What does "Particiant 13" show us?

By: Chanel Oliver (KEPI Research Assistant), Anya Goldin (KEPI Senior Research Assistant)

In another column, “What Grades Aren’t Telling Us”, we discuss why letter grades may not be hitting the mark in demonstrating student achievement. While much of this information was drawn from a review of literature, our own analysis of 17 anonymized portfolios confirmed and illustrated many of these findings. This column exists as part of a series in which we outline some of the interesting observations we made when looking at these portfolios. In this column, we discuss how one of the portfolios illustrated to us how letter grades can obscure the complexity of student achievement.

The Example:

Participant 13’s portfolio included two pieces under the umbrella of secondary-level English: a poem and a narrative essay, both created for the same course. The narrative essay, while having vivid imagery and descriptive content, contains a number grammatical errors (as much early career writing does). The poem, however, is well written, filled with intense imagery and strong, powerfully expressed emotions. It is a display of strong student achievement.

What Does Participant 13 Tell Us?

Each subject, of course, is comprised of sub-topics or disciplines in which students may perform to dramatically differing levels of achievement. This is something that grades are unable to identify because they aggregate all performances in a class, such as English, into a single performance metric. Since both of the student’s assignments were done in English, the classroom grade given to the student would presumably reflect both the relative weakness of the former and the strength of the latter. The impact of this poem, as well as the competencies shown within it are likely to be subsumed within the final grade. Further, since standardized assessments don’t typically weigh poetry composition equally to essay writing, it is highly unlikely that a provincial-level assessment instrument would capture this ability at all.

The result is that, at the time of admission decisions being made, it is unlikely that we would know that this incoming student is a budding poet. While the student’s abilities might be lacking in terms of the mechanical aspects of their writing, these are things that can be taught and improved upon at the post-secondary level. Passion and creativity are much more difficult to teach, and the student clearly demonstrated both in their writing. It is easy to imagine similar contexts within other subject areas. One could, for example, imagine a student who is able to write intricate analytical essays about WWII using rigorous sources, but who nonetheless has trouble on multiple choice questions in exams in that same Social Studies course.

Student achievement takes place across many different dimensions. When we take something as complex as student achievement and reduce it to a single data point, we are telling students something about the value of their achievement. The value of their achievement should be reflected in how we evaluate, and how we admit.

Allison Gonzalez