Unpacking the Learning – Part 7


letter grades

Based on your schooling years where would you fall on this line-up and how do you know?

One of the many and most harmful, misguided practices in schools today, is the inaccurate art of grading. It is an art because it is subjective, even though we may use a combination of qualitative and quantitative measures to determine worth or value. One’s view of art compared to another’s is based on their interpretation of the piece. It often depends upon personal preference and experience.

Grading students based on scores collected on a number of miscellaneous pieces of work does not signify or reflect true learning. It just quantifies numerical averages.

Here is the scenario: We teach subjects, students listen and learn. We check to see if they got what we taught. They show us on a test. We reward or punish them with a report card grade that we determine using scores we’ve gathered along the way. We move on to the next topic and repeat the process until the school year is finished. Students get to keep their grades forever. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

What really goes into a grade? Classwork, homework, tests and quizzes are typically the bulk of grading criteria. However, there are those who strongly believe that attendance, behavior, and effort are viable sources to consider when determining a student’s grade. In fact, there are efforts to quantify levels of “smartness” by using grading practices such as this below.


Any score of 63% or below skews your chances of upward movement thanks to the honored practice of averaging grades. Two or more zeros ensure that you’ll never catch up or redeem yourself. It’s a done deal and one reason why so many students disengage or quit school. They have lost hope. More importantly, we have given up on them by allowing them to fail our unforgiving system that equates good grades with learning. This happens too frequently.

Even with the newer standards-based grading there are subjective factors and uncertainties. We just can’t bring ourselves to say a student either met the standard or they didn’t. That dilemma is in part because we are so conditioned to rank students, especially to honor those who respond quickly and accurately to our teaching. What exactly does well above standard mean? It depends upon who you ask.

standards grading

If students were able to self-assess and access what they needed to meet their goals and then work toward that end, it would simplify and perhaps minimize the need for a massive and cumbersome grading process.

“We have done an effective job programming our students to work for rewards by way of grades. Students soon learn that only what is tested or graded counts; the rest is optional.” (Learning Unleashed pg. 103)

Parents expect grades and will balk if there are attempts to change the system. It is familiar and what they know from their own schooling experience. “They also believe that grades tell them how well their child is doing, except when they get a lower grade and question how it happened.” (Learning Unleashed pg. 104)

“Many parents have come to think that how well their child does on their report card has a direct correlation to their status as a parent. We’ve all seen the bumper stickers that say, “I am a proud parent of an Honor Roll Student.” Rarely do we see bumper stickers touting the slogan, “I am a proud parent of an average student.” (Learning Unleashed pg. 104)

honor roll bumper

Grading is one of the sacred school cows that is undergoing more and more scrutiny these days. Many brave teachers, schools and school districts are working to address the inherent flaws with this type of cumulative categorizing, ranking and evaluating.

In my book, Learning Unleashed Re-imagining and Re-purposing Our Schools, I ask this out-of-the-box question.

“If we never had grades and were never told that grades were important, would we still learn anything and how would we know?”

My book offers a reasonable and doable solution. Stop giving grades! Provide written or verbal feedback during the learning process. Stop the practice of telling students what “counts” for a grade. Provide opportunities for students to build their own portfolio of work showing progress and creativity and allow them to explain their growth and goals to others, especially their parents or guardians. Let them own their learning.

This kind of change only comes with consensus and trust on the part of the entire educational community. It is hard work and not for the faint-hardhearted. However, our students need and deserve it. It is long overdue.

no grades

Next in this series: Restrictive and Limited Academic Curriculum

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