Wednesday, May 19, 2010

My Thoughts on Grades

Grades. This is something that has always been linked to teaching and learning. By always, I of course mean, as long as I have been in school and a teacher. There is a segment of the educational world that is steadfast in their position against giving out grades. Education should be about learning and not obtaining a letter. I agree with people when they say this. I RT all comments during an #edchat that support this concept. After much thought, I think I can't get behind the concept of getting rid of all grades. No grades for anyone doesn't make sense to me. IMHO, grades are not the problem, assessments are the problem.

I had my epiphany early in the year when I realized that my use of MC test and Scantrons were not really helping me assess the learning of my students. It made life easy for me to check tests and assign grades so student and parent could be happy. After doing my 10 Week Experiment, I realized that Project based learning is the way to go. With this type of assessment, I was able to see what students had really learned in a way that a Bubble Test could never show me. I went this route again, with some fine tuning, for my next unit, The Catcher in the Rye. The results so far have been amazing. Kids are actively engaged in the classroom, they are comparing projects and they are commenting on the projects presented. I feel like a good teacher watching these projects come together.

I don't think throwing out the entire grading system is truly going to solve anything. Teaching is what really matters. We can throw out grades, we can give them new meaning, we can assign smiley faces or even assign random symbols. All that truly matters is the way that we teach students and the way we assess them. Students need to be taught to value education. Grades are not the reason students do not value education. I didn't value education because I was a knuckle head, not because the value of an A was too much pressure. The value of a Grade is determined by the level of instruction and assessment. I can say that the value of an A on one of these projects means more than the A a student received last year on a Bubble Test on the same topic.

Getting rid of grading is not going to solve the problem of valuing education or learning. As people, we are always seeking some form of validation for what we do. That validation can come in the form of gold stars, blog comments, Retweets, promotions or letter grades. The value of hard work and a job well done in High School is a letter grade. Earning an A in my class is tough. I'm proud of that fact. I realized that my assessments needed to change to truly challenge my students and assess their learning in a way that allows for self expression and meets my content expectations.

I know that this is not the popular idea, but this is how I feel. Now. I'm an open minded person. If I would have told me two years ago that I needed to move away from MC tests, I would have laughed at myself. (Side note: That would be so weird to hear yourself laugh outside of yourself. Almost like hearing a recording of your own voice. I always sound weird on those things. Anyway...) I think there are many different ways to teach the many different types of students. Differentiation is huge for me. If I want to give letter grades, I'm going to give letter grades. If I want to give smiley faces, I'm going to give smiley faces. I think that there is never a one size fits all solution for the ills of education. Eliminating Grades is not the end all be all solution. I think that is important to remember when we talk about changing the education landscape. 

Remember, It's not the letter we use to end an assessment, it's the assessment we use to arrive at the letter.

- @TheNerdyTeacher


  1. I love the line
    "assessments needed to change to truly challenge my students and assess their learning in a way that allows for self expression and meets my content expectations."  That is really what is all about.  We allow them to show us that they have learned the important points in their way.  Whatever means they use to express this is up to them.  Creativity Rules.  Thanks for sharing.

  2. Wow, can I say that I'm so glad to see this post. After last night's edchat, I sadly couldn't sleep. I had so many ideas and thoughts running through my head that I wasn't sure what to implement first.

    Sometimes it seems that I'm in some limbo between super liberal un-teaching and hardcore old school desks in rows, textbooks and dittos.

    I think project based learning is somewhere in the middle, and really valuable addition to my pedagogy. It's just nice to see a middle ground working for someone :)

  3. When I went to secondary school, we had no grades until I hit HSC, which is the final year of schooling which has state based exams. I have to say, my parents and I found it really difficult to quantify where exactly I was at and there was no real incentive to do better, as I didn't know how I had already gone.

    So I wholeheartedly agree with your post! Grades by themselves are not wonderful. No grades at all are not much better.

  4. Love this! Ironically (coincidentally -- I never can remember the difference), I was just expressing this same notion with some former colleagues of mine earlier this week! I don't think your views are that controversial at all...there are definitely those who hold an 'all or nothing' viewpoint, but those people probably account for less than 5% of the teacher population. Keep on sharing your thoughts, ideas and experiences. You've been a great person to learn from online and the more people that can hear your message, the better! :)

  5. Is there a need to define 'grade' and 'assessment' here? I do an assessment to find out whether a student has achieved a benchmark. Is that a 'C' or 'B'? Is an 'A' hard to get because it is hard to master the learning objectives set or does the 'A' represent exceeding the expectations of the learning outcome?

    It is not fair to create a continuum of expectations where the grade 'A' simply represents the leading edge of the curve. A flexible standard reserved to identify the remarkable in your class. If only a few can achieve an 'A' -- 95% perhaps is that not a condemnation of sorts on our expectations? Do we set learning objectives beyond the scope of the average person? If we do, then the reality is that our grades do not represent student progress, but rather an arbitrary ranking mechanism. We simply let students try the high jump repeatedly until we sort them according to ability.

    I may compromise and assign a grade-like mark to each student at the end of the term, but it is based on established benchmarks. Even so, I am not comfortable with grades.

  6. Thanks for the blog. While I can agree that we may need grades for a while longer, I can't support your notion of motivation to do well.

    We may need grades for a while to appease parents and to answer our need/desire to rank students who may be moving on to university.

    You wrote, "The value of hard work and a job well done in High School is a letter grade.", this is where I disagree strongly with you. The value of hard work and a job well done in High school does not need to be tied to a grade. While the analogy has been used before I know that my athletes I coach do learn and improve and that a value of hard work is knowing they did hard work. Athletes improve without grading. Athletes and students do need feedback and a sense that their actions are valued but grades are such a weak way to do that.

    Again, thanks for honest thoughts!

  7. You are reflecting on grading which is further along than most people.

    I would challenge you to think on the cancerous properties of grades a little more. I get the impression that you are all for teachers and their tinkering and find tuning of grades. As if we just haven't found that secret combination.

    The days of tinkering grades have come and gone. The shelf life of
    grading is expiring with the factory model of education. Yes they served a purpose as did dial up Internet, newspaper classifieds and scrolls. However, we need to ditch the standardized factory model for something far more organic and human. We are moving towards a learning system that is far more personalized. To maintain our grading practices from yesterday will only prolong our misguided pedagogy that is preparing kids not for their future but our own past.

    Grades are an inadequate report of an innacurate judgment by a biased
    and variable judge ofthe extent to which a student has attained an
    indefinite amount of material.

    If there are teachers or students who are motivated by grades that is
    not a learning style to be accomodated, it is a problem to be solved.

    I abolished grading years ago and I have seen first hand the benefits
    it brings for all. Is this a magic bullet? No. Other changes are
    needed: we need less curriculum, less drill and kill lecturing, more constructivism, less testing, more performance projects. But the removal of grading provides fertile soil for change.

    I have documented my five year experiment with no grading here:


  8. I agree with people who say that a Grade is not amount of feedback. Yes. That is a terrible way to use grades. I had teachers that would give back an essay with marks of red and a letter grade. That was it. Nothing pointing me in the right direction.

    That shows a problem with the teacher, not the system of letters assigned to represent the culmination of an assessment. I would love to site and work on a personal learning assessment of every student for every learning objective. However, I teach 30+ kids in a class and 5 classes a day. That is not a feasible way to assess students and provide feedback. I would never cover the material I needed to get them to pass the state tests that determine funding for my school and my job.

    I'm not saying we need grades to teach to the test. If a student does not do an adequate job, I let them know in very nice terms on a feedback sheet or rubric where they need to improve to do better next time. Then I place a letter at the top as a benchmark. It lets them know where there are and where they need to go. If a student Masters the material, I always let them know that there is always room for improvement, but they have Mastered the skill set for this lesson.

    I feel like I haven't been convinced that grades are evil. It's not doing students this great harm. It's the assessments that are doing students harm. The bubble test mentality is the old school way of dealing with mass producing people for the work force. The one size fits all mold does not work, but I do not think that grades are the root of the problem. It's the lesson designed and the assessments used to get that end result that need to be evaluated. Then Graded. :-)

  9. Thanks so much Nick for putting these ideas into words on your blog. I have had many of the same thoughts but was unsure of how to express them. I really like this line: "The value of a Grade is determined by the level of instruction and assessment. " I began using Problem-based learning with my students last year and was amazed at what students were able to do when just given a chance to do it.

  10. Part of the problem is that schools serve a double function. On the one hand, they educate students. That is, they help students learn knowledge and skills that will be useful, in some way (we hope) in later life. Rubrics and other qualitative assessments are much more useful for that than grades, in that they communicate in a nuanced way what students are doing well and what they need to improve; at their best, they help students take responsibility for their own learning.

    Schools also offer a form of "accreditation" for students. In terms of hiring, or college placement, we need to be able to distinguish one student from another. People (hiring managers, admissions committees) need ways to screen applicants; if there is a large number, reading through long assessments and large portfolios would be too time consuming. Grades are a simple way to make a first cut. Whether they are accurate or not is another matter. However, if it's not grades, it's going to be something.

    I have heard that when some of the high powered independent schools, tired of having a test-driven curriculum, dropped AP tests, they found that, rather than decreasing the importance of testing, it merely shifted the focus to other tests, such as the SAT II, because something was needed to distinguish students. As long as schools have the dual role--education and accreditation--I think something like grades will be necessary.

    I would, however, be interested in hearing from those who have dropped grades, to see how they have gotten around the problem.

  11. One of your commenters said, "athletes improve without grading". What are match statistics and PBs if not grading? How can an Olympic sprinter hope to improve if they never know what times they are running and what times they need to aim to beat? If no match stats were kept, then this would have an extraordinary effect on the worth of players and the value of their contracts.

  12. I'd like to get my students thinking that assessments are like points on a map- here's where you are now. The rubric shows the final destination, with way stations along the way. We need to create a culture where it is ok to not be perfect the first time out. Traditional grading enforces that, as "redo's" are not universally available. With a more learner centered assessment and standards to guide learning, students can see the value of assessment as a means to improvement, rather than a one shot judgement. I can't imagine what my motivation would be like (not to mention my mental health) if I thought I had to be "top block" at everything I did in the classroom.


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