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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Assessment Opinion

Grades and Tests Can Undermine Learning. Do They Have To?

Assessments in this country can send the wrong message to students
By Rick Hess — October 26, 2023 7 min read
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Amid the heated debates over testing, “grading for equity,” and test-optional college admissions, it’s easy to throw up one’s hands in exasperation. That’s what makes a new book by Ethan Hutt and Jack Schneider so timely. In Off the Mark: How Grades, Ratings, and Rankings Undermine Learning (But Don’t Have To), they mostly make the case against traditional testing and grading—but they’re sharp enough to have penned a provocative volume that complicates simple-minded dogmas. Hutt is a professor at the University of North Carolina and Schneider at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, where he leads the Beyond Test Scores Project. While I frequently disagree with their prescriptions, I also value their acuity and tend to learn a lot from them. So, I thought it worth chatting with them about the volume. Here’s what they had to say.

—Rick

Rick: So, can you tell me a bit about the book?

Jack: We tried to do three things in this book. The first was the easiest: to make clear the unintended consequences associated with what we call “assessment technologies.” Most people don’t think of grades, test scores, and transcripts as technologies, but that’s exactly what they are. And they are highly problematic technologies that end up distorting the learning process. The second goal was to explain how we got here. In most cases, the people who created these technologies didn’t have bad intentions—they were trying to solve real problems. Understanding those problems is essential if we want to generate successful reforms. The third goal of the book was to do the impossible: to suggest a fix for this mess.

Rick: What prompted you guys to write it?

Ethan: As historians of education, we’re particularly interested in considering the origins of practices that we now take for granted in schools—practices like A–F grading and standardized testing. We don’t have a central ministry of education directing what happens in schools, and yet assessment looks the same almost everywhere. We were curious: How did this develop? How did things get this way? If people aren’t happy with these practices—and they haven’t been for some time—then why haven’t we been able to reform them? These are the issues we wanted to explore in the book, because if educators are going to address the fundamental problems with assessment, they need to understand how we got here.

Rick: What’s wrong with traditional approaches to tests and grading?

Jack: You’ll need to turn over several more columns to us if you want a full answer to that question. But let’s touch on a couple. One major problem is that our assessment technologies are maximally reductive; a single letter or number is supposed to tell us what a student knows. Because of this, the symbol—the grade or the test score—ends up being what students focus on. The message they receive is clear: It doesn’t matter what you learn, provided you get good marks. A second problem is that grades, test scores, and transcripts are permanent—it’s as if they’ve been etched in stone. But students grow and change. As a result, their assessment records tend to reflect the past more so than the present. Several decades ago, I didn’t know how to ride a bike; today, however, that previous lack of knowledge is completely irrelevant. Imagine if I had to carry around a permanent record of all the things I used to be unable to do.

Rick: Given these concerns, I was struck that you guys seem to have a fairly nuanced stance on standardized testing. Can you speak to that?

Ethan: We would definitely win more friends in reform circles if we adopted a simple slogan like “abolish testing.” But that isn’t particularly realistic or productive. Standardized tests have historically served two distinct functions in our system. The first is synchronization. Our system is very decentralized—we don’t have common standards, curricula, or textbooks—which means that despite being in the same grade or even the same course, students in different areas can have very different experiences. Yet, at key moments, we need the disparate pieces of our system to fit together; that’s what standardized testing facilitates. The other critical function standardized tests serve is communication. Students’ scores get used and abused in all kinds of ways, but they also can provide important information about those students. You don’t see special education professionals clamoring to get rid of diagnostic tests, for instance.

Rick: I was going to say, given your testing skepticism, that I was wondering whether some ardent testing critics may think your stance here isn’t as strong as they’d like. Has that come up?

Jack: I’m not sure anyone has been more outspoken than I have about the excesses of standardized testing. Test scores are a rotten measure of school quality; the high-stakes use of test scores in state accountability systems is totally misguided and has resulted in a host of unintended consequences; and our use of test scores to sort students has exacerbated inequity. But let’s also recognize that a well-designed test can offer useful information. Educators use test results in productive ways every day, and, as Ethan mentioned above, they tie our system together in ways that we can’t just dismiss.

Rick: What do you guys make of the push by many in higher education to move away from the SAT and ACT?

Ethan: One main argument in the book is that reforms have to be considered in the context of the dynamics of the whole system. A change in one part of the system is likely to reverberate. In this case, eliminating the SAT or ACT is certain to ramp up the competition for distinction in other parts of students’ applications: their grades, Advanced Placement scores, letters of recommendation, extracurriculars, and essays. From an equity standpoint, that’s a problem. Many of these elements are even more strongly associated with socioeconomic status than are SAT and ACT scores.

Rick: I’m also curious of what you think of the push for “equity grading,” no-zero policies, and similar proposals?

Jack: I don’t think they’re going to do any harm, and in some cases, they’ll make a positive difference. This is an example of the kind of tinkering that educators have the freedom to do in their classrooms, and I support it. But it isn’t going to address the fundamental problems with our assessment technologies. A no-zero policy, for instance, isn’t going to change the fact that students are still focused on the acquisition of a token—the grade.

Rick: Are there any points made by defenders of traditional grading that you find particularly persuasive or that deserve more consideration than they usually receive?

Ethan: Grades and test scores both serve critical functions in our system. When defenders of traditional grading say that they believe grades should honestly communicate how a student is doing in class, we completely agree. Our argument is that this critical communication function has been undermined because of all the other tasks we’ve burdened grades with. Part of our goal in the book is to figure out how we can create more space for teachers to communicate candidly about students’ work in the moment without students fearing for their futures.

Rick: So, Ethan, if just ”abandoning” traditional assessment and grading isn’t the way to go, what’s a better path forward?

Ethan: I think the first step at all levels is to look at current practices and ask what can be removed or adjusted while still preserving the three core functions of assessment: motivation, communication, and synchronization. We know, for instance, that much of the perceived overkill in standardized testing comes not from federal or state mandates but from district decisions. The amount and frequency of testing could be pared back to de-emphasize testing and make more room for learning.

Rick: Given that, what kind of practical advice can you offer to teachers and school leaders?

Jack: At the classroom level, there are things that educators can do, like anchoring assessment in projects that are meaningful to students. But we also need to be acting at the school level, the district level, the state level, and even the national level. College-admissions practices, for instance, need to change.

Rick: OK, so what are a couple of actions that you’d encourage district leaders to adopt?

Jack: States don’t mandate specific approaches to grading, so there are definitely actions districts can take on that front. For instance, we discuss making grades “overwritable.” In essence, students would have the ability at particular points in the school year to demonstrate competencies; and if they develop a competency, new information should overwrite old information.

Rick: Ethan, you have a final thought on that count?

Ethan: Beyond just overwriting old information with new, district leaders could also add new information to a transcript by making it what we call “double-clickable.” Imagine if a college or employer could click on a grade and see a representative piece of work from the class. We could shift the focus from earning a grade—by whatever means—to a focus on what students are able to do.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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