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As a teacher, you may be tempted to grade on criteria other than mastery. However, as this lesson explains, grading on the basis of ability, growth, or effort is simply unfair to the students being assessed.

Grading on Ability, Growth, or Effort

As education continues to move forward from the days of recitation from a blackboard into more individualized attention, there is a certain temptation to grade along lines that are not traditional.

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These new guidelines include grades based on ability, growth, or effort. Grades based on ability would see to reward those who are particularly adept at a given set of tasks. Meanwhile, grades based on growth would reward those who are perceived to have made the furthest improvements. Finally, grades based on effort serve to encourage hard work, no matter the final result. Still, as this lesson will demonstrate, there are serious problems with basing grades off any of those guidelines.

Unfairness

Teachers hate to have their objectivity called into question; no one wants to be accused of being unfair. However, by basing grades off of ability, growth, or effort, they suddenly lose the objectiveness that guidelines based on mastery or progress bring.

Instead of having one measuring stick upon which to gauge every student, now each student has his or her own measuring stick. In situations where ability is rewarded, this naturally skews better grades toward those who have the higher abilities at the beginning of the term. When growth is the determining factor toward grades, this discriminates against students who have seen their progress grow in past years. Finally, since you’re using different measures for each student, if you were to grade on the basis of effort, you could end up with an opposite problem than you had when you graded on ability. Suddenly, the person who has to spend the least time on an assignment in order to master is being punished for being able to learn the material with less effort.

Measure

Additionally, all three of these methods are extremely difficult to measure. Effort is perhaps the greatest example.

Sure, you can tell when a student scribbled something before a class versus spent a great deal of time on it, however when you compare an incorrect assignment and a correct assignment, how can you really be sure that the same amount of time was spent on each? Likewise, grading on the basis of growth is also difficult. However we measure improvement, there are any number of factors that could confuse it. If it is on the basis of tests, then the ability of the student to perform on a test could obscure the total gain in improvement.

Likewise, if we measure on the basis of performance in a past year, various other factors could play in. Finally, difficulty in accurately measuring ability is particularly problematic. Academic ability is often famously measured as IQ. However, IQ tests are full of problems that discriminate against large swaths of the population. This is especially true among lower income and minority groups.

As a result, any attempt to grade based on ability is likely to run into constitutional concerns, making its difficulty to measure that much more apparent.

Effect on Motivation

Finally, think about the impact on student motivation, or how much a student cares about the material. That would come in grading on learning ability, improvement, or effort. Those who have natural ability to do well in a subject may continue to perform well, but if grades are based off of abilities, then students may be less motivated to apply themselves. Likewise, students who are unlikely to show any real improvement over the course of the year will be limited in what they can do, thus limiting their motivation.

Finally, students who require a lot of effort to get through their work may be rewarded, but others who can do it with greater ease may begin to regard the course as full of busy work.

Do Not Address Mastery

Finally, each of the above methods has a final, common flaw: none of them really address the idea of mastery. Grading by ability is useless if that ability is not put toward any real use. Further, grading by growth is irrelevant if we don’t know what the student should be growing towards. Since that final growth goal is mastery, it simply makes more sense to grade with that absolute measuring stick, rather than some relative measure that doesn’t tell us anything. All the effort in the world doesn’t matter if the student hasn’t ultimately mastered the concepts at hand.

Lesson Summary

In this lesson we examined the problems with grading based off of learning ability, growth, or effort in a given assignment. Each of these had many issues, but the three primary issues of unfairness, difficulty in measuring, and inability to sustain motivation were common to each of them. Grading based solely on ability tended to isolate students who needed extra attention.

Meanwhile, grading based on growth presented issues when faced with high-performing students whose improvement did not grow by leaps and bounds. Finally, by grading solely on effort, we saw that students could be convinced that the content of a course was solely busy work, thus losing any real concern to learn the material at hand.

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