Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On Grades

Ask any teacher you know the following question: "What is the thing you dislike most about teaching?" If there are no major events happening to the profession at the time (for instance, now the answer "lack of respect" might be more common than it was 15 years ago), I bet a high majority (let's say 75% or higher) of teachers would answer with "grading."

We need to take care of one thing before you read any further: grading and assessing are not the same thing! Assessing is an integral part of teaching. It provides the road map to each student's success. It gives the feedback teachers need on where their students are, and what they have learned and what they have not yet learned. It is how teachers know what to teach to their specific and unique students.

Grading, however, is the practice of assigning a score to these assessments (which leads to another discussion of formative v. summative assessments and the role grading plays, but that may be for another day). These scores may or may not be truly representative of the learning that has taken place.

In fact, I would venture to say that grades are more often not a true representation of learning than not. I say this because grades too often try to fit the student into a box created by the teacher to measure the student. I think grading actually interferes with learning for 3 main reasons.

First up: late work

Work is assigned to a student, and it's due in. . .let's say 3 days. Or, better yet, there's a big summative assessment end-of-unit test. But what if that student's not ready to demonstrate their knowledge yet? Oftentimes, it doesn't matter (full discussion on late work pending, but check this out in the meantime), because we assigned the deadline and by golly, the material had darn well better be learned by then! Or else!

. . .

. . .

Or else what? Or else the student will never learn it? Or else they will always be lumped into the group that couldn't quite get it? Oh wait, that brings up number two:


I'm not talking about formal "these are the smart kids (but don't call them smart kids!), these are your average kids (but gosh, "average" sounds so. . .[what, average?]), and these are your slower kids (hey, you can't call someone slow! It'll destroy their self-efficacy!) tracking." I'm talking about informal "this student is generally an A student, this one a B student, etc." tracking.

But wait -- some students are A students, or B students. Even when we don't label them that, it's how they perform.

Really? So we can't put these students into groups, so we'll put them all in the same classroom and still end up slapping a label on them. But instead of "gifted" or "exceptional" or "at level" or whatever the latest PC term is for a slow learner (quick aside -- I think "slow learner" gets it best. They're still capable learners, just not at the same pace: see "late work"), we put a label on them of "A student," "B student," etc? This does not allow the student adequate room for growth.

Case in point: imagine a student who completely bombed the first half of a marking period. I mean, just was awful. Didn't turn work in, didn't participate in class, and had a grade that reflected this. We've all probably had this student. Well, imagine this student then turns the corner. Work starts being done. Learning clearly improves. This student is now passing tests and participating in class. So the end of the marking period comes, and it really would be great to give this student a grade that reflects where they are at that moment. But because of how low they were at first, they have no hope of passing the class. It doesn't matter if it just took them awhile. They were a failing student, and no matter what they did, they were not going to earn enough points to pass. They remain a failing student. And now, fresh slate, but they're right off a marking period that they failed, instead of a "C" or so which may have been a better representation.

Sure, the grade could just be changed, but isn't that defeating the whole purpose of grading in the first place?

Lastly, it just doesn't make sense.

Grading doesn't make sense? Sure it does! It's how we can measure student learning!

Okay, fine. It's how we can measure student learning. But is it the only way? I would say no. We can find other metrics to use than letter grades (more on that further down). But it doesn't make sense because it is a completely false incentive. Students don't "learn" to learn. They "learn" to earn a grade. I did a K-W-L recently, and the students honestly said they wanted to know enough information to pass the test. And then what did they say they learned? Enough information to pass the test and then forget it. And you know what? They were spot-on with this self-assessment. That may be more of an argument against unit tests, but I think it applies here, too.

If they're working for the grade, they don't care about the learning, they care about the grade. If the grades are taken away -- what's left? The void is going to be filled with something. If you think chaos will ensue, I don't think you give your students as human beings enough credit. Humans are curious. I don't want to sound all Piaget on you here, but we want to make sense of the world. If grades are gone, who owns the learning process? I don't think it's the teacher. I'm pretty sure it becomes sole possession of the student -- where it ought to be.

This is quite long now, so I'll try to wrap it up. Grading is really hurting our students' learning, and I think all teachers know it. Deep down, we know that even if grades provide the motivation our students need to desire to learn, it's a false motivation and it completely throws what they're trying to learn off course.

So what do we do? We find a new way. How about honest feedback? How about we actually talk with our students about what they're learning? How about we invite them, especially the older students, into the assessment process? "What did you learn here?" is no longer an exploratory question, but a raw, honest question. "No, really, what did you learn?"

I don't think this will work for all students, at least not right away. But I think we need to stop making grade-junkies (apologies to Alfie Kohn) out of our students, and put them back in the driver's seat of their learning. And then we teachers can spend our time doing something more productive for the students.


  1. The unspoken question here: do we want to do this (individually or collectively), and how do we really make it work? Mrs. Pripp has some thoughts that helped inspire this post: http://mrspripp.blogspot.com/2011/01/so-hows-this-whole-no-grading-thing.html

  2. My College Writing class actually JUST had a discussion on this yesterday - the grade-oriented nature of learning, which generally is carried from first or second grade (when real grades begin being handed out) up through the undergraduate level of education. The general consensus was that, yes, very few do care about what they're actually LEARNING when they're 'learning,' and all care about the grade they make.

    But it's true also that students don't care about every subject. If I weren't driven by the need to show good grades to my parents, I doubt I would have done any more than the bare minimum in classes where I felt I was not learning or would not learn. While I still question whether I learned because of that drive, I do know that I would have been a lazier student - I would have ambled along and not bothered with anything I didn't care about, because it wouldn't matter.

    Just food for thought.