Thoughts on Testing and Grades and How/If They Relate to Learning: A Thought Experiment

Just a random musing on the topic of grading. Recently, I was in a discussion about online tests, and that of course is couched in the context of testing, and I was thinking about the purpose of testing. What does testing do? Does it actually help facilitate learning? Or is it just to appease accreditors (yes, I know that taken together, those two questions create a false dichotomy).

However, and this is just a thought experiment on my own part. So it won’t be anywhere near perfect. I am naturally against any and all testing. SATs/standardized testing is even worse. Because (especially standardized) tests seem to use an “objective” scale to determine people’s worth, intentionally or not. Tests (especially standardized ones), when put onto a number or letter range that applies to the whole class can easily be understood as an objective scale that can measure and then determine the value or being of a person in relation to his or her peers.

Now, granted, everyone judges one another, and everyone is constantly evaluating and determining who does well in what ways in what areas. I am in no way suggesting that people are all gifted in the same ways. We all have differing strengths and weaknesses. And it can be very helpful to gauge how well we are doing X or Y by an outside evaluator (many times, the teacher or professor). However, because there may not be self-conscious reflection on the nature or purpose of tests, people (both students and teachers, but especially students) can easily start assigning too much self-worth and identity to a supposedly objective letter-grade, precisely because it claims to be “objective.”

But how does one measure “objective” learning? Is it even possible? So this is where my mindset was initially.

So here goes my thought experiment: I am a teacher teaching my first class ever. I am still brainstorming how the ideal class should go, and I am open to suggestions from my first students ever. As this is a thought experiment and not real, I may have given myself more liberty to speak my mind than I otherwise would in a real-life situation, as words ought always be spoken in charity (including tough love, of course), in ways that build up and not tear down (unless such tearing down will serve to build a person up later). I still tried to filter it somewhat, as this is a “public” if not-well-known blog posting.

Me: Okay class. I don’t believe in grades. I don’t believe in tests. Therefore, there will be no grades or tests.

Student: But teacher, how will we be graded?

Me: We won’t. Grades are meaningless. An artifact from a Prussian system that only wanted to train mindless people to unquestioningly follow orders. [yes, I used a split infinitive. Sorry, grammar Nazis.]

Student: But what about our accreditation?

Me: The very institution of accreditation is problematic. Of course it is possible for accreditation to be done in a helpful and responsible manner. However, many times, too many unhelpful and unexamined assumptions about “education” and the purpose of such slip in. Therefore, one ought to be wary of such things as accreditation.

Student: So we won’t have grades?

Me: That is right. Well, actually, if administration must demand grades for the system to keep on keeping on, we can work something out, like self-grading or something. But this is purely a concession. I’m against it in principle.

Student: So you don’t like to evaluate and judge people?

Me: Well, I don’t like how one’s subjective evaluation can easily become absolutized into an objective statement on the worth of a person.

Student: Ah. I see. It is true that students, particularly the ambitious ones, can really take these grades and idolize them and base their own identities on such grades, and so to receive anything other than an A is to be considered imperfect or unworthy. However, isn’t having no grades throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Me: How so?

Student: Well, I found it helpful to rethink the purposes of testing and grading. But surely tests help us learn. I mean, when I am forced to study for a test, it helps me crystallize my ideas. Wouldn’t not having tests rob me of this educational experience?

Me: Well, I do understand how many people, when forced to study, may learn about the subject matter more. However, how much is retained is uncertain, and I’m not sure such a traumatic experience might be the best or only way. Could this not be done through discussions in class and through writing? I’m thinking of Francis Bacon’s famous quotation: “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.”

Student: Good point. However, what if students would like to know how they are doing? Now I understand that students should be able to ask others for advice and they should learn how to evaluate their own progress, but sometimes they would like to have an “expert” in the field, or at least someone they respect to evaluate them. Isn’t such feedback helpful (especially of course if the student realizes that this is not an objective statement of their own self-worth, but only a specific evaluation on a specific aspect of their lives or a specific skill, and that this evaluation is by no means “Objective” with a capital O, but rather a well-informed, subjective evaluation).

Me: Well, given all your well-thought-out, nuanced qualifiers, I am definitely open to starting up a subjective system by which I can offer feedback on what can be improved or not. But note how this is about the student and teacher, and not students vs. students. I guess my inner fear is that students might want to compare with others and try to determine their own worth relative to their peers. By verbalizing this, of course, I realize that I have no right to prevent people from comparing themselves with others. Yes, it can be unhealthy for students to try to rank themselves, as God has given different and unique gift-sets to everyone, and even if there is some kind of “objective” “pecking-order,” one teacher’s evaluation may not be an accurate indicator of it. But no, I do not have the right to restrict people from comparing themselves with one another. . .

Student: I see. You are right. If we have some kind of grade scale, letter or number-wise, there may be an added temptation for students to try to compare with one another and to treat evaluations as an objective way to assess one another.

Me: Yes, but I cannot force people not to assess. After all, we always are assessing people, and sometimes we want to know who to turn for the “best” advice in one particular area of our lives, because we know that person to be skilled in that particular area. Assessment and discernment are very good things to have when they do not boil down into downright competition. I guess that there may very well be no harm done as long as students recognize that the purpose of learning is to, you’ve guessed it, learn, and not to enter a rat race and compete with fellow learners to get the good grade. For that would be to sell one’s own worth far too short, and it would be to try to absolutize some limited person’s assessment or preferences (in this case: mine, the teacher’s) as an objective statement on how “smart” someone is or how much someone learned. For how smart someone is or how much someone has learned is essentially impossible to gauge objectively and/or quantify into a data-table. We cannot measure everything, and so we need to be careful (and therefore humble enough) not to limit reality into that which we can measure (this is something science-minded need to be especially careful of). And what we can measure, we still need to measure in a spirit of humility and wisdom, knowing that our views are necessarily biased (and biased is not necessarily a bad word) and conditioned and contextually-bound, not to mention that there are many times where we are flat-out wrong.

—end thought experiment—

Well, it was very helpful for me to verbalize my own ideas into words. I was actually conversing with myself when I typed it (hence a thought experiment). I did not how it would have ended when I began typing.

Indeed, even when we think we know what we know, we can still sometimes surprise ourselves when we translate what we think is in our mind onto paper. Writing maketh an exact man. My hope is that this thought experiment was not be a waste of your time and that it may have actually been helpful to you in some way. It was fun and illuminating for me to write. If you have any thoughts about this, I would be honored to hear/read about it in the comments below. After all, by typing your comments for me to read and by conferring with me, you can help me, by God’s grace, grow into a fuller and readier man.


This post has been heavily influenced, for the better, by Fred Putnam and by the Postman-Weingartner book Teaching as a Subversive Activity (my Goodreads review can be found here) (interestingly, I was made aware of this book by my beloved teacher, Fred Putnam himself). Any flaws, errors, or weaknesses in this posting are entirely my own.


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