Shades/grades of performance

Geetha Durairajan

I am not a parent but as a caregiver I have helped bring up quite a few children and this upbringing has always involved some kind of teaching and learning. Our children do not have in them (pre-wired), the rules of the society they are born into. These codes of behaviour are taught and learnt; along with many other kinds of learning.

As human beings we teach others who are less capable than us to tie their shoe laces, plait hair, make tea, eat without spilling, answer the telephone or the door bell, and to ride a bicycle or drive a car. The list is endless; implied in this ‘educating’ is an informal evaluation, for without it the teaching could never be individualized and fine-tuned. At every stage we need to make sure the person we are teaching has learned adequately so we can move on to the next stage. This is the education and evaluation that was in place long before there were formal institutions called schools (Gardner, 1999).

Such an evaluation (by the parent or caregiver) looked at the performance of a child and judged capability and more importantly, the assistance and help that was needed for that particular child. Four different children in a joint family may have received four different kinds and levels of instruction. One child is good with her hands, and therefore is taught to do embroidery. Another can’t put two stitches together and is therefore taught to hem neatly. Both the embroidery and the hemming are valued; more importantly, they are not compared with each other.

shades1This fine-tuning of instruction carried with it a ‘grading’, but the grading did not have a ‘value’; there was no 70% or ‘A’ grade attached to it. Instead, it had a ‘hmm, not bad, I think this child can now work on her own’ or a ‘I need to help my son a bit more’. The ‘grading’ also carried a capturing of individual growth and the implicit ‘feedback’ that went with it; ‘the rotis are much rounder and thinner these days; I must teach him/her to roll in one direction’. The comparison is not to the perfect rotis that the caregiver can make; it is in comparison to the India map that the child rolled out on day one of instruction! Any successful completion also got talked about with great pride. This was the equivalent of an A+. The child may have made only one simple potato curry and rice or just dal and rice, or rotis, but the statement would be about cooking capability, ‘can cook well.’ If the child needed help, there would be a ‘you know, he/she has actually begun cooking, or can iron with a little help for the collar’, an equivalent of a ‘B’ possibly. Again, what got ironed was one old shirt, with possibly a few creases, but the judgment was a ‘well done’ and about general capability in ironing.

This kind of capability judgment is what we do all the time in education, but one uniform assessment will not fit all classes and students. Every class and student is different and as such the demands and judgments need to vary. Here is where grades win over marks. A 60% cannot be interpreted as both ‘excellent’ and ‘you can do better than this, because I actually expected a 90% from you’. But grades can. An ‘A’ or a ‘B’ can be defined for a particular class and this can be made clear to students and parents. This ‘grading’ is closer to the mother who expects one child to do embroidery and the other to just master hemming. We may not be able to do this in our final summative examinations, but a large part of our teaching and testing is ongoing and formative. As teachers we all know that, like a parent, we make different demands during formative/on-going evaluation. Here is where we can demand different things from different groups of students.

shades2Grading will therefore allow us to both ‘describe’ and vary what we demand across groups of students. This is one advantage that grading has over marks. The other is a solution to the problem of having to take two or three samples of ‘performance’, perceive it as finite, perfect and complete and evaluate it as reflecting capability. 20 – 40 mathematics problems are solved in an examination and depending on whether the student got 3 or 4 or 6 wrong, the marks vary; we are however sure that we have captured difference in ability. A student who has got 96 is seen as better than one who got 92 and so on. But we all know from experience that the child who got 92 or even 88 may actually have a better ‘head’ for mathematics. (How often, have we as teachers said, when we heard of one of our good students getting bad marks in a public exam, ‘something must have happened; this is not like this child at all! Our explanations range from a ‘the evaluator must have made a mistake’, to a ‘maybe the child made careless mistakes’, or even a ‘the child must have been disturbed; this is not his true mark’).

When we move from a ‘concrete’ area like mathematics to something like language (where essays are written) the problem increases in magnitude. First of all, we are not sure of what we are testing when we set essay type questions and we are definitely unsure of the mark we give; there is always variation in marking. The same essay may be given a ‘6’, or a ‘7’ or even an ‘8’ by three different evaluators. Here again, grades (since they have a band and not one particular mark) make evaluation easier.

A similar but different problem exists when students answer questions that ask for more than a mere reproduction of knowledge in science, history or geography. If the question demands higher order thinking skills (application of theory to practice or the need to analyze two conflicting theories and select one with justification) then we may not be able to justify a 7 versus an 8, but will be able to state what we mean by two grades. A good analysis can be easily graded as ‘A’ while a reproduction of the theory as a ‘C’ and so on.

This kind of varying demand evaluation may not be possible in final examination summative evaluation. However, even here, grades, for me, are better than marks. In final examination grading, we will have to drop the ‘I will describe what is for me an ‘A’ type of grading, and adopt the ‘80 – 100 is equal to an ‘A’ grade perspective. But this is still better, for we all know that final examinations test only one small bit of all that we have taught. Two hundred days of schooling get compressed into a maximum of 20 hours of testing across all subjects. A different set of essay questions in economics or history, or a different area in science or geography may have got a much better performance from a student. This is a fact of life and marks, finite as they are, make it seem that we know the exact difference between a 97 and a 95 and a 60 and a 55. We never can, and grades help us live with this inexactitude.

I would like to end with a description of an ‘alternative’ evaluation that a teacher I know practices. She gives all her students a ‘B’ grade at the beginning of her course regardless of how good or bad they are. To maintain that grade, however, they have to work and to improve it, grow from where they were. Thus, demands and feedback were personalized and student specific. Good embroidery and good hemming both got an ‘A’ at the end of the course.

The author is Reader, Department of Evaluation, EFL University, Hyderabad. She can be reached at gdurairajan@gmail.com.