Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

'Why Any Grades at All, Father?' (Evaluating Student Performance)

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

'Why Any Grades at All, Father?' (Evaluating Student Performance)

Article excerpt

The perennial conflict between those who want to spare students the stigma of failure and those who want to maintain standards might be resolved by adopting a method of evaluation devised by Carleton Washburne in the 1920s, Ms. Juarez proposes.

IN THE movie classic The Bells of St. Mary's, Bing Crosby portrays jaunty Father O'Malley, a priest sent by his bishop to determine if the dilapidated St. Mary's parochial school should be closed to make way for a parking lot.(1) Unaware of Father O'Malley's true mission, Sister Superior Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) continues to run St. Mary's with a steady hand while dreaming of moving the school to a modern building being constructed across the street by a wealthy businessman.

Because Father O' Malley comes to admire how dedicated Sister Mary Benedict and her faculty are to the welfare of students, he joins the effort to persuade the wealthy businessman to donate his new building to St. Mary's. In the meantime, the easygoing priest and the no-nonsense nun discover that they seem to subscribe to opposing educational philosophies. Their differences come to a head when Father O'Malley tries to persuade Sister Mary Benedict to raise a child's failing score on an exam to a passing one. Patsy, the child in question, is a troubled girl whom Father O'Malley has been trying to help. If her test score is not raised, she will fail the semester and be unable to graduate with her class.

A firm believer in maintaining "standards," Sister Mary Benedict rejects Father O'Malley's reasons for raising Patsy's test score (which include his suggestion that Patsy should get extra points for spelling her name correctly). Exasperated, the nun asks, "Do you believe in just passing everybody, Father?"

"Maybe I do," Father O'Malley answers and then poses a question of his own: "Aren't we here to give children a helping hand--or are we here to measure their brains with a yardstick?"

When the priest inquires why 75 is the passing score at St. Mary's, Sister Mary Benedict responds, "You would put the standard at 65, Father?"

"Why not?"

"Then why not at 55? Why any grades at all, Father? Why don't we close the school and let them run wild?"

After a thoughtful moment, Father O'Malley replies, "Maybe. Be better than breaking their hearts."

Sister Mary Benedict informs Father O'Malley that she will pass Patsy if ordered to do so, but she will not change the cutoff score, because to do so would lower the school's standards.

THOUGH A fictional scene from a movie released half a century ago, the dispute between Father O'Malley and Sister Mary Benedict over Patsy's grade could have been played out just this morning in virtually any school in the nation. Few issues in education have remained as constant over the years as the question of whether "grading" helps learners or hurts them. The debates over grading that emanate from the musty pages of education journals published in the 19th century have a distinctly contemporary tone m and, for better or worse, the grading practices commonly employed today are little different from those found in the 19th-century schoolhouse.(2)

Is there an approach to student evaluation that would satisfy both the Father O'Malleys and the Sister Mary Benedicts among us--an approach that would be an improvement over the usual way of evaluating and recording student achievement? One alternative to grading, first proposed and put into limited practice early in the 20th century, is a possibility. Before taking a fresh look at this alternative, however, it is instructive to consider why the grading of students has been so impervious to change and what conditions must be met to accommodate both the opponents and the proponents of grading.

Grades as Incentives

The first mention of a grading or marking system in American education shows up in the records of Yale University, where students in the late 18th century were ranked in relation to one another by the use of such words as Optimi, Inferiores, and Pejores. …

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