Considerations about student evaluation

Valdemar W.Setzer
Institute of Mathematics and Statistics
University of São Paulo, Brazil
Sonia A.L.Setzer
Former School Doctor
Rudolf Steiner Waldorf School
of São Paulo
Original: 1992; last small revision: 2019

1. Introduction

The first author was asked through the old Ethics-L electronic list what was his opinion about evaluating students. The question originated from his criticism on usual grading systems. This short essay intends to briefly give the authors' opinion. They do not consider themselves experts on the subject, but think that their ideas may contribute to some discussion and reflection about the problem. They base their experience partly on Waldorf Education, which has existed since its introduction by R.Steiner in 1919. Just in the US there were 80 Waldorf Schools listed as of Feb.1992. [Added in 2019: there are presently 150 of them in the USA, and more than 160 in Brazil, including kindergartens.] We will have to cover 3 different aspects: that concerning primary school (1st through 8th grade), secondary school (9th through 12th) and college level. We begin with a criticism of the present grading systems.

2. Usual grading systems

Grading systems are based normally upon a letter or numeric value. For instance, in Brazil the most common system uses numbers from 0 to 10; in general, 5 is the minimum to pass, and means an "average" knowledge. Grades are given mostly for tests, nowadays almost exclusively written, rarely of the multiple-choice pattern. Homework (e.g. exercises) may enter into the calculation of the final grade, but in general they have less weight than tests. Briefly, one of the problems with such grading systems is that they handle students as abstractions, "measuring" in quantities something which has absolutely no measure, that is, knowledge. What does "5" mean? The student knows half of all subjects or knows half of each subject? Or was he coincidentally asked part of what he knew and part of what he did not? Or maybe he had just time to answer part of all the questions? What has been the influence of the stress situation upon the result? How much of the asked stuff will be soon forgotten? The grade is an abstraction because it in fact compares the answers with an ideal, non-existing case. The individual is not taken into account. It turns something subjective into a false quantitative objectivity. It does not take into account the effort done by the student, his capacity or his potential, or even momentary problems he may be facing. Worst of all, it levels all the students, requiring from them the same things, as they are all equal. In fact, grading systems may be regarded as the rule "every student should learn the same things as all other students" (as far as the required minimum is concerned); this is a transformation of the law "every child and young person should have the right to study." A right has been transformed into an obligation.

Another problem is that grading systems stimulate competition, forcing a kind of Darwinism into the human realm: the survival of the fittest. Notice that Russel Wallace, the discoverer of the Evolution Theory in parallel to Darwin, said that Evolution Theory could not be applied to humans.

On the other hand, a weaker student becomes frustrated and may loose his self-esteem, even in areas he is gifted, although not intellectually or in the way the tests are being applied. It is a fact known in every Waldorf School, where there is no grading system and flunking, that some students which are poor in some area may later develop an ability in that subject and become good students. More important than this is the fact that, not loosing their self-esteem, students may have space to develop abilities in other areas. Professionals are not required to be good in every field, why should students be?

The first author likes to call grading systems as "moral punishing rods". Everyone is nowadays correctly against physical punishment by teachers, but few people are noticing that a grade, mainly a poor one, is also a punishment. It is eventually even more humiliating than the rod and, contrary to the latter, its result remains engraved in the student's record forever. Grades are in many cases used by teachers to force their students to learn something the former were not able to interest the latter upon. In other cases, grades are used to maintain discipline. In both cases, they show an inability of the teacher to interest each student. This interest has to be aroused through the art of addressing each student individually in a class; grading systems, on the contrary, objectively handle each student as an abstraction, a part of a mass.

Grading systems make education an activity of continuous stress. The extreme result maybe student suicide, as happens in some countries. Certainly 12, 16 years of such nightmare do not pass harmless. Maybe a large part of people's increasing psychological problems are due to that stress.

3. Primary school

Instead of using grading systems, the teacher should know each student and, to some extent, his family. In Waldorf Schools, this is accomplished by the figure of the "class teacher", which teaches the main subjects (grammar, math, history, geography, sciences, etc) and accompanies the class from 1st through 8th grade. (We are aware of the common objections that the teacher may be a poor one or have relation problems with certain students – the fact is that normally the system works, because the teacher grows with the class, and there is a constant supervision by his colleagues.) The teacher is constantly evaluating his students, through oral questions and class works. Homeworks may be executed with the help of parents, so they do not represent as much as class works. Students receive constant, subjective grading: "you are doing good", "you have been excellent", "you can improve" etc. At the end of the school year, every student receives a personal, qualitative evaluation of each subject he had during the year.

When a teacher notices that some students are having difficulties, s/he sometimes works with her/him alone or in little groups, in extra hours or during the time of such classes as physical education (given by specialized teachers), and so on. If a teacher notices that a student has special difficulties, he calls a meeting of all the teachers involved with that class, sometimes also with the school doctor, to discuss the matter. Everybody tells his experience with that student, so a live image of him/her is formed by the group. An indication may result of what may be done, by educational or therapeutic means. Sometimes it is decided to involve the parents – certainly when therapy is recommended.

Students of this age are fond of knowing if they are doing a good work. Recall that, if flunking does not exist, this curiosity stems from the sole fact that the student wants to have an idea of his abilities and efforts. A weaker student, when encouraged, may do a greater effort to please his/her teacher, who should be regarded with extreme respect and admiration (the clue here is "authority with love", one of the mottos of Waldorf Education). The teacher has to recognize this effort, even if the "objective" result is less than optimal.

It is a fact that if a student is weak at a certain subject, he may be excellent at another, including sports, handicrafts and arts. Very soon students notice who is good at what, and this eliminates competition, since everybody is good at something and is admired by his colleagues.

Education should be directed to the global, holistic formation of a human being, and not only to the acquisition of some special information which has to be shown very briefly during a test. This requires that a teacher considers every student as a whole individual, not just his expression through some grading system. He should guide every student with interest and love.

If the formal educational system requires grades, the teacher should assign them at the end of each school period, but should not show them to the students, which should get them only after finishing the whole school.

4. High School

At this leve (9th through 12th grades)l, students are entering into objective contact with the world. They want to know if they are objectively learning something or not. For this, besides homework, tests may be given, but their results should not interfere with the decision if a student should pass or fail.

At this age, the most important characteristic that should be required by the teacher (who, contrary to the generalist of the primary school, should be a specialist) is that every student does a reasonable effort to learn and to do his works. It is not possible to label an 11-year old child that he/she is lazy; laziness at that age is just a consequence of a health or emotional problem - or a teacher's failure. One cannot require from such a child that he changes out of a personal effort. The situation is radically different for, say, a 16-year old. To some extent, one may appeal to the young person's responsibility, but the main instrument should be arousing the student's interest. For this, it will be necessary to show the connection of what he is learning with the world's reality, and show that he is getting an understanding of that reality. This quest for intellectual understanding is a distinct characteristic of a high school student.

Obviously, these considerations only work if the student has not acquired the addiction to "learn to get passing grades or to be better than other classmates".

In Waldorf Schools, a tutor is assigned to each high school class, and accompanies it during its 4 years. The tutor has to deeply know each student, to be able to help the specialized teachers when some difficulty arises.

5. College level.

The experience of the first author with undergraduate and graduate students is frustrating. Due to the fact that his students have gotten used to studying just before tests, he has had quite a bit of difficulty circumventing the usual grading system. But, in one subject, he has had few students (not more than a dozen in a class) and has been able to eliminate that system. The subject is "Social and individual impact of computers"; the students assign themselves the necessary official grade at the end of the course, during a personal interview. Invariably, it has been necessary to increase the grades they assign to themselves... One may conjecture what could happen if the students were not addicted to the usual system.

The important thing is to evaluate the ability acquired by the student, and not the memorized information. Everybody recalls very little from each subject he has had in school or college. Tests are in general not adequate for this evaluation. The ideal would be a more personal contact between professors and students and the continuous assignment of home and class works. One may object that our present university system does not permit such a contact and the assessment of such works, because classes are too big. One should then consider what is our goal: informing of forming? Or, something that, for lack of maturity, should not have been covered at primary and high school: to incentive self-education. Here, the impulse to study may be aroused by awakening interest. Unfortunately, professors do not have to deal with this problem: grading systems guarantee that students will learn – or memorize for a while – just to pass the subject.

We consider it absolutely essential that students at this level (which corresponds to the ages where self-consciousness is beginning to manifest itself), study not to get good or passing grades, but out of their interest and the knowledge of why is it important to learn some subject. This way one would be forming socially conscious people, and not just competitors for one's own survival and progress. Here, one suffers from the situation prevailing in the whole world. Probably we will only improve this situation if there is a change in society as a whole. We consider a tragedy that a student regards her/his education just as an investment, a means to gain his future subsistence and wealth, instead of longing to learn abilities that complete his personality and make her/him a full social and individual being.

6. Conclusions

There is an urgent need to change almost everything in our modern society, which is very unstable and is not satisfying the physical and spiritual needs of individuals. We think that, to change society, primary and high school education should be the starting point – as well as the education provided at home by parents. We do not consider humans to be animals, much less machines or formal systems. Grading systems produce a frustration on the student because they constitute a formal system which is handling as formal a being that is not formal. New forms of evaluation should be developed, taking into account that each student has an individuality, which is different from all others. And that he/she is not jut a product of his/her heredity and the influence of his environment, but he is longing to develop his own personal abilities to be able to contribute to the world's progress. At any level, being a teacher means doing a sacrifice: one should not lead the student to one's abstract ideal of what a human being should be or should know, but one has to artistically recognize how each individual should be helped to his proper way of being (and of "becoming" – humans are in constant evolution).

We would like to conclude by stating that just eliminating grading systems is not enough. There is an urgent need to regard education as a humane activity directed to whole human beings in formation, and not just as an animal training (to gain competitions or be well- behaved) or as the process of feeding a machine with information – which, as a consequence, lead to the present non-human quantitative grading systems.