Qualitative Grading and its Bias

After reading the Case Against Grading by Alfie Kohn I found myself agreeing with a lot of his points. After thinking about it, it does scare me that we would potentially get rid of the grading system entirely, just because it is human nature to put people in boxes and categories. How would we have/replace a quantitative system to gauge people and place them into universities ? I think we would still need some standardized testing that gives us the chance to assess what people actually know. While I think standardized tests don’t really do this well, I can’t think of another way to do this. Do you have any suggestions ?

Another thing I worry about is this concept is purely based on how well the teacher assesses the students. I mean people have different expectations and knowledge bases. A teacher at one school might have a much more stringent idea of what is necessary while another teacher is not quite as versed in the material. So there would be a big discrepancy in what is taught or how it is qualitatively graded. I will say my personal experience with college education has made me question what institutions teach and what they expect from their students. I did my undergrad and masters at a top 50 school and then I came to Tech. The difference in expectations and work load was very apparent. I guess that comes with the territory of going to a better school but I always just assumed any ABET accredited program was more or less teaching the same things. However it is more of a baseline of what needs to be taught and the school can go above and beyond that.   I feel like there might be a lot of this happening.

That being said I think the current system is broke and we need a solution. I like the idea of qualitative grading but I worry that some teachers wont be up for it and that we need some metric to measure progress. What are your thoughts ?

12 thoughts on “Qualitative Grading and its Bias”

  1. I also wonder how the entire education process would look without grades. The system is so interconnected between K12, postsecondary, and employers that a better information transmission tool would be needed before we got rid of the current system. Maybe that system can include more descriptive feedback instead of summative evaluation? Maybe we can be more holistic and assess things like attentiveness, creativity, effort, fortitude (or grit), collaboration, etc? I wonder if that would be information that postsecondary admissions offices and employers would find preferable to grades? I wonder how students and parents would respond to that kind of change?

    1. I think you bring up some really great points. I would think that the college admissions process would be much harder. Also hiring people would be more difficult. I feel like so many institution rely on the ever important GPA. I do like your suggestion on alternative assessments. Thanks for the insight.

  2. I remember having qualitative grades when I was in K-2. Teachers usually assessed skills associated with child development, such as the ones that glupton listed. Then after 2nd grade, teachers graded using a quantitative scale. I feel like many higher ed teachers and students would oppose a qualitative scale just because the quantitative scale is and has been the norm for most of modern education. How would a qualitative scale appeal to job recruiters and graduate education admissions?

    1. To those teachers I say that using the status quo as a justification for continuing a broken system is both a logical fallacy and morally repugnant. That said, I understand the fear that comes with change. In order to justify the qualitative system, noticeable and agreed upon improvements have to be well-documented and argued in relation to the interests of the educators, students, and industry decision makers. I think glupton’s descriptive evaluation suggestion probably represents the best stopgap measure available to educators right now in that it could be (relatively) easily integrated on a large scale and serve as a transitory step away from quantitative grading while giving skeptics a chance to assess the issues.

    2. I agree about students and teachers opting for a quantitative score as opposed to a qualitative. I think altering things would really shake the tree. I do think it throws a big wrench into the admissions / hiring process if we did change things. Also thanks for the insight about your education, I would think mine was the same way I just cant remember that far back :P.

  3. I definitely think there needs to be a move away from purely quantitative, but I think the bias you mentioned is interesting. What do we do with qualitative grading when a student feels like something is “unfair” or feels that the teacher is potentially biased against them? This isn’t a defense of quantitative measures, but it is something that is overlooked in a lot of the discussion.

    1. I agree. This is why I think having a check list / rubric is extremely important. It takes any bias out of the grading process. I would be curious to hear others thought on this as far as qualitative grading.

  4. Thanks for the post, Sam. It is true that every teacher teaches different things and in different ways. But, I feel the basics always remain the same. That being said, it does not necessarily mean the someone with 4 GPA is a better engineer than someone with a lower GPA.

    1. Jap, I agree with you but I still believe some teachers might have a bias about material they teach. For example some professor might have done research on composite slabs and might stress its importance. I guess these biases make for better education.

  5. You brought up important issues in alternative assessment system! As you pointed out, qualitative assessment without criteria could have the potential for bias or discrepancy. This could happen because of not only different expectations between teachers but also individual teacher’s preconception toward each student. I have read a journal article showing teachers’ biases to assess students performance based on their identifiable child characteristics. In short, a more systematic approach to alternative assessment is really needed, rather than completely throwing away the grading system.

  6. I agree with the part that Alfie Kohn says that “the more students are led to focus on how well they’re doing, the less engaged they tend to be with what they’re doing”. In fact, i agree with you that our current system is broken. I had qualitative grades up to 5th. I remember that I was never worried about my performance, but in what i was learning instead. After 5th grade, i started focusing too much on my grades, and so, I wanted to learn for exams and not because i thought the subject was interesting. I like the idea of qualitative grades, but as you said, this is also a challenge that our current professors and teachers need to learn how to deal with!

  7. Hi Samuel,

    Thanks for your post this week. I can see you are working through some of the larger issues and criticisms of assessment, especially with regard to bias. It’s an interesting point to discuss–there are actually courses dedicated to teaching you how to create a valid assessment, but it’s not required for instructors to participate in or take! There’s no wonder that the presence of this wide range between what different instructors teach (and measure) within a university and between universities in general! I don’t know that it’s important, possible or desirable to standardize assessments universally; but conversations about bias are extremely important for us to consider.

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