Teachers grading students hinders education


Jun 26, 2015

In a recent post, I described a hypothetical model for unbundling the teaching roles of instruction and assessment in order to incorporate rigorous measures of deeper learning into online learning systems. This post expands on that ideas by highlighting additional benefits of separating instruction from assessment.

We put traditional teachers in an incredibly tough spot. On the one hand, we ask them to motivate their students to excel at learning. On the other hand, we ask them to give their students the grades that get sent home to their parents and engraved on their permanent transcripts.

By way of comparison, the arrangement of having teachers act as both instructors and assessors is akin to asking the judges in a gymnastics competition to also coach the gymnasts leading up to the event, or asking a restaurant manager to conduct official food handling inspections at his restaurant. In many domains of life, we recognize that we create problematic conflicts of interest if we ask people who produce or perform to also provide the ratings of their outputs for external audiences. Yet, in education it is the norm to ask teachers to both coach their students and rate their students’ academic achievements.

One facet of this problem stems from the fact that traditional grades are highly subjective. Teachers’ assessments and grading systems are not developed using rigorous psychometric techniques to ensure validity and reliability. Instead, we ask teachers to develop their own grading systems based on their professional judgment and interpretation of learning standards and school policy. Translating standards into a rigorous and fair grading system is sticky business.

If wrestling with that tension isn’t difficult enough, the matter is further complicated by the fact that teachers need to develop good relationships with their students and their students’ families, and the way teachers grade their students can affect those relationships. If their grading system is “easy,” few students and parents are likely to complain. On the other hand, if their grading system is “hard,” they can end up with a flood of phone calls and meeting requests from upset parents. This puts pressure on teachers to go easy on their students in order to keep everyone happy. But teachers who hand out “easy As” are not doing an adequate job preparing their students for future education and for life beyond school.

Subjective grading by teachers also affects negatively how students relate to their teachers. As Sal Khan wrote in his book The One World Schoolhouse: “[F]rom the perspective of many students, teachers are not viewed as someone who is on their side. They are not viewed as someone preparing them for competition with an adversary. Unfortunately, they are often seen as the adversary themselves…” Students know that there is subjectivity inherent in teachers’ grading systems, which supplies students with the ready excuse that when they perform poorly in a class, they can blame it on the teacher for being too hard or unfair, rather than taking responsibility for their own needs for improvement.

By no means am I suggesting that it is impossible for individual teachers to create grading systems that are objective, rigorous, fair, and uninfluenced by their’ relationships with their students and their students’ families. We all know that the best teachers are highly skilled at navigating these dilemmas. These teachers are highly regarded for their ability to maintain positive and motivating relationships with their students while simultaneously pushing those students to meet high expectations. But at the same time, I think it’s fair to say that there are many teachers who struggle with these tensions and err on the side of going easy on their students. But if we separate the roles of instruction and assessment, we can relieve teachers of having to wrestle with these dilemmas so that they can focus more on instructing, coaching, and motivating their students.

Asking teachers to be the assessors of their students can also hinders teachers’ professional learning and development. A student’s grade s is not only a reflection on how much that student has learned, but also on how well teachers are doing their jobs. If a teacher’s subjective grading system is giving students an inaccurate picture of their performance, that teacher is also giving herself an inaccurate notion of how well she is doing at teaching her students. Unbundling assessment and instruction would give teachers more objective and unbiased feedback on their teaching and would help them see blind spots in their practices that otherwise are hidden by the bias inherent in their self-created assessments.

In making these arguments, I want to make it clear that separating instruction and assessment should not be taken to the extreme such that teachers just dispense instruction without checking to see how their students are doing or providing their students with feedback. As teachers work with students, the learning moments in which they observe students’ wrestlings with new ideas and then provide immediate guidance and feedback are valuable.

I am also not suggesting that teachers who function as instructors and not assessors should never take time to examine their students’ work. Athletic coaches may not score or referee their athletes’ competitions, but they do go back and watch video footage from those competitions in order to study their athletes’ weaknesses and then optimize their future training. Similarly, teachers who act as instructors will still need to spend time examining their students’ work and the grades that assessors assign in order to understand their students’ needs and adjust their instruction accordingly. Fortunately, in a model where instructors are not graders, instructors can avoid the monotony of grading every aspect of every assignment to instead spend their time focusing on subsamples of student work that reveal students’ most important learning needs.

We have a lot to gain if we can redesign our educational models with more separation between the roles of instruction and assessment. My hope is that this post and the one preceding it can inspire entrepreneurial educators with a new vision for how to best use their most valuable assets: teachers.

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.