GradesBy Michael L. Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
For students and parents, the release of grades and report cards can be a major cause of anxiety and dread. There may be an added dimension of confusion this year, with a new grading system in public schools for grades 1 to 7 where the ratings are “A,” “AP,” “D” and “B.”
I’ll explain those ratings in a while. Let me first talk about how grading is so terribly stressful as well to teachers. It means going through endless exams, term papers and essays, and computing grades. When you’re handling several hundred students in a semester, which is the norm for many faculty in the Philippines, it all becomes a mechanical exercise. I was reminded of how the grading process can become a meaningless and tedious chore when, last year, I saw the report card of a student who had just finished high school: All her grades were 76, and when I asked how that happened she said most of her classmates got similar patterns of grades. Only the best students, she said, had different grades for different subjects.
I got the picture. Here were overworked and harassed teachers who just needed to promote students en masse. It doesn’t just happen in public schools. I’ve seen similar patterns in private schools, or worse cases such as professors notorious for their “either/or” policy: Students get a 1 (highest) or 5 (failing), and those are the lucky ones. Less fortunate creatures sometimes end up with professors who believe no student is bright enough to ever get a grade higher than a 3, that applying to a small minority of the class. All the rest get a 5.
Parents and students are getting wind of these patterns, and administrators are pressed to respond to the complaints. I tend to empathize with the parents because even as a student, when “terror professors” were the norm, I felt that a class where most grades are limited to the lowest passing and failing marks was telling us something was wrong, not so much with the students as with the teacher.
What we see is a kind of grading fetish, often involving power play, with haggling and negotiations, and sometimes even corruption.
It all goes back to grading systems we borrowed from the West, the oldest being those based on numerical grades going from 1 to 100, with 75 as passing. That grading system was artificial, leading parents, teachers and students into competitions, arguing over the difference between a 98 and a 97.
Others used a simpler system of A, B, C and the dreaded D and F. Some schools transformed those letters into numbers, 4 equivalent to an A, 3 to a B, 2 for a C, 1 for a D. At our state universities and colleges, and UP, we do the reverse, 1 being the highest, with increments of .25 (1.25, 1.5) down to a 3 for passing, a 4 for conditional and a 5 for failing.
Younger teachers tend to get fixated on the computation of grades, sometimes with elaborate systems with points for recitations, short quizzes, term papers, midterm exams, final exams.
Lost in the calculations are the basic questions: What do the grades evaluate? Is it mastery of the subject matter? Is it the ability to regurgitate memorized materials for exams? Is it the ability to figure out a teacher’s “kiliti,” including attention to the most trivial of information?
Many years back as an undergraduate student in the United States, I was first exposed to “curving.” Instead of having a fixed equivalent—for example, numerical grades of 95 and above being equivalent to an “A”—professors had grades computed in terms of statistics and distribution over a curve, meaning students were evaluated in relation to each other’s performance. This meant that even if a subject was very difficult, there would still be students getting the highest possible mark simply because they were the best performing in class—and, conversely, there would be students who would fail because they were at the tail end of the class.
A growing number of local and foreign schools are now overhauling grades and grading systems to better reflect the learning process. In my son’s grade school, the ratings are E for Excellent, VG for Very Good, G for Good, S for Satisfactory. Then there’s D for Developing and NI for Needs Improvement. Notice how they’re avoiding the term “fail.”
That rating system is similar to the Department of Education’s new grading system for grades 1 to 7: A for Advanced (90 percent and above), P for Proficient (85-89 percent), AP for Approaching Proficiency (80-84 percent), D for Developing (75-79 percent), and B for Beginning (74 percent and below).
The discussions on these grading systems came about when educators from different countries discovered the very significant differences in “learning cultures.” Studies of Chinese and Japanese learning cultures, including home and school environments, showed sharp differences from the western model. The work of psychologist Jim Stigler and his colleagues noted that in American schools, teachers tended to call on the best performing students for recitation, and to praise them for being “bright.” In Japanese schools, teachers would call a student who was not doing as well, but as the student recited or did work on the blackboard, the teacher would ask the rest of the class to evaluate the student and to help out. When the student finally got it right, the class would applaud.
A new book just published, “Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West” by Li Jen, notes that in the Chinese system, diligence and effort are emphasized: “Good” students are praised for having worked so hard, and others are chided for not working hard enough. I saw this in my own school here in the Philippines, which mainly had ethnic Chinese students, where the highest award is not for the valedictorian or salutatorian but a “diligence medal.”
“Western” and “Eastern” labels are, of course, deceptive, with differences, too, between Chinese and Japanese classrooms, and between, say, American and Canadian, or German and French classrooms. But the generic descriptions above still give us food for thought, mainly on how we may want to combine the best of different models.
In the new grading systems, weight is given to effort. In my son’s school, even if a student had very low grades during the first half of the semester, an improvement over time can mean a final passing mark.
I’ve found myself applying similar principles of teaching and learning in my university classes, encouraging students to do both individual and group work, and giving extra exercises for those who want to improve their grade, credit being given for the extra effort. I even find myself praising students—“Good job!”—and then laughing out loud and apologizing if the students felt like they were back in preschool.
I’m also constantly evaluating what “mastery” means, moving away from memorization of definitions and emphasizing instead the ability of students to apply what they are learning to the real world. Even medical schools are taking up the challenge, still giving multiple-choice exams for topics like anatomy and physiology, but also allowing more essays and case studies. I don’t think we’re going to see NI (needs improvement) grades in universities, but in the years to come, expect more changes in the way students are evaluated.
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