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Why do we need tests and grades?

by Vijay Garg
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Marks and rankings are the currency of education and advancement. But they are flawed and unfair assessments. Off the Mark: How Grades, Ratings, and Rankings Undermine Learning (but Don’t Have To) by Jack Schneider and Ethan L Hutt, is set in the US, but analyses this global dilemma.
Why do we need tests and grades? To motivate learners, to succinctly record their abilities, communicate these to other institutions, and signal to employers. But they don’t work that way: grades goad students, but not their learning. Students don’t waste time on anything that won’t be tested. Grading skews incentives, as students cheat or game the system. Marks also sharpen inequalities. The strongest predictor of marks is a student’s family and neighbourhood; affluent parents exert more pressure and provide more support.
Then comes the standardised test, first devised in 19th century America for a uniform diagnosis of varied student populations. Unfortunately, they have been used as snapshots of ability that become lasting portraits of inequality. The test-takers did not ask whether the content of the test measured biological intelligence or social opportunities. The standardised test became educational destiny.
But what blanket critiques of standardised tests miss is that they are not all the same. ‘Norm-reference’ tests, meant to place a student in a particular distribution, can identify those who are very advanced and those who need special assistance. Meanwhile, ‘criterion-reference’ tests are used to check if a student has reached a particular standard.
This targeted assistance for identified weaknesses can make all the difference to students and can be a tool of educational equity. If someone is near sighted, then they are not told they have a permanent deficiency, they are prescribed glasses. It’s when a result is treated as the end of the story, rather than the impetus for intervention, that there’s a problem.
School is supposed to be the great equaliser of social opportunity, but it doesn’t work that way. Standardised tests do take away the high-stakes pressure of school grades, but both are correlated with socioeconomic status. But then again, so are student essays, for which they often rely on their net- works. Recommendation letters can be hard to parse, a mess of adjectives and writing styles. There is no easy fix for fairness, the only way is to use nuanced judgments, knowing that these useful tools can also be weapons. The predicament of marking and testing is a wicked problem, the whole world struggles with similar frustrations. Countries experiment with different elements and weights. Zambia assesses students with 75% on national exams and 25% on school grades. New Zealand measures progress in secondary school through a pass-fail system, not grades, reducing both competition and gaming. At higher levels, it adds distinctions for merit and excellence, to let students compete. Singapore has recently flattened its ranking systems, after deciding it was unhealthy. Another way is to peg tests to practice: for instance, instead of multiple-choice questions for history, it makes sense to do what historians do, piece fragments from the archive to offer an interpretation of the past.
The book shows that we need to go beyond the usual either/or framing about marks and exams. We need to look at the specific uses of each tool, and within the context of broader goals. We need to recalibrate rather than reinvent


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