Students of formal education from all over the world have been evaluated with numerical marking systems for centuries. This is generally acceptable for curricula that value textbook-based, memorization-centric learning, where answering a question of being able to recall a fact or figure can be easily marked as correct or wrong.
However, with the advent of pervasive information technology, schools are now switching their focus from easily-quantifiable technical hard skills, to more abstract soft skills such as creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking, This poses a problem for educators – how do you quantitatively evaluate a student’s creative output, or the way they solve problems?
But marking has had a problem long before new technology or the demands of a different workplace. Language fluency, for example, is something that can be difficult to mark, or the quality of any kind of essay. In fact, the very concept of grades may potentially stunt real in-depth learning in students, in favor of adopting the easiest possible strategies to improve their grades.
As the International Baccalaureate has been a pioneer of what modern curricula are only now adopting, it’s in a unique position to deal with these problems.
One of the main problems with grading as an evaluation of learning is that no matter how you implement it, such grading will incentivize working towards the best possible grade, rather than exploring the creative and knowledge possibilities with what you’re learning.
Grades make students averse to taking risks, and so they tend towards the easiest path to better marks. They’ll be less likely to explore ideas that break out of the mold, and might lose interest in learning outside of what is required. Instead, they’ll do whatever it takes to get a good grade, with learning a secondary concern.
Grades can also be bad for students’ well-being. Studies have shown that when students are stressed out by the fear of failing exams, it paradoxically leads to weaker performance and dissociation with the learning material. Other studies looked at where students base their sense of self-worth, and saw academic performance as a clear source of it. This was correlated with poorer mental health, with such students experiencing anxiety, relational conflicts, and other negative effects.
Ultimately, as we discussed earlier, grades aren’t even that good of a form of feedback. With a grading system of, say, 1 to 10, a 10 seems to imply the be-all and end-all of learning in a particular focused topic, whereas no such distinction exists in reality. Grades also lack the element of personal, conversational, qualitative feedback that would be valuable to any student.
There are several alternatives to marking that can be implemented in isolation, or which can work together to improve education at every level.
Comparative judgement (CJ) is taking hold in the IB as a solution to the problem of grading. Rather than having everyone judged by some numerical metric, even if this is inappropriate, CJ provides examiners with pairs of student work, which they are meant to judge which one is better. With repeated comparisons across the entire body of tested students, it becomes possible to create a scaled ranking of student work.
CJ has a variety of advantages. With multiple people looking at each work, every student is afforded the opportunity to be evaluated by multiple opinions and perspectives. It also makes life easier for examiners, as they only have to compare two pieces of work against each other, several times over, rather than having to evaluate every single piece of work against the rest of the class. CJ also allows for more encompassing judgements of work, as the points of comparison are easier to analyze when it’s just a pair of student works.
Qualitative judgements, where students sit down and have a conversation with parents and teachers, are another way of fixing the problem. Teachers can discuss with students what their points of improvements are, and how they can be resolved, and students can talk about their own pain points and possibly even talk about adjusting the curriculum. Naturally, this only applies to flexible curricula, and will also require a great time investment. However, it’s an important complement for any kind of student assessment, that the student themselves be involved in the process.
Even more radically, it may be possible to have students choose their own grades, based on their own evaluation of their performance. Taking away the incentive to chase after higher and higher grades, and instead making the process of evaluation a way of students to be introspective about their own learning, can encourage them to seek the learning itself, rather than the learning that leads to higher grades.
What of exams, then? If so much information is available online already, and marking may be detrimental in some ways to student learning and well-being, should they be scrapped?
The fact is, it’s still important to be able to recall knowledge, even broadly, about a topic that one is learning. You might be able to search for anything on the Internet, but looking for the right questions, and answering them in meaningful ways, requires a demonstrable ability to analyze and frame, and construct arguments, all of which requires some broad knowledge of the topic that can help narrow down the search for information.
These skills are what IB exams evaluate, which is why they’re still around after all this time. However, make no mistake – they continue to evolve with the times. There is always the discussion of whether to allow open-book exams, or even the use of the Internet. And technology continues to march on anyway – the MYP eAssessment system was launched just three years ago in 2016, in which only 25% is all about memorization, with the rest focusing on evaluating critical thinking and communication.
At Swiss International School in Dubai, our assessment doesn’t just take students’ numerical grades into account. We look into self and peer assessment, reflections, the way they document their processes, and even open-ended tasks that are evaluated critically. We also hold Learning Conversations that discuss plans of action for each student, which allows us to tailor their education and evaluation to their needs.
Report cards aren’t just grades, either. They’re a qualitative judgement of all kinds of performance, and holistic reflections not just on education but also on behavior.
We believe that this flexibility will allow students to shine brightest in the way that is most meaningful to them, and will encourage them to truly learn what they’re studying, rather than just work towards a good grade.