be more effectively captured through essays, interviews and letters of recommendation.

You are I are well familiar with the arguments for and against letter grades and standardized college admissions tests. So we might well ask, how can we best evaluate students if we are to rely less on tests and grades? Are there ways that we can fairly evaluate student performance and learning, while providing our undergraduates with the kinds of motivation and feedback that they need?

It can be done, but it will require us to rethink the design of our classes and the pedagogy that we use.

The answer lies, first, in adopting a competency approach that makes demonstrated mastery of essential knowledge and skills central to course design.

Second, we need to place a greater emphasis on the learning process and on growth than is the case in most existing courses.

Third, our classes need to provide students with more formative and constructive feedback and greater opportunities for self-reflection.

Here are 10 steps that you’ll need to take.

  1. Spell out fine-grained learning objectives. Use the principles of backward design to construct your courses. Identify in granular terms the knowledge and skills you expect your students to master. Then devise the activities that will help students acquire those skills and knowledge and the assessments that you will use to determine students’ level of mastery.
  2. Adopt a multipronged assessment strategy. Give students multiple ways to demonstrate their understanding and skills. These might include low-stakes quizzes, but also presentations, projects or practical applications.
  3. Incorporate authentic and performance-based assessments in your classes. Authentic assessments require students to apply their knowledge and skills in meaningful real-world contexts. Examples might include an essay abstract, a background paper, a discussion starter, an event analysis, a grant or project proposal, a job application, a legal brief, a literature review, an op-ed essay, a policy brief, a position paper, a draft of a speech, or a sample recommendation.
  4. Have your students collaboratively create grading rubrics. A rubric—spelling out clearly defined criteria for evaluating an assignment on various levels of proficiency or achievement—might be for a paper, a presentation or a project. There is no better way for students to recognize that the grading process is not arbitrary.
  5. Integrate frequent low-stakes activities and assessments into your classes. Make learning active. These activities might include having your students introduce a class session, lead a discussion, participate in a debate and wrap up the session. Other activities might entail annotating a document, an artwork or a photograph or film clip, mapping a concept or visualizing data or causation, or creating an infographic, a photo essay, a podcast or a digital story.
  6. Make writing a more integral part of your classes. Have students write an abstract of an article, evaluate an exhibition or performance, compare and contrast two or more arguments, enter a debate, or formulate a thesis.
  7. Have your students evaluate an essay, a presentation or a project. Give students opportunities to comment on papers, pointing out strengths as well as weaknesses. Make sure that they pay attention to what’s most important: an essay’s focus, argument, arrangement and development of ideas, use of evidence and handling of counterarguments.
  8. Encourage metacognition. To promote self-reflection and make students more responsible for their own learning, have students record and evaluate their own learning journey. Ask them to keep a journal in which they discuss and evaluate their own work and progress.
  9. Make growth an explicit element. At the start of the course, outline the specific skills and knowledge that students will acquire over the course of the semester. Tier activities and assignments so that they build upon earlier classwork. Consider integrating skills building workshops at various points in the semester.
  10. Ensure that students receive lots of constructive feedback. Enhance student learning with timely, specific and constructive feedback that focuses on how performance can be improved. That feedback should take multiple forms. It might include frequent low-stakes formative assessments such as quizzes, as well as peer and instructor feedback. You might consider workshopping student papers. You might also consider gamifying feedback, for example, by identifying several areas of strength and an area for improvement or using points on various metrics as a way to provide feedback or establishing criteria for the levels of mastery that students might meet.

As I read New York Times readers’ comments, one particular sentence stood out. In a comment decrying the supposed decline in academic rigor, the reader wrote, “It is of course part of, one dimension of, the sissification of American childhood.” The notion that overprotective and indulgent adults are coddling fragile or spoiled young people is quite widespread.

The idea that young people are fragile, delicate and vulnerable creatures is a relatively new concept. It’s certainly a far cry from how I was introduced to graduate school, when my adviser pointed out the window and said, “There’s the library. See you in four years.”

Certainly, contemporary society is more aware of mental health concerns that were once hidden, dismissed or undiagnosed. Also, many young people feel greater academic and social pressures than their predecessors, and that stress has certainly contributed to higher rates of anxiety and depression. At the same time, social media, by exposing the young to carefully curated images of seemingly happy and successful peers, appears to have increased feelings of inadequacy, jealousy and loneliness. There’s also reason to think that for some young adults, overprotective parents gave them fewer opportunities to develop resilience and as a result, they’re ill equipped to handle failures or challenges.

But as I have tried to suggest, it is possible to hold high academic standards and make students responsible and accountable for their own learning. Instructional design is the key. Shifting to a competency-based model isn’t easy. But it’s well worth the effort.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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