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Playing the grade game

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Sorting and Ranking

Remember back when you were scrapping for grades, worried about what that tough class might do to your GPA? Anxious that those months of study would be boiled down to a single letter? A letter that, it felt, would shape your life.

You’ve got Edward Thorndike to thank.

Thorndike, an American psychologist in the early 20th century, is often described as the father of educational psychology. And he’s at the center of the latest episode in our podcast series, Bootstraps — which probes how grades came to be and whether they’re here to stay.

To students today, grades may seem eternal and everlasting. But they’re, of course, a modern invention. Older educational models were built around professors as tutors or interlocutors, not graders. The closest thing to a grade might have been a personal letter of recommendation.

For this episode, Jeff Young, the managing editor at EdSurge and host of the podcast, turned to Todd Rose, the author of The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness.

As Rose sees it, Thorndike and other early education psychologists managed to perform a kind of intellectual slight of hand.

“If you think that each person is distinct, and that distinctiveness matters, you’re kind of stuck, right? You can’t do their ranking and sorting the way that they wanted to. “

So while Thorndike shaped countless parts of our education system, Rose sees his most pervasive influence as a book he wrote called Individuality.

“And in it, he converted individuality into individual difference. He basically says, Yes, all of your distinctiveness can be understood based on how you compare to other people. So he convinces a generation of people that comparison to the average is the same as human distinctiveness.”

When the stakes are really high, Rose points out, we don’t rely on grades — on simply comparing or ranking people within a group.

“We don’t trust medical schools to credential, right, we give mastery-based assessments, where, if everybody who takes the test passes, they get to be a surgeon. If nobody passes, they don’t get to cut me open, right? There is not like every year, there’s 10 percent who get to be surgeons, that would be the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Ultimately, Rose argues, we need to build systems that create a good fit for every student, that see the goal as developing children, not sorting them.

Listen to the whole episode for more on how technology could help create alternatives to grades. Plus, hear Jeff wrestle with his own unhealthy relationship to grades.

+ The End of Average, Todd Rose’s book.

++ Earlier episodes in the series.

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Elsewhere on Open Campus

Alcorn State U. Photo: Rogelio V. Solis, AP

In Mississippi: ‘What’s happening in this house is hurting me’: Why students at Alcorn State called for their president to resign. Protests are rarely seen at Alcorn, the nation’s oldest historically Black land grant university, where students face pressure to resolve issues with administration internally.

Also in Mississippi: Black, low-income students in Mississippi would lose thousands in college aid under proposed program. Under the recommended changes to state financial aid, non-white students at four-year universities would lose $1.1 million while white students would gain nearly $1.6 million.

In The Job: Amid corporate urgency, a new level of commitment to training. Hiring woes in big tech, health care, and retail are key drivers of alternative education and training pathways that have the potential to go big.

In Work Shift: What does it mean to skill 30 million people? IBM looks to find out. With a big workforce announcement this week, IBM raises questions about whether it can deliver on the promise to help millions of people globally prepare for tech jobs.

In El Paso: U. of Texas at El Paso approves formal acknowledgment that its campus sits on Indigenous land. Professors, students, and community members that include the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo have been working for the past two years to get the university’s acknowledgement.

In Northeast Ohio: Ohio awards $1.7 million to boost FAFSA completions. The percentage of students completing the federal aid application has fallen during the pandemic. About 62% of Ohio’s high school class of 2021 completed a FAFSA as of last month. That’s nearly a 5% drop from the previous academic year.

In latitude(s): What’s ahead for English-language programs. Even before Covid-19 struck, enrollments had been in decline. Now, some are voicing cautious optimism.

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