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Podcast Transcript: Gaming the System

Mullen: Welcome to the EXPLORING THE CORE PODCAST, where we delve into the elements that make up our education system and learn more about how that system can improve for the benefit of all students in schools today.

I'm Greg Mullen, and in this episode, I consider a recurring thought I’ve had about the "value" of a grade and its role as an academic currency in our education system. I'll also be speaking with Matt Townsley out of Cedar Falls, Iowa, a leader in Standards-Based Grading, about his thoughts on our education system and the challenges educators face as grading practices evolve.

Thank you for listening, I hope you enjoy the show.

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Mullen: I’ve taught in classrooms for the past decade from third-grade through eighth grade. Almost every day I would reflect on the successes and the struggles from various angles and perspectives. One of those angles I’d like to highlight today is the impact of points and percentages in providing students academic feedback.

I want to look at the demands, the expectations being set, that earn students these coveted grades, these marks of academic proficiency - these notes of academic currency. That’s what I’m arguing grades have become - a currency, the value of which exists only in its capacity for transaction. They’ve become the bills and coins for buying passage to the next grade level, participation in sports, extracurricular activities, even college admission. The more high-value a grade is believed to have, the more those grades are freely saved and spent how students and families wish.

This analogy of grades to currency isn’t too far off. What’s the value of a dollar bill in U.S. dollars? Can you define what the value is besides saying, “one dollar”? It’s tricky, because the value of a dollar bill is determined by its demand which is not always entirely objective. When you go to the dollar store, and you give the clerk a dollar, the item you receive in return is of equal value to that dollar only because that store believes that the item sold is worth that one dollar. That item’s likely being sold at a store down the street for three dollars only because that store believes that people will trade them three dollars for that item. So how does this example of monetary value and currency analogize with academic value of grades?

In a traditional academic system, when a student receives an “A” or a “3” or a 95%, the item that student traded for that grade is believed to be of equal value only because that teacher and their school has agreed that the demand for that student work is equal to the demand of that grade, number, or percentage.

How often does a student ask their teacher, “why didn’t I get an A?” or “how can I get a 100%?” It’s because the grade, the number - that point score, is the evidence they’ll use for various transactions with their parents, their peers, and their teachers. Imagine a student holding a high-quality assignment in their hand with an “A” written at the top - what about that assignment is the student most proud?

When students come to me and ask what they can do to get a hundred percent, or to ask why they didn’t get a higher grade, I’ll typically respond with something like, “Well, explain why dividing a fraction by a whole number is the same as multiplying that fraction by the reciprocal of the whole number.” The student response is generally one of dismay because they were likely expecting something like a multiple-choice quiz or an extra-credit packet. The amount of work that a student must go through for such an explanation of an academic concept is like a three-dollar price tag for something that a student is likely used to getting for one-dollar down the street.

Now let’s break this down because this gets us into some really tough conversations about standards, expectations, and feedback norms. Let’s compare two examples - both being actual academic expectations in schools today.

If an academic expectation is to recall a basic fact, if the standard for that skill literally says a student is to understand, or determine, or some other verb expecting recall of information, than a student that recalls that information will receive an “A” or a “3” for meeting that expectation. Simple.

Now if the student is expected to analyze a text and summarize the main idea with more than one relevant detail, then submitting that piece of evidence in full should receive an “A” or a “3” because both the teacher and the student agree that meeting that expectation,