This post is also crossposted on Medium.
Several years ago, I encountered the work of Dylan Wiliam, who researched the effect of teacher feedback on student improvement. In particular, he examined three types of feedback teachers give:
The results of Wiliam’s research might seem counterintuitive: the students who showed the most growth were those who received comments alone. Even grades paired with comments — which at face value would seem to be the richest form of feedback — was just as ineffective as giving grades alone.
Wiliam concludes: “That most students virtually ignore…painstaking correction, advice, and praise is one of public education’s best-kept secrets.”
Not only do grades not encourage growth, they inhibit it. Grades take the focus off feedback. As a teacher of English language arts who prides himself on providing quality feedback, this finding is particularly disturbing.
Feedback is the breakfast of champions. — Ken Blanchard
But it doesn’t surprise me: frequently a student who receives an assignment back glances at the letter grade and then stows it away without ever reading the comments. This remains true even though, for most of my career, I have allowed students to revise and improve their scores on assessments.
Something about the letter grade causes learning to stop.
In short, the grade becomes a false currency that, over time, seems to override the student’s intrinsic desire for mastery and personal sense of purpose. Students find themselves trapped in the Sisyphean task of continually laboring for a letter or number.
There is no move dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor. — Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
One might argue that these letters and numbers still represent something. But due to grade inflation and idiosyncratic grading policies, that “something” has no consistent or reliable meaning. As Robert Marzano writes, “grades are so imprecise, they are almost meaningless.”
Furthermore, like printed currency unmoored from the gold standard, scores, grades, GPA, and class rankings decreasingly possess any guaranteed exchange value. Students may still able to exchange these “currencies” for college admission, scholarships and, in turn, well paying jobs, but these foregone conclusions are becoming less certain. Google’s Laslo Bock stated:
One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless…We found that they don’t predict anything.
“Getting in” to college is not enough. In order to avoid an adulthood driven by debt on a par with indentured servitude, students almost always need major scholarship help. Society has to be concerned when generations of graduates will need to adopt a near-mercenary mindset to pay back crippling debt. Who will be our teachers, social workers, musicians, poets, dancers?
The question arises: will I truly be able to exchange this letter grade, this GPA, or this class rank for anything of value? Perhaps at one time I could, regardless of the underlying quality of the education. But the answer is increasingly no, that these empty distinctions guarantee you little if anything in life.
Why spend your money for what is not bread;