Dec 21

Comparing Traditional and Alternative Grading Schemes

This is a guest post by Elaine Hirsch.

Movements for change and reform in the US educational system challenge nearly every aspect of the student’s experience, and grading systems are certainly not exempt from this. In an ongoing struggle to best measure the effectiveness of our education system, traditional and alternative grading systems have been in use across the United States. Not only have teachers been tweaking their methods frequently, masters degree dissertations have been looking at this topic, driving research in the field.

Traditional grading systems often assign the letter grades (A-F) that most Americans are familiar with. These are sometimes tied to “points” that are used to compute grade point averages, where, for example, A=4.0, B=3.0, and so on. There are two main types of traditional grading systems: norm-referenced and criterion-referenced. A norm-referenced system assigns grades based on where students place in the class. As are assigned to the top portion of the class, Bs to the next group, Cs to the next and so on. A percentage of the class is used for each grade. For example, As may be assigned to the top 10% of the class, Bs to the next 20%, and so on. In this system, even if all students do very well and have a small difference in their overall performance, some may end up with low grades. However, it does well to show how students compare to their peers.

A criterion-based system, on the other hand, relates grades to a fixed performance level. For example, in this system, and A may be assigned to any student who earns 90% of possible points in the class, a B may go to anyone between 80% and 89%, and so on. This allows students to earn expected grades based on their performance independent of other students. However, differences in the harshness of grading may force all students to high or low grades, so the distribution of scores may be quite small.

Alternative grading schemes reject the systems described above, but there is no single alternative scheme that is widely accepted. One commonly-used alternative is a pass/fail system. This is used in institutions that have traditional grading systems when students are only partly participating in a class, such as in the case of an audit. They may also be used in very subjective fields, such as the arts. Evaluations are another alternative. These provide students with detailed written feedback about their performance, highlighting areas of success and weakness. This provides much more detailed analysis of performance for students. Self-assessment is another option, favored by instructors who see their role as educators rather than evaluators. These set up some criteria that students must meet for certain grades, but allow the students to choose their own grades for the course based on their analysis of their performance.

Traditional and alternative grading systems both have their benefits and drawbacks. The widely-understood meaning of traditional grading is an advantage, and many institutions require students to submit grades in this format. However, alternative schemes provide opportunities for more subjective or detailed evaluation, sometimes changing the role of the instructor. Research continues into these systems and their use in different environments.

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1 comment

    • Gabriella Ashford on December 21, 2011 at 10:54 am

    Communisty Hungary (1986):
    During our education abroad program to Carl Marx University of Economics, Budapest Hungary, a panel of Hungarian professors used the Evaluation Method to “evaluate” us for our progress in all our classes. At the time only 1% of the Hungarian population makes it to the university level. By highschool, most students are already on a trade school path.

    In trade schools, they learned core skills still like writing and math, but they also learned the livelyhood that would support them into the future. I believe it gave students integrity at a younger age, and prevented them from being victimized (like Corporate America victimizes teens). These kids had a heads up already on what they were going to do, and the trade schools were networked into the real world, ready to pass the kids upward and onward in their field. In my opinion, even within communism, this form of education was one of the main reasons teen suicide was lower than it is now. Also, it puts far less pressure on higher education professors to deal with the masses. They only had to deal with the brilliant students, (or those whose parents had “bought” their college education.)

    However, this said, I certainly would not have been the chosen 1% had I actually been a Hungarian Resident. I was only there because of the education abroad program from UCSB. Additionally, I really did love my college experience and how it broadened my view of the world. However, even I feel that there were way too many kids at UCSB who just did not know what they were going to do. A huge number of kids still did not know what they were going to do even after they graduated from college. This, to me is our educational systems greatest failing! Trade school aspects need to be built into our children’s education. This “No Child Left Behind” system leaves only the test administrators with guaranteed jobs. When communist systems look good, you know something is wrong!

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