If you’re watching the Australian media on higher education, you’ll have seen a lot of discussion regarding the validity of the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) as a measure of a student’s future performance and as an accurate summary of the previous years of education.
This article, talking about students being admitted below the cut-offs, contains a lot of discussion on the issue. Not all of the discussion is equally valuable, in my opinion, as the when the question is the validity of the measure, being concerned about ‘standards slipping’ when a lower number is used isn’t that relevant. The interesting parts of the discussion are which mechanisms we should be using and making them transparent so that all students are on a level playing field.
The fact is that students are being admitted to, and passing, courses that have barriers in place which should clearly indicate their chances of success. Yet students are being admitted based on other pathways, using additional measures such as portfolios, and this makes a bit of a mockery on the apparent simplicity of the ATAR system.
My own analysis of student ATAR versus GPA is revelatory: the mapping is a very noisy correlation and, apart from the very highest ATARs, we see people who succeed or fail in a way that does not match their representative ATAR. Yes, there are rough ‘buckets’ but at a granularity of fewer than five buckets, rather than the thousand or so we’re pretending to have.
“Reducing six years of education to a single ranking is simplistic, let’s have a constructive debate about what could replace the ATAR alone as a fairer, more comprehensive and contextual measure of academic potential”.
Iain Martin, from this linked opinion piece.
I couldn’t agree more!
But [GPA calculation adjustment] have to be a method of avoidance, this can be a useful focusing device. If a student did really well in, say, Software Engineering but struggled with an earlier, unrelated, stream, why can’t we construct a GPA for Software Engineering that clearly states the area of relevance and degree of information? Isn’t that actually what employers and people interested in SE want to know?
This hits at the heart of my concerns over any kind of summary calculation that obscures the process. Who does this benefit? What use it is to anyone? What does it mean? Let’s look at one of the most obvious consumers of student GPAs: the employers and industry.
Feedback from the Australian industry tells us that employers are generally happy with the technical skills that we’re providing but it’s the softer skills (interpersonal skills, leadership, management abilities) that they would like to see more of and know more about. A general GPA doesn’t tell you this but a Software Engineering focused GPA (as I mentioned above) would show you how a student performed in courses where we would expect to see these skills introduced and exercised.
Putting everything into one transcript gives people the power to assemble this themselves, yes, but this requires the assembler to know what everything means. Most employers have neither the time nor inclination to do this for all 39 or so institutions in Australia. But if a University were to say “this is a summary of performance in these graduate attributes”, where the GAs are regularly focused on the softer skills, then we start to make something more meaningful out of an arbitrary number.
But let’s go further. If we can see individual assessments, rather than coarse subject grades, we can start to construct a model of an individual across the different challenges that they have faced and overcome. Portfolios are, of course, a great way to do this but they’re more work to read than single measures and, too often, such a portfolio is weighed against simpler, apparently meaningful measures such as high GPAs and found wanting. Portfolios also struggle if placed into a context of previous failure, even if recent activity clearly demonstrates that a student has moved on from that troubled or difficult time.
I have a deep ethical and philosophical objection to curve grading, as you probably know. The reason is simple: the actions of one student should not negatively affect the outcomes of another. This same objection is my biggest problem with GPA, although in this case the action and outcomes belong to the same student at different points in her or his life. Rather than using performance in one course to determine access to the learning upon which it depends, we make these grades a permanent effect and every grade that comes afterwards is implicitly mediated through this action.
Should Past Academic Nick have an inescapable impact on Now and Future Academic Nick’s life? When we look at all of the external influences on success, which make it clear how much totally non-academic things matter, it gets harder and harder to say “Yes, Past Academic Nick is inescapable.” Unfairness is rarely aesthetically pleasing.
An excellent comment on the previous post raised the issue of comparing GPAs in an environment where the higher GPA included some fails but the slightly lower GPA student had always passed. Which was the ‘best’ student from an award perspective? Student A fails three courses at the start of his degree, student B fails three courses at the end. Both pass with the same GPA, time to completion, and number of passes and fails. Is there even a sense of ‘better student’ here? B’s struggles are more immediate and, implicitly, concerns would be raised that these problems could still be active. A has, apparently, moved on in some way. But we’d never know this from simplistic calculations.
If we’re struggling to define ‘best’ and we’re not actually providing something that many people feel is useful, while burdening students with an inescapable past, then the least we can do is to sit down with the people who are affected by this and ask them what they really want.
And then, when they tell us, we do something about changing our systems.
If we are going to try and summarise a complicated, long-term process with a single number, and I don’t see such shortcuts going away anytime soon, then it helps to know:
- Exactly what the number represents.
- How it can be used.
- What the processes are that go into its construction.
We have conventions as to what things mean but, when we want to be precise, we have to be careful about our definition and our usage of the final value. As a simple example, one thing that often surprises people who are new to numerical analysis is that there is more than one way of calculating the average value of a group of numbers.
While average in colloquial language would usually mean that we take the sum of all of the numbers and divide them by their count, this is more formally referred to as the arithmetic mean. What we usually want from the average is some indication of what the typical value for this group would be. If you weigh ten bags of wheat and the average weight is 10 kilograms, then that’s what many people would expect the weight to be for future bags, unless there was clear early evidence of high variation (some 500g, some 20 kilograms, for example.)
But the mean is only one way to measure central tendency in a group of numbers. We can also measure the median, the number that separates the highest half of the data from the lowest, or the mode, the value that is the most frequently occurring value in the group.
(This doesn’t even get into the situation where we decide to aggregate the values in a different way.)
If you’ve got ten bags of wheat and nine have 10 kilograms in there, but one has only 5 kilograms, which of these ways of calculating the average is the one you want? The mode is 10kg but the mean is 9.5kg. If you tried to distribute the bags based on the expectation that everyone gets 9.5, you’re going to make nine people very happy and one person unhappy.
Most Grade Point Average calculations are based on a simple arithmetic mean of all available grades, with points allocated from 0 to an upper bound based on the grade performance. As a student adds more courses, these contributions are added to the calculation.
In yesterday’s post, I mused on letting students control which grades go into a GPA calculation and, to explore that, I now have to explain what I mean and why that would change things.
As it stands, because a GPA is an average across all courses, any lower grades will permanently drop the GPA contribution of any higher grades. If a student gets a 7 (A+ or High Distinction) for 71 of her courses and then a single 4 (a Passing grade) for one, her GPA will be 6.875. It can never return to 7. The clear performance band of this student is at the highest level, given that just under 99% of her marks are at the highest level, yet the inclusion of all grades means that a single underperformance, for whatever reason, in three years has cost her standing for those people who care about this figure.
My partner and I discussed some possible approaches to GPA that would be better and, by better, we mean approaches that encourage students to improve, that clearly show what the GPA figure means, and that are much fairer to the student. There are too many external factors contributing to resilience and high performance for me to be 100% comfortable with the questionable representation provided by the GPA.
Before we even think about student control over what is presented, we can easily think of several ways to make a GPA reflect what you have achieved, rather than what you have survived.
- We could only count a percentage of the courses for each student. Even having 90% counted means that students who stumble a little once or twice do not have this permanently etched into a dragging grade.
- We could allow a future attempt at a course with an improved to replace the previous grade. Before we get too caught up in the possibility of ‘gaming’, remember that students would have to pay for this (even if delayed) in most systems and it will add years to their degree. If a student can reach achievement level X in a course then it’s up to us to make sure that does correspond to the achievement level!
- We could only count passes. Given that a student has to assemble sufficient passing grades to be awarded a degree, why then would we include the courses that do not count in a calculation of GPA?
- We could use the mode and report the most common mark the student receives.
- We could do away with it totally. (Not going to happen any time soon.)
- We could pair the GPA with a statistical accompaniment that tells the viewer how indicative it is.
Options 1 and 2 are fairly straight-forward. Option 3 is interesting because it compresses the measurement band to a range of (in my system) 4-7 and this then implicitly recognises that GPA measures for students who graduate are more likely to be in this tighter range: we don’t actually have the degree of separation that we’d assume from a range of 0-7. Option 4 is an interesting way to think about the problem: which grade is the student most likely to achieve, across everything? Option 5 is there for completeness but that’s another post.
Option 6 introduces the idea that we stop GPA being a number and we carefully and accurately contextualise it. A student who receives all high distinctions in first semester still has a number of known hurdles to get over. The GPA of 7 that would be present now is not as clear an indicator of facility with the academic system as a GPA of 7 at the end of a degree, whichever other GPA adjustment systems are in play.
More evidence makes it clearer what is happening. If we can accompany a GPA (or similar measure) with evidence, then we are starting to make the process apparent and we make the number mean something. However, this also allows us to let students control what goes into their calculation, from the grades that they have, as a clear measure of the relevance of that measure can be associated.
But this doesn’t have to be a method of avoidance, this can be a useful focusing device. If a student did really well in, say, Software Engineering but struggled with an earlier, unrelated, stream, why can’t we construct a GPA for Software Engineering that clearly states the area of relevance and degree of information? Isn’t that actually what employers and people interested in SE want to know?
Handing over an academic transcript seems to allow anyone to do this but human cognitive biases are powerful, subtle and pervasive. It is harder for most humans to recognise positive progress in the areas that they are interested in, if there is evidence of less stellar performance elsewhere. I cite my usual non-academic example: Everyone thought Anthony La Paglia’s American accent was too fake until he stopped telling people he was Australian.
If we have to use numbers like this, then let us think carefully about what they mean and, if they don’t mean that much, then let’s either get rid of them or make them meaningful. These should, at a fundamental level, be useful to the students first, us second.
Yesterday, I wrote:
We need assessment systems that work for the student first and everyone else second.
Assessments support evaluation, criticism and ranking (Wolff). That’s what it does and, in many cases, that also constitutes a lot of why we do it. But who are we doing it for?
I’ve reflected on the dual nature of evaluation, showing a student her or his level of progress and mastery while also telling us how well the learning environment is working. In my argument to reduce numerical grades to something meaningful, I’ve asked what the actual requirement is for our students, how we measure mastery and how we can build systems to provide this.
But who are the student’s grades actually for?
In terms of ranking, grades allow people who are not the student to place the students in some order. By doing this, we can award awards to students who are in the awarding an award band (repeated word use deliberate). We can restrict our job interviews to students who are summa cum laude or valedictorian or Dean’s Merit Award Winner. Certain groups of students, not all, like to define their progress through comparison so there is a degree of self-ranking but, for the most part, ranking is something that happens to students.
Criticism, in terms of providing constructive, timely feedback to assist the student, is weakly linked to any grading system. Giving someone a Fail grade isn’t a critique as it contains no clear identification of the problems. The clear identification of problems may not constitute a fail. Often these correlate but it’s weak. A student’s grades are not going to provide useful critique to the student by themselves. These grades are to allow us to work out if the student has met our assessment mechanisms to a point where they can count this course as a pre-requisite or can be awarded a degree. (Award!)
Evaluation is, as noted, useful to us and the student but a grade by itself does not contain enough record of process to be useful in evaluating how mastery goals were met and how the learning environment succeeded or failed. Competency, when applied systematically, does have a well-defined meaning. A passing grade does not although there is an implied competency and there is a loose correlation with achievement.
Grades allow us to look at all of a student’s work as if this one impression is a reflection of the student’s involvement, engagement, study, mistakes, triumphs, hopes and dreams. They are additions to a record from which we attempt to reconstruct a living, whole being.
Grades are the fossils of evaluation.
Grades provide a mechanism for us, in a proxy role as academic archaeologist, to classify students into different groups, in an attempt to project colour into grey stone, to try and understand the ecosystem that such a creature would live in, and to identify how successful this species was.
As someone who has been a student several times in my life, I’m aware that I have a fossil record that is not traditional for an academic. I was lucky to be able to place a new imprint in the record, to obscure my history as a much less successful species, and could then build upon it until I became an ACADEMIC TYRANNOSAURUS.
But I’m lucky. I’m privileged. I had a level of schooling and parental influence that provided me with an excellent vocabulary and high social mobility. I live in a safe city. I have a supportive partner. And, more importantly, at a crucial moment in my life, someone who knew me told me about an opportunity that I was able to pursue despite the grades that I had set in stone. A chance came my way that I never would have thought of because I had internalised my grades as my worth.
Let’s look at the fossil record of Nick.
My original GPA fossil, encompassing everything that went wrong and right in my first degree, was 2.9. On a scale of 7, which is how we measure it, that’s well below a pass average. I’m sharing that because I want you to put that fact together with what happened next. Four years later, I started a Masters program that I finished with a GPA of 6.4. A few years after the masters, I decided to go and study wine making. That degree was 6.43. Then I received a PhD, with commendation, that is equivalent to GPA 7. (We don’t actually use GPA in research degrees. Hmmm.) If my grade record alone lobbed onto your desk you would see the desiccated and dead snapshot of how I (failed to) engage with the University system. A lot of that is on me but, amazingly, it appears that much better things were possible. That original grade record stopped me from getting interviews. Stopped me from getting jobs. When I was finally able to demonstrate the skills that I had, which weren’t bad, I was able to get work. Then I had the opportunity to rewrite my historical record.
Yes, this is personal for me. But it’s not about me because I wasn’t trapped by this. I was lucky as well as privileged. I can’t emphasise that enough. The fact that you are reading this is due to luck. That’s not a good enough mechanism.
Too many students don’t have this opportunity. That impression in the wet mud of their school life will harden into a stone straitjacket from which they may never escape. The way we measure and record grades has far too much potential to work against students and the correlation with actual ability is there but it’s not strong and it’s not always reliable.
The student you are about to send out with a GPA of 2.9 may be competent and they are, most definitely, more than that number.
The recording of grades is a high-loss storage record of the student’s learning and pathway to mastery. It allows us to conceal achievement and failure alike in the accumulation of mathematical aggregates that proxy for competence but correlate weakly.
We need assessment systems that work for the student first and everyone else second.
From the previous post, I asked how many times a student has to perform a certain task, and to which standard, that we become confident that they can reliably perform the task. In the Vocational Education and Training world this is referred to as competence and this is defined (here, from the Western Australian documentation) as:
In VET, individuals are considered competent when they are able to consistently apply their knowledge and skills to the standard of performance required in the workplace.
How do we know if someone has reached that level of competency?
We know whether an individual is competent after they have completed an assessment that verifies that all aspects of the unit of competency are held and can be applied in an industry context.
The programs involved are made up of units that span the essential knowledge and are assessed through direct observation, indirect measurements (such as examination) and in talking to employers or getting references. (And we have to be careful that we are directly measuring what we think we are!)Hang on. Examinations are an indirect measurement? Yes, of course they are here, we’re looking for the ability to apply this and that requires doing rather than talking about what you would do. Your ability to perform the task in direct observation is related to how you can present that knowledge in another frame but it’s not going to be 1:1 because we’re looking at issues of different modes and mediation.
But it’s not enough just to do these tasks as you like, the specification is quite clear in this:
It can be demonstrated consistently over time, and covers a sufficient range of experiences (including those in simulated or institutional environments).
I’m sure that some of you are now howling that many of the things that we teach at University are not just something that you do, there’s a deeper mode of thinking or something innately non-Vocational about what is going on.
And, for some of you, that’s true. Any of you who are asking students to do anything in the bottom range of Bloom’s taxonomy… I’m not convinced. Right now, many assessments of concepts that we like to think of as abstract are so heavily grounded in the necessities of assessment that they become equivalent to competency-based training outcomes.
The goal may be to understand Dijkstra’s algorithm but the task is to write a piece of code that solves the algorithm for certain inputs, under certain conditions. This is, implicitly, a programming competency task and one that must be achieved before you can demonstrate any ability to show your understanding of the algorithm. But the evaluator’s perspective of Dijkstra is mediated through your programming ability, which means that this assessment is a direct measure of programming ability in language X but an indirect measure of Dijkstra. Your ability to apply Dijkstra’s algorithm would, in a competency-based frame, be located in a variety of work-related activities that could verify your ability to perform the task reliably.
All of my statistical arguments on certainty from the last post come back to a simple concept: do I have the confidence that the student can reliably perform the task under evaluation? But we add to this the following: Am I carrying out enough direct observation of the task in question to be able to make a reliable claim on this as an evaluator?
There is obvious tension, at modern Universities, between what we see as educational and what we see as vocational. Given that some of what we do falls into “workplace skills” in a real sense, although we may wish to be snooty about the workplace, why are we not using the established approaches that allow us to actually say “This student can function as an X when they leave here?”
If we want to say that we are concerned with a more abstract education, perhaps we should be teaching, assessing and talking about our students very, very differently. Especially to employers.
Like most published academics, I regularly receive invitations to propose books or book chapters from publishers. Today, one of the larger groups contacted me and mentioned that they would also be interested in any proposals for a video lecture sequence.
And so the world changes.