Think Tank

Sep 24, 2020, 5:25

Think Tank: A Different View of Grading in Culinary Education, Part I

01 May 2014

As culinary educators we have a unique opportunity to view student assessment differently—in a way that measures the ability to “demonstrate understanding” vs. the ability to memorize.

Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC

From the day we first enter the educational system in the United States we are introduced to a method of measurement that establishes a feeling of success or failure, winning or losing, those with potential and those without. My beacon for leadership and management, Edwards Deming, viewed this as one of the most significant problems that faced American economic strength from the 1950s till current times.

The American system of education has, to a large degree, been based on telling students what they should know, relegating them to memorizing facts and then testing them on their ability to repeat that information. Successful memorization equals better test scores; better test scores equals a person with potential. Or does it?

Now, I realize that this is an over-simplification of the process of delivering an education, yet it is not too far from reality. Over the past few years there has been significant debate over the real value of standardized testing leading to an attempt at defining how education might build problem-solving skills. As a result, a “common core” model is being used in elementary and secondary education.

Initial reactions to this have not been very positive to a large degree because the methods are confusing and do not take into consideration the individual ways that people learn. In the end, it still falls back to a grade—a number that separates those with potential for success from those who will have fewer opportunities.

As culinary educators we have a unique opportunity to view student assessment in a different manner—assessment that measures the ability to “demonstrate understanding” vs. the ability to memorize.

There are very definitive ways to assess a student’s work in culinary programs, but in the end the student can either perform the task or not. Standards-based education looks at essential skills and aptitudes and a student’s ability to perform or present indications of his or her comprehension and competence. In some cases it becomes as simple as: “Can perform or produce or cannot.” In other cases there may be degrees of performance, but degrees that are not subjective and cannot be measured in a typical quantitative fashion.

A student enrolled in a yeast-breads module can either produce an acceptable product or not. Can it be sold as produced, will a customer enjoy it, and does it meet the established standards of excellence as defined by a formula or recipe? If the answer to any of these is no, then the student does not complete the standard. There is no such thing as a “C-” roll. At that level, most restaurants would not serve it.

Some may argue that grades are a reward for the quality of work produced, and those students who perform at a higher level, who invest in their education with a high level of enthusiasm, should be rewarded for their effort. This certainly has merit, but tends to look at education as a competitive process. In the end, what is most important is: Does the student meet the standards associated with a task, project, course or curriculum? How do we appreciate a person’s desire to excel and provide an environment that encourages that attitude?

We must all understand that there are expectations that surround a college education and that those expectations are only measured by grades while a student is participating in the degree program. Once he or she graduates, the expectations of all stakeholders is the same. If a student graduates from a culinary program, then the student, the parent and the employer all share in the same expectation: The student has the skills and aptitudes necessary to perform the duties of a job. That “C-” in yeast breads will not meet the performance expectations of the stakeholders involved.

To this end, should we take a hard look at our assessment models? What are those skill and aptitude expectations of all stakeholders? Once we know what they are, how do we build a program that assures everyone that expectations are met?

There are two important processes that might lead to legitimate answers to these questions:

1. Seek out definitive answers to the questions surrounding skill sets and aptitudes. This must involve the industry that hires culinary-school graduates and the students themselves.

2. Build an assessment model that views these tasks and aptitudes from a standards perspective. It might be as simple as “Exceeds, Meets” or “Does Not Meet” the standard or may be viewed using levels of understanding or performance such as the model that has been used by the American Culinary Federation to measure an applicant’s ability to meet the standards for certification.

This may involve the ability to “Perform with Supervision,” “Perform with Reasonable Speed and Minimal Supervision,” “Perform Independently” or “Master a Skill and Teach Others.” In all cases, the end result is a measurement that is succinct and easy to understand. There is less “grey” in this type of assessment—it meets the objective criteria that currently results in grades and the subjective criteria that provides opportunities to look at where an individual fits in the timeline of building a skill.

Additionally, any effective assessment model, particularly in culinary education, must involve measurement of a student’s ability to work as part of a team. In fact, every course, every project, every task should connect to a student’s ability to build team skills.

This thinking is challenging to many and not free of potential obstacles. In next month’s “Think Tank” I will try to address the following related issues:

  • Students need to have traditional quantitative grades on their transcripts if they are to transfer to another institution.
  • What happens when a student does not meet a standard?
  • Does a standards-based program allow a student to fail?
  • What are the incentives for students to excel if grades are taken out of the formula?
  • Do tests fit into this model? If not, what other assessment tools can a faculty member use?

Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC, president of Harvest America Ventures, a “mobile restaurant incubator” based in Saranac Lake, N.Y., is the former vice president of New England Culinary Institute and a former dean at Paul Smith’s College. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.,