Letter grades, GPAs, degrees, certificates and the quest for the perfect measurement.
GUEST COLUMN | by David Blake
Our lives are increasingly data rich. The demands for educational measurement continue to grow—from the epics of students’ high-stakes testing, the politics of teacher measurement (and pay), higher education’s quest towards competency-based education, and professional learning’s venturing into the world of micro-credentials and new-age certificates. Our current measurement tools are at best mediocre for the learner, and downright abysmal for hiring managers. Given the accelerating change in the way people learn, the world is ripe for a stronger way to signal learning and skills aptitude.
To most hiring managers, what really matters are the skills, achievements, knowledge and potential a person has, regardless of where they were gained.
If you believe the adage that once something is scored, it becomes a game, then consider this a brief digest of the game mechanics of education — and the strengths and weaknesses of each.
The most commonly used mechanic from grade schools through to universities is the one with both the greatest amount of ubiquity and longevity. Its also the most difficult to both rely upon and change as a signal for ability or knowledge.
What makes the GPA so clean as a signaling tool is also its greatest weakness. On the one hand there is currently no more concise way to communicate years of formal learning. I can tell you I got an “A” or a “3.9” and there is a high likelihood you will have strong context for what that means. But the GPA was developed as an internal rubric to better rank and score a set cohort of students, a job at which the GPA has done fairly well. It hasn’t, though, evolved so well in its newfound role, that of an aptitude signal to potential employers.
It was in the late 18th century that grading students’ work beyond a simple pass-fail was documented, both at Yale and Cambridge. In 1785, Yale President Ezra Stiles graded his 58 seniors, noting there were “twenty Optimi, sixteen second Optimi, twelve Inferiores, ten Pejores.” The earliest system of our now recognized GPA measurement was established purely to signal to graduating students how they ranked among peers upon graduation. Over time, the tool was adopted across all universities and even the U.S. Naval Academy and professional boxing. It was only natural that as more and more people graduated from college, the job market would lean on this system to signal education and skills in general, especially in the absence of another way to signal skill aptitude.
This now de facto tool has developed some meaningful limitations, though. Grades are not scarce, and have inflated over time. In 1960, only 15 percent of grades were “A”. Now, 43 percent are. In fact, it is the most common grade by far. But the fact the GPA cannot reach beyond formal education as a signal is perhaps even more challenging. In the past, this has not been much of a stumbling block since people tended to stay at their employers for long stretches, career specialties were more limited, and the difficulties and expenses of accessing learning beyond the traditional college degree were high. Of course, all of this has changed, and that has made the GPA a flashlight of a signal when a lighthouse is what is now needed.
Lastly, GPAs do not measure academic outcomes, only an overall journey, which means we are penalized for a bad grade in an art class when even if we are top of our class in our chosen major of Physics. If a student reaches mastery, should it matter what their curve to that endpoint looks like?
If you believe credentials are a form of currency for human capital, we can measure degrees against the attributes that make currency valuable: store of value, limited supply, divisibility, portability, and general acceptance.
In many ways, degrees transcend the dollar in influence. Consider how much people have traded money for the promise of a degree. The $1.2 Trillion in crippling student loan debt in the U.S. is exhibit A. Add this to the fact that degrees are considered intelligent financial investments that cannot be lost or quickly negated of value, and it’s clear our culture is addicted to the college degree.
Degrees are also considered one of life’s great achievements. Like money, a degree is hard to earn. If you ask someone in their fifties, “Tell me about your education,” they will skip decades of their lives, and their learning, to answer with their college degree or where they went to university (or that they didn’t). The degree’s value persists through life.
And that’s the rub. While the college degree strives to represent in a single title what was the major part of a person’s lifelong education, it doesn’t begin to quantify everything today’s learners are doing – or what their future potential might be. Google has all but abandoned the college degree as a useful signal in their hiring process. A recent Venture Beat article says, “Many businesses ‘require’ a college degree; at Google, the word ‘college’ isn’t even in its official guide to hiring. With the rise of self-paced college courses and vocational learning, plenty of driven people can teach themselves all of the necessary skills to work at the company.”
One of the most damning shortcomings of the degree is that it is binary — not “divisible”. Ninety percent completion does not capture the learner 90 percent of the value. In a world where nearly 50 percent of people who attend college fail to graduate in 6 years, it means as many people aren’t able to get credit for the learning they have done.
The degree’s saving grace is its portability and widespread acceptance. It is used in every sector of the economy; it sits across all majors and universities; and is universal as the standard of educational attainment. Its cross-sector standards reinforce its ubiquity; I need not know about medicine to have context for what it means for you to be an MD. At an undergraduate level, many degrees can hold value across vertical boundaries — for example, an English major working in marketing. That cross-sector portability helps entrench the degree’s ubiquity against more innovative, modern micro-credentials like the Nanodegree and MOOC certificates.
Certificates can take many forms: There is an alphabet-soup of professional certificates like CPA or CNA, company- or product-specific certificates like Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE), and role or job aligned credentials like PMI’s Project Management Professional (PMP)® and Six Sigma Black Belt.
The inverse of the English degree’s cross-sector portability, professional certificates are narrowly valued, though highly relevant and of high value against the narrow range of opportunities.
But one big challenge with certificates is that in many cases they only serve to signal minimum levels of competence, not upwards levels of aptitude. If you have 50 CPAs in a room, you don’t know who is the best accountant, you only have the satisfaction of knowing they are all some qualified to some base-level.
What is even more limiting with certificates is they are largely proprietary and therefore incomparable. All certificates require you to pay for specific content, take specific courses and pass specific assessments, which is helpful within a very narrow context but extremely challenging for anyone outside the category to quantify or compare against like certificates. Which is better, the Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE), or the Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) certification, and what does each really signify?
Efforts to shift higher education towards a competency-based system are an effort to capture the value of certificates’ relevancy. However, the trend carries the risk of trading relevancy for ubiquity given that there are no standards for competencies — and that each university, market sector, and employer measures competencies differently.
No Perfect Game Mechanic for Learning
There is no perfect game mechanic. That’s why great games employ many mechanics —some designed to engage you from second to second, some minute to minute, some to get you to come back each day and others yet to engage you over the longer arc of months, even years. Mechanics are needed for personal feedback as well as to signal accomplishment to others.
All Learning Should Count
To most hiring managers, what really matters are the skills, achievements, knowledge and potential a person has, regardless of where they were gained. Today, we only have crude proxies for aptitude in these areas in the form of university and employer pedigree and candidate references. And racial, age and gender biases often skew even those. It’s why we turn to our own networks to hire whenever we can.
What we need instead are tools that can measure these inputs agnostically, augmenting irreplaceable human judgment with systematic rubrics to gauge and rank individuals, and to provide people with the tools they need to signal to the market what they can do and how they compare to others – not just what they have done.
Cambridge: Postman, Neil (1992). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 13
David Blake is the CEO and Co-Founder of Degreed, an education company that measures and recognizes all learning and skills. David was part of the founding team at NEW.edu, an accredited online university whose mission is to be the most affordable degree in the world. He was also part of the founding team at Zinch, acquired by Chegg (NYSE: CHGG). https://degreed.com/davidblake