Radio New Zealand recently published a comment piece on classroom streaming or ability tracking. This is the common practice of dividing students into tracks/streams/series of courses based on their ability level. It is an idea that both does and does not make sense. In a primary school this might look like an advanced reading group, a grade-level reading group, and a remedial group trying to catch-up to grade-level. In secondary school this often becomes distinct classes and a student who ends up in the lowest tier will not have access to the upper tier courses even if they improve significantly, due to prerequisites or other criteria.

Proponents argue that it aids in some differentiation and attention where needed on the part of the teacher. Opponents point to the historical use of the practice to discriminate on race, class, and gender stereotypes, and the limited opportunities for students to change tracks as needed. There is also debate about the selection process - is it subjective? Can it be objective - if the test is administered on a day where the student is ill, for example.

I started thinking about grading. Grades should be a quick measure of the student’s competency in that subject - did they master the material and principles? But they are used contextually and then read globally. “What was your GPA?” ignores the context of that grade - the quality of the school, course, professor. Robin Hanson brings up other items as well - the time of day and year of the class, the relative quality of that cohort, the classroom and suggests a more comprehensive weighted GPC. Jonathan H. Tomkin commented with a link to his paper on calibrated GPA: STEM courses are harder….

Neither explicitly asks “what are grades for?”

  • sports teams want easy games but individual players excel to maximize free agency
  • grading: leveling, meat
  • intraclass comparison, interclass comparison, interschool comparison, binning/division