Why are percents so sacred?

I am first going to say that I am not an expert on grading.  This is my continued area of exploration and growth.  If every year I included assessment and reporting in my professional growth plans, I believe that I still would not completely understand this topic.  However, it is one that I an intrigued with and find myself strangely drawn towards.

The use of percents to me has become somewhat of a strange concept.  I understand that it is an easy scale to use.  That grading someones work or exam can be given a mark from a 100-point scale.  This mark, based on what you have “achieved” on that 100-point scale is what we base our students entire educational career on.  And when I say career, I mean beginning with middle school and right onto post-secondary.  This scale of 100 points drives the system, I think.  It tells students where they are in relation to the top, middle and bottom.  When a student recieves a 55% on an assignment, they know the following three things:  (1) “I passed but barely”, (2) “I am not totally dumb because I passed”, and (3) “there are lots of people much smarter in my class compared to me”.

I think that the resulting thought from a middle schooler in this situation is “why try.”

A percentage to me has never been totally clear, even from the days when I was in middle school.  If I got a 70%, what was the information that I knew?  What was in that 30% that I didn’t know?  What do I need to do better on for next time?  Was it a silly mistake that I made, or have I totally missed the boat?  Percentages have always lacked clarity for me.

Which is why I sometimes find it difficult to understand why there is such reluctance to let go of this 100-point scale and move to a scale that is perhaps 4 or 5 points and describes how students are achieving according to the grade level and subject learner expectations and outcomes.  I would be much more inclined to respond, as a student, if my teacher told me that I had clearly demonstrated outcomes A, B and C, was struggling with D and had not yet explained outcome E.  In my mind, I would be “approaching” or “meeting” grade level expectations.  Good…. fine…… I can work with that!

And as a teacher, this is more common sense to me as well.  I can better assist and help students when it comes to meeting the outcomes if I have clearly recorded and assessed the apparent outcomes that are appropriate to the assignment task or exam, and then reporting these to the students is much easier.  I understand, however, that grading and assessing in this way, without percentages, is a major shift in thinking.  It becomes nearly impossible to simply hand out assignments sheets and tests without percentages.  Grading according to outcomes means rethinking and shifting your assessment practices, policies and philosophies.  It means moving from pedagogy to andragogy.

The apparent reluctance to move away from percents is, I am sure, much deeper and more intricate than I have outlined or expressed here.  Percentages are rooted in our categorizing and sorting of students.  It will take some time, education and a deeper understanding from all parties involved to fully grasp how to assess and report without percentages.  I understand that change is difficult sometimes.  That going away from what is expected to what is unknown can be uneasy.  When we changed from the imperial to the metric system, I am sure that there was near upheaval.  That cars were burned in the streets and that people objected and protested for weeks.  I am unclear, however,  of the reluctance to let this scale change into something more reflective of learner outcomes that can potentially grow or change into a more accurate mode of assessment for learning.

And then again, maybe I ramble too much.


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