Monday, September 24, 2012

The end of testsandgrades

When I share with people the case against grades, and that I plan on working with my children's teachers to reduce or eliminate grading from their education, I am met with a myriad of responses. Including this:
It sounds like you are "one of those parents". You should just homeschool your children or go to a private school.
This reaction saddens me.

Has public education become so rigidly, narrow minded and singularly focused on its bureaucratic policies that it can't even start to imagine how to meet the needs of the very people it's meant to serve?

Since when did public education become about scoring well on someone else's test or coming home with As on your report card?

Who is public education for if not for the children?

Before we can understand where we want to go, it's more than likely that we will need to know where we've already been. The future of school will have a lot to do with understanding the history of school.

Let's examine three excerpts:

Zander Sherman's book The Curiosity of School: Education and the Dark Side of Enlightenment is an important read because it outlines the often unknown, and disturbing, origins of public education. He writes:
In Prussia, it was school that enabled the secret training of soldiers. In America, it was school that was seized to create an educated labor pool, thanks to the financial contributions of Carnegie and Rockefeller. In Canada, it was school that was used to convert Native Canadians into just regular ones. In Asia, India and the rest of the world, school is the gatekeeper of power, privilege and prestige. The people who control it, control the world.
In his book Stop Stealing Dreams, Seth Godin writes about the origins of the multiple choice test:
In 1914, a professor in Kansas invented the multiple choice test. Yes, it's less than a hundred years old. 
There was an emergency on. World War I was ramping up, hundreds of thousands of new immigrants needed to be processed and educated, and factories were hungry for workers. The government had just made two years of high school mandatory, and we needed a temporary, high-efficiency way to sort students and quickly assign them to appropriate slots. 
In the words of Professor Kelly, "This is a test of lower order thinking skills for the lower orders." A few years later, as President of the University of Idaho, Kelly disowned the idea, pointing out that it was an inappropriate method to test only a tiny portion of what is actually taught and should be abandoned. The industrialists and the mass educators revolted and he was fired.
Thom Hartmann writes about the history of grades in his Complete Guide to ADHD:
Around the turn of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was going full-bore. Piece-work payments were becoming increasingly popular, and many schools were beginning to pay teachers based on the number of students they had, as opposed to a flat salary. 
William Farish was a tutor at Cambridge University in England in 1792, and, other than his single contribution to the subsequent devastation of generations of schoolchildren, is otherwise undistinguished and unknown by most people. 
Getting to know his students, one may suppose, was too much trouble for Farish. It meant work, interacting and participating daily with each child. It meant paying attention to their needs, to their understanding, to their styles of learning. It meant there was a limit on the number of students he could thus get to know, and therefore a limit on how much money he could earn. 
So Farish came up with a method of teaching which would allow him to process more students in a shorter period of time. He invented grades. (The grading system had originated earlier in the factories, as a way of determining if the shoes, for example, made on the assembly line were "up to grade." It was used as a benchmark to determine if the workers should be paid, and if the shoes could be sold.) 
Grades did not make students smarter. In fact, they had the opposite effect: they made it harder for those children to succeed whose style of learning didn't match the didactic, auditory form of lecture-teaching Farish used.
Sometimes I like to ask: when did public education become hijacked by testsandgrades? But what if this is a misleading question? What if public education was never about helping each child construct meaning for themselves in a way that led them to lead a life of citizenship in a democracy? What if public education's purpose was to propagandize children into interchangeable, compliant workers and soldiers?

If we can't even agree why we have school, it should not surprise anyone that we can't agree on how we should do school.

Neil Postman writes in his book The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School:
In tracking what people have to say about schooling, I notice that most of the conversation is about means, rarely about ends. Should we privatize our schools? Should we have national standards of assessment? How should we use computers? What use can we make of television? How shall we teach reading? And so on. Some of these questions are interesting and some are not. But what they have in common is that they evade the issue of what schools are for. It is as if we are a nation of technicians, consumed by our expertise in how something should be done, afraid or incapable of thinking about why.
I write this book in the hope of altering, a little bit, the definition of the "school problem" -- from means to ends. "End," of course, has at least two important meanings: "purpose" and "finish." Either meaning may apply to the future of schools, depending on whether or not there ensues a serious dialogue about purpose. By giving the book its ambiguous title, I mean to suggest that without transcendent and honorable purpose, schooling must reach its finish, and the sooner we are done with it, the better. With such a purpose, schooling becomes the central institution through which the young may find reasons for continuing to educate themselves.
Because the origins of public education and testsandgrades are mired in goals that have less to do with citizenship and critical thinking and more to do with compliance and labour, it is important that we engage those who have never been invited to reconsider their unexamined assumptions about school. The truth is that many people are reassured by signs of formal-traditional school and are disturbed by their absence, and what's worse is that these same people are often offended when they are invited to rethink their preconceptions for what school should look and feel like.

Because the end of testsandgrades tend to sabotage our long term goals for our children, it's time we bring an end to testsandgrades. In other words, because testsandgrades do not have an honourable and transcendent purpose, they need to be finished. But nothing will change until good people become active in making change. Testsandgrades are not like death and taxes -- they are not like the weather -- they are pedagogical and political ideologies that can and should be opposed.

Here is a list of all my posts on rethinking assessment and abolishing testsandgrades.

Consider checking out the Grading Moratorium.


  1. I taught high school English for six years, in both public and private school settings. I appreciate the points you've made here. I also recommend reading Postman's other great books, such as "Amusing Ourselves to Death".
    It's frustrating trying to get the general public to understand all the nuances that go into quality education. There are so many factors and too often the public picks a scapegoat. Why does our society have to always simplify very complicated issues?

  2. Joe, are you saying that it is impossible to use grades in education meaningfully and purposefully?

  3. Grades are at best unhelpful and at worst harmful towards the long term goals for our children.

  4. I'm all for it. get rid of grades!

  5. I believe grades do not reflect a child's intelligence. Those are just numbers, they don't predict anybody's future. A bunch of alternative schools perth do not encourage such teaching because they provide education not to scare students of flunking, rather let them realize how it is to be knowledgeable.


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