Why have grade-based report cards stood the test of time with hardly any variation despite radical changes in the world more generally? What purposes do grade-based report cards serve?
Grade-based reports cards have proven so resilient because they are a sorting mechanism. They enable teachers, counselors, and coaches to quickly and simply categorize very large numbers of students and slice and dice in terms of extracurricular and graduation eligibility. Similarly, they enable college admission officials to quickly and simply categorize large numbers of students and slice and dice in terms of their relative value especially when compared to something like narrative summaries of each individual’s strengths and next steps.
But as a result of endemic cheating that takes place in secondary schools grades are not nearly as indicative of meaningful academic achievement as nearly everyone thinks.
Listen to secondary students who have been labelled successful as a result of receiving good grades. If honest, many of them will tell you that they didn’t earn them. Instead, they learned to “do school” by cutting corners whether copying one another’s homework, manipulating teachers to lower their expectations and/or routinely extend deadlines, and cheating on exams. In hindsight they often express regret and confess to remembering little from their coursework. They regret that their writing, thinking, and oral communication skills aren’t more fully developed.
If grade-based report cards were to be radically redesigned, how might teaching and learning be revitalized? Answering this question actually first requires asking what might an updated, new and improved report card look like?
It would prioritize skill development, it might incorporate on and off-campus extracurricular activities, it would rest on narrative statements of each student’s distinctive strengths and most important next steps, and it would incorporate some degree of self-assessment. What skills? Here’s five: 1) the ability to process large amounts of information and distinguish between what’s most important and what’s least important; 2) the ability to synthesize seemingly disparate information; 3) the ability to evaluate the relative accuracy and objectivity of television programming, internet websites, digital images, and other multimedia content; 4) the ability to write and speak clearly, insightfully, and persuasively; and 5) the ability to understand a topic or issue from another person or group’s point of view. It would also incorporate important sensibilities and personal attributes including small group smarts, cross-cultural understanding, resilience, and personal integrity.
Tomorrow’s starting point. How might this change revitalize teaching and learning?