Data from assessment comes in different forms. Once we have analyzed and interpreted our data, we can safely call it information, treat it as evidence, and follow the tale that it tells. It might tell us that the numbers we garner from Scantron sheets makes clear that students are struggling with certain embedded questions, or an 8-Point Scale assessment clearly shows students are weak in providing detailed support for a thesis, or a survey stresses that students are confused on how to access crucial information from CUNYfirst, or a series of student focus groups suggests that evening students feel neglected because of the lack of services.
GRADES vs. ASSESSMENT (a modest confusion)
Though the actions required are often similar in form, grading of student work and assessment of SLOs inscribed in student work, are fundamentally two separate activities, and an analysis of their process and data provides different types of information about student learning.
Faculty have sometimes responded to requests to perform assessment in their classes by saying, “I give tests and go over them in class. Isn’t that assessment?” Or “We give midterms and comprehensive final exams to assess what my students have learned in my class.” Or this from a beleaguered English Composition instructor: “I spend hours grading student essays, giving feedback, helping students revise. Jeez! Isn’t that enough?” (Personal experience.) All of them do indeed assess learning, but grading does so against a background without specific outcomes and a tool to measure how students performed against those outcomes. And while the student might simply ignore the English instructor’s meticulous comments and flip directly to the final page to locate the grade, the instructor is best served who has developed SLOs for students and is diligent in discovering if students have met them, as these skills will surely come up in higher-level courses within the student’s program.
The time-honored teaching/grading paradigm—imparting information to students and testing them at certain points of the semester, totaling and averaging their grades and eventually arriving at a final grade—does reveal a certain measure of student achievement. Many educators and university systems regard the final grade as a credible and accurate judgment of a student’s work and abilities. Grading is the final evaluation or judgment on a student’s work in a course or program, and the grade follows the student through his/her college career and thereafter. Though the transcript grade provides a sense of closure and serves as a way to communicate with other colleges, employers, parents, and the students themselves how well the student performed, the transcript grade does not indicate what specifically in the curriculum the student learned, or failed to learn, and where his or her difficulties lay in the learning. Nor does it indicate in which specific areas of the curriculum—which type of algebraic equation, what specific elements of thesis support, where exactly in writing computer program—the student excelled, stalled or failed to perform. Though many have come to regard the grade as a definitive statement of the student’s mastery or failure of class or program material, it is not the whole story of the learning that took place, or did not take place, in the class.
Additionally, final grades can often include points lost or gained for behaviors and attitudes to learning, which are important to student success in the class, and, as many instructors claim, might help ready the student for the working world. While many educators might agree that behaviors should influence the overall grade, points added or subtracted more often reflect classroom control, loss of points for late materials, and making life a little easier for the instructor. For example, the grade roster from an Astronomy II class informs us that of the 28 students who completed the course, 4 students earned the grade of A, 8 B, 10 C, 4 D, and 2 F as final grades. We consider these letter grades to be accurate reflections of each student’s intellectual engagement and level of mastery of the course materials; however, looking more closely, we might see the final grade also includes student behaviors: attendance, class participation, penalties for tardiness, penalties for late work, extra credit for revisions or attending the tutoring center. None of these tell us what, in fact students did not learn and how we might improve our approach for the next group of students. While helpful in evaluating overall student performance in a class or program, grades by themselves are limited, unable to point the instructor to what specific areas students are not achieving and begin devising new strategies or texts, or reordering how material is presented in the lab or classroom.