In my previous blog, “Speaking of grades…” I addressed the practice of grading student work and why it is pointless. In the current K-12 schooling world, this equates to treason. So why should we abandon a long-held, highly revered practice? Simply put, it is a waste of precious time, a deterrent to and an imprecise measure of learning.
Over the years, teachers have used various grading programs, reporting systems, and feedback terminology only to find themselves held captive to school board policy that typically mandates what and how grades are to be assigned. In many cases, school policy trumps good practice. Apparently good practice and policies don’t necessarily align.
Most school systems demand that student work is graded and report card grades are given at the end of each semester or trimester as a means of communication with students and their parents. Teachers may have some flexibility on how they arrive at the grades they give, or as some teachers say, “the grades that students earn,” but the notion that grading is beneficial, meaningful, or accurate is highly questionable.
There has been plenty of research to support the negative effects of grading. However, teachers, students, and parents have come to believe that it is one of the ten commandments in schools to which strict adherence is required. Any attempt to tamper with grades is a recipe doomed to failure. Doing so might be akin to dismantling our monetary system or changing our customary units of measurement.
Change is difficult, unnerving, and risky, especially when it involves the entrenched, age-old practice of assigning grades for school work. I suppose one could argue that grades serve as incentives much like a paycheck does as our young students eventually become productive workers in society. On the flip side of that argument is strong and compelling evidence that suggests otherwise. Please see a quote below from Alfie Kohn referenced from his January 2010 blog titled, “Getting Rid of Grades” as an example.
“As for the research studies: Collectively, they make it clear that students who are graded tend to differ from those who aren’t in three basic ways. They’re more likely to lose interest in the learning itself. They’re more likely to prefer the easiest possible task. And they’re more likely to think in a superficial fashion as well as to forget what they were taught. (For summaries of the relevant research and arguments, see the books Punished by Rewards and The Schools Our Children Deserve, the article “From Degrading to De-Grading,” and the lecture DVD “No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning.”)
“The question, then, is how we can summon the courage to get rid of letter and number grades, replace them with reports of students’ progress that are more informative and less destructive, and help parents and students to recognize the value of doing so.”
This is the million dollar question that begs an answer – now. There are, however, a few obstacles in our way.
Many colleges and universities request student transcripts listing grades and overall grade point averages (GPA). Some don’t, but those are few and far between. This is an example of the proverbial tail wagging the dog. Secondary educational institutions use grades for sorting students. College entrance exams and placement tests are also used to sort even further. This practice begs the question, “do grades really provide the kind of information needed for college admission?”
The K-16 system is built on what is good for the system not the student. It is much easier to sort by grades and scores on entrance exams than to review student portfolios and school narrative reports. Human perspective, insight, observation and intuition are all but lost on the robotic sorting and stamping of students into pre-fabricated molds of higher education. It is no wonder that the numbers of students dropping out of college or repeating courses is staggering. Young people are sucked into this cyclone of sorting early on and often end up frustrated, in debt, and without real direction.
Our nation, local communities and specifically parents seem to want a K-16 grading system. They believe it provides them with important student performance information. They also believe that it is a visible sign of accountability attached to the question, “how are our schools performing with our public tax dollars? In a sense, that is a fair question. The problem with that mindset is twofold.
Even with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, there is HOPE.
Hope#1 – teaching/learning coaches (teachers) that would come alongside children to support, encourage and guide, not constantly evaluate. Evaluation needs to be self-directed, self-imposed, and self-reflective in order to be effective and meaningful.
Hope#2 – school boards that would run on a platform and follow through with an agenda that emphasizes deep, authentic and lasting learning not grades and test scores. School policies need to honor and reflect child-centered practices without sorting, grading and labeling in order to create the best conditions for learning.
Hope#3 – training and support for coaches/teachers on how to provide effective verbal and written feedback based on student incremental improvement not standards met by the arbitrary end of the school year. Grades and grading programs need to transition to more narrative and performance/portfolio based evidence that students co-create and re-evaluate regularly.
Hope#4 – parents become active partners with their students as they transition to a gradeless environment. Parent conferences and student reports are frequent and transparent providing each partner (students, teachers, parents) with a clear understanding of accomplishments, challenges and future goals.
Brave and fearless teachers and parents please check out the YouTube videos and Facebook Community below.
In eighth grade, I was asked, along with three other students, to design a Fresco for the school library. We were asked to capture the Seven Wonders of the World and were given time during religion class to create this masterpiece. We stayed in the classroom in the back row while we worked on this project so we could still hear the religion lesson. In about a month, the fresco was done and mounted on the back wall of the library. That same day we were given a test on the content that had been covered in religion class while we were being important artists. Much to my surprise I received a D on the test.
I had never received a D in any subject, and it really scared me. I was not a young person who often went head to head with the nuns or any teacher for that matter, but in this case I believed that the D was unfair and wanted a chance to redo it. I explained that I was not able to fully attend to the lesson because my mind was in India drawing and chalking the Taj Mahal and in Egypt stacking the bricks to the Pyramids. Sister Mary E looked me in the eye and after a few stern questions agreed to allow a redo the next day. I studied the notes that a friend had given me who wasn’t drawing and then took the test which resulted in a solid A.
Pleased that I received an A, and restored myself in good standing, I was certain that I would probably get an A on my report card since I had done fairly well over the grading period. My final grade was a B and the reason that was given was to teach me a lesson about paying better attention in class. Sister Mary E did not give me full credit even though I was given the opportunity to retake the test and had earned it.
I determined that school was just a “catch you” kind of place with rules that changed depending upon the teacher’s mood. While I appreciated her offer to redo a test, it seemed pointless if it made no real difference. Grades became a game of chance and the teachers held all the cards. I learned how to navigate this reality and stayed on top of the game at the expense of losing more than a few opportunities for real learning.
To be perfectly blunt and out of the conventional school box, grades do not accurately reflect learning. They are devised based on a myriad of factors, none of which promote learner growth , a better understanding of concepts, or the desire to tackle more difficult challenges.
A quote from this article above sums it up quite well.
“School is about teaching kids how to follow rules, and having grades as the emphasis is how they do that…”
I don’t believe that grades are motivators to learn. They are however, motivators to get better grades. Schools are basically “grading factories” with winners and losers. I read something a smart young man said recently on his twitter feed and it seems appropriate to repeat here. “School is the place where knowing how to learn goes to die.”
Heard of a great book on this subject that looks interesting, Hacking Assessment: Ten Way to go Gradeless. Check it out here at Amazon