Muddled Messages

Submitted By:
Rob Gamble, St. Andrew's Episcopal School, Potomac, MD

Off the Mark: How Grades, Ratings, and Rankings Undermine Learning (but Don't Have To) by Jack Schneider and Ethan L. Hutt
Harvard University Press, August 8, 2023

Grading and assessment are education’s black box. They are vital to how schools run, yet myriad attempts to improve their overall functionality have foundered. In Off the Mark, Jack Schneider and Ethan Hutt identify some causes of wayward reforms and chart a different path forward. Their study enters a long-running and frequently divisive debate, spilling out into the policymaking arena and beyond, about how schools and states assess student learning. Educators and school leaders will not be surprised by many findings: grades incentivize the wrong things and often reinforce inequities, while experiments with alternative approaches generate fierce resistance from parents and students. We have a love/hate relationship with grades and assessment; they play critical and specific functions in our educational system by motivating, communicating, and synchronizing. Any new model must continue to fulfill these roles, they argue, or it will not take hold. Theirs is a global story. Countries from Cameroon to Norway struggle with a similar tension: grades are necessary, but they carry muddled messages. With a systems-thinking approach, Schneider and Hutt deftly isolate micro- and macro-level forces influencing grading practices. Throughout, they straddle pragmatism and idealism, calling on readers to resist unreasonable revolutionary changes (and their unintended consequences) while examining what lessons we might glean from one of the most dynamic learning environments: the kindergarten classroom.

Teaching Practice