Thursday, June 20, 2013

Your GPA Doesn’t Mean Anything Useful

A recent interview in the New York Times with Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google had some interesting things to say about the value of GPAs and standardized tests. Google, to no ones surprise, looks at data for everything. This includes what works or doesn’t work in hiring. The insights on grades was particularly interesting to me.

One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless — no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation. Google famously used to ask everyone for a transcript and G.P.A.’s and test scores, but we don’t anymore, unless you’re just a few years out of school. We found that they don’t predict anything.

Full article at In Head-Hunting, Big Data May Not Be Such a Big Deal

It’s been 35+ years since I graduated college. More than half my life ago. It’s hard for me to see how anything about my career could have been predicted from that GPA. I’m surprised anyone thinks they are good predictors of anything other than an ability to get good grades. This got me to thinking about how we grade in schools though. Are the grades I give my students any indication of anything of real value? If not, how do we fix that?

Generally I see evaluations as being good for two things. 1. Understanding what students do or do not know 2. Providing objective grades for transcripts

The first I see as very valuable as long as it is used as a tool for improving how the material is taught. Grades? Not so impressed with the whole idea. Administrators love them. Students like them when they support the idea that they are smart or that they know something. If you notice though most professional development events for industry professionals don’t include grades. Online training I used to take at Microsoft used to give quizzes but they seemed mostly designed to see if you were paying attention. They were easily “gamed” as well. The real proof was if you were actually able to apply the information to your job. The real evaluation was on how you used the material and not how well you did on a quiz.

The real value of what you learned in college (or high school) is not what grades you received but how you are able to apply that knowledge. Of course you have to learn and retain that knowledge. Testing, to a large extent, the way we do it encourages non-retention. Once the test is over students feel free to forget the material because they see its value only for getting that test score. It is a mentality that we encourage by the way we grade.

The value of a comprehensive end of course test/exam/evaluation is problem only that it forces students to retain more information longer than they might otherwise. On the other hand too many students think they can cram enough into short term memory in the days before the exam to get by and then forget it again.

One of the things I used to say to students in my APCS course was that anything I taught them at any time in the year as well as anything they were taught (and should have learned) in the courses preparatory to taking APCS was fair game for testing at any time. I took that seriously. Did it help? Hard to tell but I hope so.

What I surely believe is that we have to make it clear to students that the goal is not good grades but the acquisition and application of knowledge. It’s a little abstract especially for high school students. In the end though education has to be about a lot more than the GPA or its utility is marginal at best.


Laura/Geeky Mom said...

I hate grades and grading. I write long comments on my projects that I'm pretty sure no one reads. In fact, research shows that if you have comments and a grade, students will ignore them and just pay attention to the grade. A good tool for a course management system would be to have the grade show only after the comments had been read. It could show only after 5 minutes or so even if the comments don't take that long to read.

I had a good GPA in both high school and college. It afforded me certain opportunities for sure. I got into certain schools, etc. But after college, no one really cared. What they cared about was what I'd done.

Edwin G said...

+1 Laura. Your last paragraph pretty much sums it up!

Great write up, Alfred. I'm glad Microsoft did not put a lot of emphasis on my GPA when they hired me 13 years ago. I feel I've had a pretty successful career thus far and GPA could not have been a valid predictor.