1 I Would Prefer Not To

Grades and assessment are elephants in almost every room where discussions of education are underway. While I’d prefer that grades would crawl back into the hole from which they came, my goal here is not to demonize assessment altogether but to dissect it — to cut right to its jugular: Where does assessment fail? What damage can it do and how can we mitigate that damage? What can’t be assessed? Can we construct more poetic, less objective, models for assessment? In a system structured around standards and gatekeeping, when and how do we stop assessing?

Education needs more conscientious objectors. Taking a cue from one of my mentors, Martin Bickman, I’ve chosen never to grade, or at least almost never. While I still submit grades at the end of a term, I’ve forgone grades on individual assignments for over 20 years, relying on qualitative feedback, peer review, and self-assessment. In “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment,” Peter Elbow writes, “assessment tends so much to drive and control teaching. Much of what we do in the classroom is determined by the assessment structures we work under.” My goal in eschewing grades has been to more honestly engage student work rather than simply evaluate it. Over many years, this has meant carefully navigating, and occasionally breaking, the sometimes draconian rules of more than a half-dozen institutions. And I’ve brought students into meta-level discussions about these choices and have encouraged the same sort of agency among them. I tell students they should consider our course a “busy-work-free zone.” So, if an assignment doesn’t feel productive, we find ways to modify, remix, or repurpose its instructions. And when our assessments fail us (as they often do), we don’t change our learning, we find new tools for assessment.

Prior to the late 1700s, performance and feedback systems in U.S. education were idiosyncratic. The one-room schoolhouse called for an incredibly subjective, peer-driven, nontransactional approach to assessment. Throughout the nineteenth century, feedback systems became increasingly comparative, numerical, and standardized. Letter grades are a relatively recent phenomenon. They weren’t widely used until the 1940s. In “Teaching More by Grading Less,” Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner cite the first “official record” of a grading system from Yale in 1785. The A–F system appears to have emerged in 1898 (with the E not disappearing until the 1930s), and the 100-point or percentage scale became common in the early 1900s. Even by 1971 only 67 percent of primary and secondary schools in the United States were using letter grades. The desire for uniformity across institutions was the primary motivator for the spread of these systems. (Schinske and Tanner)

A supposedly objective approach to grading was created so systematized schooling could scale — so students could be neatly ranked and sorted into classrooms with desks in rows in increasingly large warehouse-like buildings. And we’ve designed technological tools in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, like MOOCs and machine grading, that have allowed us to scale even further, away from human relationships and care. In fact, the grade has been hard-coded into all our institutional and technological systems, an impenetrable phalanx of clarity, certainty, and defensibility.

In “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Herman Melville writes, “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.” This is where our discussions must increasingly point, and not just with regard to assessment: how do we respond (both actively and passively) in the face of institutional demands we find unethical or pedagogically harmful? My reference to Bartleby here is more than a coy nod. With its incessant refrain, “I would prefer not to,” the story critiques the changes in labor at the turn of the industrial age, the same changes still attempting to drive a very different educational landscape.

The answer to Bartleby today is not to throw up our hands, but rather to ask: “Okay, what would you prefer to do?” How can we work together to make a guide — a how-to manual for saying “I would prefer not to…” in a grander and more collective way? How can we turn a simple act of civil disobedience into a rallying cry? And when we put our tools down and stand back from the furnace, the letter press, or the paper mill, what will we turn to build instead?

If we object to the increasing standardization of education, how and where do we build sites of resistance? What strategies can we employ to protect ourselves and our students? What work-arounds can we employ as we build courage and community for structural change? What systems of privilege must we first dismantle? Finally, what kinds of assessment can or should we bring to our own strategies? If we write manifestos as a form of active resistance, how do we determine if they’re working? As we organize, how do we measure the impact of our assembly? When we muster our pedagogy as a form of activism, how do we decide what counts as talk and what counts as action?


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Undoing the Grade Copyright © 2023 by Jesse Stommel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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