A couple of recent articles in Inside Higher Ed caught our eye – one on grades and grade inflation, and the other on the creation of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

It seems obvious to us that grading and assessment are largely the same thing. Barring sampling programs, or initiatives designed to assess program outcomes (aggregating student results rather than considering the success of individuals), grading IS assessment.

It’s just that the typical grade (A-, B+ etc.) is an extraordinarily blunt instrument.

Imagine reading a car review (okay, bad example – who is reading car reviews anymore?) or a film review that is simply a letter grade. Many reviews feature letter grades, but they come after a thousand words of measured criticism. And it is subjective criticism, but we largely accept the skill of a Roger Ebert and take their points seriously. They are assessing the film, and they do it through a narrative response built upon well-established criteria.

Education is even messier than film reviewing, because the letter grades awarded are all over the place. To draw the analogy out a little farther, imagine trying to pick a movie to see from the following:

  • 20 films, all rated B+ or higher (with no narrative or other information)
  • 20 films, each rated four times by separate reviewers, where the individual grades are all over the map but the averages are still B+ or higher

You wouldn’t know which film to see…and likewise our system of letter grades is useless for assessing knowledge.

Think back to your own college days. What did grades really say about the person? How well they had learned to play the game? How hard they worked? How much talent and mental horsepower they had? Probably all of these. And for this reason grades are a somewhat useful gauge for companies looking to hire college graduates. But they are no measure of learning, even with the amount of effort that goes into creating them.

One of my earliest engineering jobs was an internship at Unisys. I went to lunch with a group of managers who were discussing the internship program. An HR manager brought up the idea of raising the minimum GPA required to a 3.5/4.0 scale. The managers all looked at each other, and to their great credit laughed, and then (to a person) said that if those standards were applied they wouldn’t have earned their initial job at Unisys.

This may be a commentary on Unisys (which didn’t invent the iPod, eBay, Facebook, Google, or the Blackberry), but I don’t think so. It’s the understanding in industry that there is more to learning than a GPA.