Education: Whadjaget?

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Many liberal educators agree that grades are a bad way to measure student achievement. Says Education Professor Sidney B. Simon of the University of Massachusetts: "The grading system is the most destructive, demeaning and pointless thing in American education. It allows certain administrative conveniences—permitting assistant principals to decide who goes on probation and who can take an honors course—but it doesn't help learning."

What are the alternatives? Last week, some 800 teachers and administrators met in Cleveland for a three-day conference on the problem and weighed a series of possibilities, some of them highly elaborate:

Written evaluations. This system requires each teacher periodically to sum up a student's strengths and weaknesses. Such evaluations risk being excessively subjective, however, varying widely from one teacher to another.

Contract grading. The students decide with their teacher what material to cover in the course and what criteria are to be used in grading. This method is a bit cumbersome but gives students a clear idea of what is expected.

Performance curriculum. Here a teacher outlines at the beginning of the course precisely how much material a student must cover for an A or B, then lets the students work at their own pace.

Pass-Fail. By far the most popular alternative, this eliminates competition for grades but fails to distinguish excellent students from average or poor.

Blanket grading. This eliminates competition entirely by requiring a teacher to award every student the same grade, usually a B. Even most anti-graders, however, consider it an unsatisfactory method.

Secret grades. By not telling students what their grades are, a teacher can reduce competition but leaves his students anxious about what he thinks of them.

Since there is no one alternative, the conference decided to create a center on grading alternatives. It will serve as a clearinghouse for information on the experience of schools that have adopted various methods. It will also provide consultants for schools who want to try out new systems. Ultimately, says Simon, the goal should be to "banish from the land the cry, 'Whadjaget?' "