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Rethinking education beyond grades

Ethan Hutt’s new co-author book, "Off the Mark: How Grades, Ratings, and Rankings Undermine Learning (but Don’t Have To)," to provide insights into the history of assessment and how schools can utilize them to promote student success without compromising teaching or learning.

A new book co-authored by Ethan Hutt, Ph.D., Gary Stuck Faculty Scholar in Education, examines the historical origins and impacts of today’s academic assessment system, focusing on grades, testing, and transcripts. 

In the book, “Off the Mark: How Grades, Ratings, and Rankings Undermine Learning (but Don’t Have To),” published by Harvard University Press, Hutt and co-author Jack Schneider, Ph.D., an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts Lowel, draw on their expertise as historians of education to explore how grading systems can work to better assess what a student learns and can do – with the goal of helping educators cultivate high-quality learning experiences. 

Hutt, who serves as the program coordinator for the School’s Minor in Education, conducts research centered around the quantitative measures utilized to describe, define, and evaluate American schools. His work also seeks to understand where these metrics come from, how they became central to the work of schools, and the effects they have on how people think about what schools do and how well they do it.  

In the book, the co-authors also feature ways that assessments can be improved to motivate students and create a dialogue that will implore readers to have meaningful conversations about the role of assessments. 

In the following Q&A, Hutt discusses the book’s objective and proposes methods to enhance the grading system for a more accurate evaluation of a student’s knowledge and abilities — while promoting lifelong learning. 

What motivated you to explore this topic and dedicate a full book to it? And why now?  

We wanted to write a book on grading, testing, and transcripts because they are ubiquitous in schooling at all levels. Grading and assessment are an important part of the lived experience for both students and teachers. While teachers may think about sharing favorite texts and fostering learning, they also spend a great deal of time on grading and communicating with parents. These assessment practices deeply shape teaching and learning, so we felt it was important to critically examine them. 

In the first part of the book, we provide a description of current assessment practices and, crucially, a history of how these assessment practices developed over time in response to specific challenges in the school system. Our aim in providing this history is to help people see these practices in a new light. There is nothing about our current practices and that status quo that is inevitable. Our motivation is to improve our education system so that it facilitates learning. The pandemic especially has led to rethinking many aspects of schooling. It seems like the perfect time to critically examine something so fundamental as how we assess, communicate, and memorialize student learning. We always need to grapple with these core pieces of education, and a book seems like an important way to spur that conversation. 

The assessment tools we use shape teaching and learning in profound ways, so it’s important to explore where they came from, why we use them, and consider alternatives. Our book aims to spur that kind of critical reflection on these assessment tools that have become accepted as just part of education. 

How are grades, ratings, and rankings hindering learning and creating inequality now? 

A major challenge is that grades, tests, and transcripts have become the focal point of our system, rather than a supporting tool. We want these technologies to simultaneously motivate students, focus student attention, and communicate achievements, but the pursuit of high marks has swamped the learning itself. There is an unhealthy intensity around grades versus the work behind them. This imbalance strains the system and teachers feel it when students frequently ask about test material or push to regrade assignments.  

The disconnect is that grades and tests have become the focus rather than signifying learning. When accumulating points and scores takes priority over acquiring knowledge, something has gone wrong. We don’t argue for eliminating assessment. That’s unrealistic. Teachers need to evaluate and communicate about the quality of student work, but we can better align our goals for actual learning and motivation with our need to give and record evaluations of that learning.  

The solution is not getting rid of grades but restoring balance — keeping the motivation while keeping learning at the forefront.  

What are some of the ways grades, ratings, and rankings can support learning for students? 

Assessments can support learning when aligned with our educational goals. One distinction we make is between students pursuing good grades on assignments that are substantive and meaningful versus those they accumulate just because they have completed assignments.  

There is nothing inherently wrong with students trying to excel if the work behind the grade provides valuable skills and experiences. But in too many classes, a lot of work is done just to get scores and grades, not for its inherent value. We should aim to create assignments where students earn grades through experiences that enrich their learning and development. Then, grades motivate striving for growth and outcomes that benefit students beyond just accumulating specific scores. The solution is realigning classroom work so that grades come from meaningful tasks, not busy work for scores alone. 

To give one concrete example, one argument we make is that students should be able to make their grades “overwriteable”–that is, to allow them to erase and overwrite their grades. Sometimes people push back and argue that assignments are not worth redoing and that they are ephemeral. But then we should ask whether the assignment was worth doing at all. If we consider how work is produced in most professional settings, we know that in these settings the first attempt is rarely the final product. You submit work, get feedback, rework it, consult with others, and iterate. So, the idea that assignments should have value beyond a course and be worth reworking requires a reorientation of how we approach them. 

Especially as students get older, we sort of recognize the importance of bringing our assignments in line with the next step that they’re taking. And this is high-level skills like writing, but it’s also professional skills. For instance, if a student decided to take an accounting class, a professor can say, “Hey, if you go and become an accountant, this is what you have to be able to do.” We can make that truer than it is in a lot of cases in our classes and all the way through. This is a good instance where we can feel good about grading and assessing because we know that the work is being done toward something meaningful. 

How do you envision your book contributing to the ongoing conversation about education policies related to student support and assessing student progress?  

Our goal is to spark a conversation that allows for sharp thinking about how we can improve our schools and better serve our students. 

In my personal experience, understanding the origins and evolution of something helps me grasp when its original purpose has become misaligned with our current practices over time. Examining this history allows us to thoughtfully assess what is still working, what needs updating, and what new approaches might serve us better today. 

I think providing history in some context can be liberating. It can help people understand why we do things the way we do and then open space for having conversations. The other thing we want is to cultivate a language around some of the purposes and functions. We spent a fair bit of time in the book trying to explain to people why, in our view, a lot of efforts to reform grades, testing, and transcripts have not worked in the past. One of the reasons is that people have not had a clear way to describe the many functions that grades and tests serve in our school system and our society. Another reason is that people have looked at only one of these functions, tried to fix it in isolation, and hope everything else would just work itself out. Our argument in the book is that because grades, testing, and transcripts are deeply intertwined with each other and with a range of school, social, and professional outcomes, we have to consider them together. We will only succeed in reforming them if we grapple with the complexity, not ignore it. 

We want to invite people to think about how we can accomplish meaningful goals. For example, “How can we create assignments that have real-world value and meaning for students?” and “How can we lower the stress levels by allowing students multiple attempts at assignments, since we know they start at different levels?” 

As someone with family members who are educators, I envision teachers gathering over the summer as they prepare for the new school year. They could have conversations framed with inviting language that positions them as experts on their schools, students, and classrooms. With the proper tools and terminology, they can explore how to handle challenging moments productively. 

What do you hope readers take away from the book, and what impact do you hope it has on education broadly?  

I hope that the book provides people with a language for talking about this challenge in a way that doesn’t simplify it and doesn’t force a solution. If we aim to balance the system, it’s important to make things better for our students and teachers. It’s going to be a collective and collaborative effort, and people at every level need to think through all aspects of assessments and student success measures.  

The best thing that I’m hoping will come from the book is that we will have provided a language to have deep and meaningful conversations around this by identifying the purposes that these assessment technologies serve.  

Are there particular areas you believe still require more attention and exploration?  

One area where we need to focus on giving more care to is having more conversations. This book should serve as an impetus for thinking about how changes in one aspect of education, such as testing or student success, can have acute effects in other areas. 

The pandemic highlighted for many people the need to balance our education system, as students face pressure not just in their choice of school, but in the way they feel about their education. It is important to ensure that students have the space to grow and develop, without being overwhelmed by anxiety and scores. 

We see this as an ongoing process of balancing, requiring multiple attempts to engage, and motivating students while communicating new innovations to schools and admissions offices. I am committed to doing the work and thinking through it with others. 

To learn more about “Off the Mark: How Grades, Ratings, and Rankings Undermine Learning (but Don’t Have To),” click here 

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