My ideal grading system

Ed.: We now begin week 2 of the Blog Every Weekday for a Month challenge. Still going!

I’ve written a lot about specifications grading and the shortcomings of the traditional letter/point based system we all know and “love”. But I haven’t gone to the other end of the spectrum and speculated on what kind of grading system I would have, if I had control over everything.

I should first point out that specs grading is not my dream system. I consider specs grading to be a major step in the right direction toward making assessment of student work a meaningful, informative, and humane process that does not become an end in itself, like traditional grading has clearly done. But it’s only a step, albeit a big one. There are still trappings of traditional grading that hang on: the presence of letter grades being the foremost, and the need to map student performance onto a letter grade that typically involves convoluted rubrics that confuse more than enlighten.

If higher ed wants to change the way it thinks about evaluating student work, I think traditional grading has so much baggage that anything that is reminiscent of it has to be thrown out. We need to gut and remodel the whole thing.

So here’s what I would do.

First, courses would be designed around learning outcomes that are appropriate for the subject and level of the course. Faculty (or departments) would establish those outcomes as well as design assignments for obtaining the evidence that those outcomes have been met. As students work through the course, they complete these assignments, and submit these assignments to the professor, whose job it is to evaluate the quality of the work and indicate whether the work is acceptable relative to a set of professional standards that the prof has set up in advance. If the work is not at an acceptable level, students would have the opportunity to revise their work.

So far this sounds like specs grading. Here’s where it begins to diverge.

None of the work that the students submit would be “graded” in the sense of earning marks. The students’ work is not marked Pass or No Pass, A or B or C – it is not marked at all. The student does the work and submits it; the professor reviews it and gives evaluation and feedback (but not grades). Then the student revises and resubmits if the student chooses. But revision would not be required, because there are no marks – the student wouldn’t be revising to “raise his grade” because, what grade? The student would revise in order to improve the quality of the product, and they only do that if they feel like it’s a good idea.

So if there are no grades in this “grading” system, then what is the outcome of the course? My idea is an electronic portfolio that consists of the following things:

  1. A student-generated collection of course work that provides evidence that he or she has met the course objectives. This could be any work from the course whatsoever. It would be the student’s job to determine whether a piece of work (a) satisfies a learning outcome and (b) whether it is solid evidence that the outcome has ben satisfied.
  2. A letter of reference from the professor that contains the professor’s overall evaluation of the student’s work, focusing on but not limited to the work the student has collected. For example if a professor wanted to include a personal note about the student’s work ethic, she could do so. (Yes, I understand this part may be lawsuit-bait, but I said “ideal” system, right?)
  3. The student would be allowed to see the professor’s letter before the end of the course, and if the student wanted to refute or add anything to that letter, he would have the opportunity to write a rebuttal that addresses points of concern with the professor’s evaluation.

This portfolio – consisting of the student’s assembled coursework plus the professor letter plus the student rebuttal if needed – would be archived on a university server and made available, in perpetuity, to the general public using a password-protected information system. The student would hold the password. Actually, the student would have an entire website with branches off to every course they’ve taken where the portfolios would be housed. In this way, the student has access forever to her coursework and letters of evaluation, and she could give this information out to any person or organization she chose – or publicize it on a website or LinkedIn profile.

That’s the system. There are no points, marks, or letter grades. Just students doing work and engaging in an ongoing conversation with an expert about its quality, and then the student deciding which coursework best represents his or her learning in the course to the general public (because it’s basically being made public).

Here is what we gain and lose with this system:

  • We lose letter grades and points. Along with losing letter grades we lose transcripts. In the place of transcripts, each student has a password-protected website that would be a portal to all the portfolios to each of his or her classes.
  • This would take a crap ton of server space, so that’s an expense. But you also lose the expense of record keeping with transcripts and grades.
  • Employers, graduate programs, and others who might be interested in a student would gain the most here, because they would have access not just to a transcript and 1-3 letters of reference from the students’ favorite professors, but dozens of instances of actual course work along with a letter of evaluation from each professor (and a rebuttal, if the professor for some reason gave an unfair evaluation). Employers wouldn’t have to guess if the student’s transcript really tells the whole story; they’ve got the whole story, just be requiring that the student allow access to their course portfolios before interviewing.
  • The point of an academic course would no longer be to earn a grade. There are no grades anymore. The point now is to create a body of work that will reflect well on you in the future when an employer or program looks at it, which they will. Also, the point is to develop a good working relationship with your professor in every class.
  • Professors gain a lot here by the fact they will never ever grade anything again. Instead it’s about evaluating the work, and in the end evaluating the person.
  • This system would make it easy for universities to focus more on offering courses as opposed to offering degrees. You can imagine a person paying to take a bunch of disconnected courses at a university like this, just to have the certification in only those courses – like a person who wants to take 1–3 courses to qualify for a certain career but doesn’t need a full-blown Bachelor’s degree. It would be like a built-in nanodegree structure.

Here are (some of) the objections:

  • If there’s no grades, then students won’t do the work. Answer: Fine. Let them not do the work. When the time comes to assemble the course portfolio, they will have an empty portfolio and a negative evaluation from the professor. How well does the student think that will fly with a prospective employer?
  • If there are no grades, then the student will do the bare minimum and never revise anything. Answer: See the previous answer. When an employer reads the portfolio and the evaluation letter, and the work has never been revised, then how is that going to look?
  • This will be too much stuff for prospective employers to read. Answer: That’s a fair objection. Employers wouldn’t read all of the portfolio – but I bet they would cherry-pick judiciously. I could see, say, a software design firm who is interested in an applicant with a CS degree deciding to have a look at the applicant’s work in an art class taken as an elective to see what kind of creativity the applicant has.
  • This will be too much work for professors to do, especially if the classes are 80+ students. Answer: Also fair, but how much work is done grading exams or papers already in these classes? Seems like it would be a wash. Substitute the portfolio evaluation letter for the final exam.

Here are some of the things left out, that I will let you think about: How does a student earn a degree? By just completing courses (which would mean, having a portfolio completed)? Would a university let a student graduate with a degree if they did only the minimum? Is there a bare minimum of quantity or quality that we would want? What about transfer students – either into or out of the university? What about AP credit?


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