What are your beliefs about aptitude? Can someone who isn’t naturally skilled at math learn and improve and reach the same level of expertise or even surpass someone who has a natural aptitude through time and commitment?
What about time management, if someone submits an assignment a day late because they had to pick up an extra shift at work so that they could pay rent that month does that mean they are less smart or capable than the student who submitted their assignment on time?
With so much discussion about grade inflation surrounding the pandemic and a desire to “return to normal”, as though that was a gold standard for quality education, I can’t help but think about all the inequity that this return will put back into the system. And my observations are not new. Someone passed an article to me that was written by someone who educators are probably familiar with. Benjamin Bloom who created, with some others, the taxonomy used in education for determining levels of learning wrote an article titled “Learning for Mastery” decades ago, and all of the arguments are still valid. Take this quote from the opening:
“Each teacher begins a new term (or course) with the expectation that about a third of his students will adequately learn what he has to teach. He expects about a third of his students to fail or to just “get by.” Finally, he expects another third to learn a good deal of what he has to teach, but not enough to be regarded as “good students.“
This is what this perspective of grade inflation is based on, too many students received A’s during the pandemic. This is a bad thing based on the perspective that only a small portion of students are supposed to be successful. Therefore, we need to get rid of the policies that were allowing these students to succeed at a high level such as flexible assessments, removing participation grades, and not deducting marks for late assignments.
I see two major equity issues with this return to normal. First, in his paper, Bloom describes the difference between thinking of aptitude as a characteristic that pre-determines the possible level of achievement for an individual or “Carroll’s (1963) view that aptitude is the amount of time required by the learner to attain mastery of a learning task.” In other words, we can either think about ability as a fixed characteristic that determines the highest level someone can achieve, or we can think about it in terms of some learners may take a little more time than others to learn something. If aptitude is a fixed characteristic then fine, put those hard deadlines back into courses. They won’t make a difference to the students with high aptitudes and we can go back to putting those who take a little longer to learn something or who learn something a little differently than what is “normal” back into their rightful place on the curve. But, if Carroll is correct and aptitude relates to time, then we aren’t restoring rigour, we are returning to punishing students who need a little more time or benefit from having more choice in how they learn something.
The second issue is that we introduced the flexibility when our top students were struggling with things like mental health, loss of income, family challenges, and other events that characterized the pandemic, but the flexibility benefited everyone. Now that we are (supposedly) heading back to a time when it is just those students who already experience inequity due to factors like socioeconomic status, racism, sexism, first-generation student status, and others it’s time to stop “artificially” inflating their grades.
I would argue that both of these issues come down to the same thing. We don’t believe everyone can cut it, so we need to reinstate the polices that help us prove that’s the case. This is similar to what Lewontin (1991) wrote in Biology as Ideology. We developed the IQ test to measure what we had decided was intelligence and then use the IQ test to confirm this decision. But what if the person who can cure a devastating disease hands in an assignment two days late? Well, if they don’t have better time management they shouldn’t be curing diseases anyway.
I’ve changed my grading to focus on mastery so that my students who take a little longer to grasp a concept still have the opportunity to grasp it completely and not be penalized for taking a little longer. Every one of my students completes work to an appropriate standard for the level of the course, regardless of the final grade they earn. To earn an A, students complete additional work and take on extra challenges. And I have more confidence in every A that I assign using this approach than I did using my so-called more rigourous traditional grading approach. I also have confidence in my B’s and C’s as well because they met a high standard on the work they did. They just did a little less of it so that they could work those extra shifts or spend time at the bedside of a loved one or even, dare I say, spend a little more time with their friends or family or perhaps (gasp) scrolling social media. With this, I leave you with one final quote from Bloom and the question – do you really care how long it took someone to cure a disease that you or a loved one suffers from, or do you care that the disease was cured?
“Education is a purposeful activity and we seek to have the students learn what we have to teach. If we are effective in our instruction, the distribution of achievement should be very different from the normal curve. In fact, we may even insist that our educational efforts have been unsuccessful to the extent to which our distribution of achievement approximates the normal distribution.”