Sunday, January 4, 2009

Call for Action: Get Rid of Grades

Of all the calls I make, this will be the one with the most inertia. The easiest logistical one to do and the hardest to get done. There will be too much dragging of feet on this one.

We should eliminate grades in our schools. Not assessment, but grades. They are more than outmoded... they are harmful for our kids.

Now, before I'm pigeon-holed as Alfie Kohn, I should say... well, you are right. My thoughts do mirror his very closely. But I've reached my conclusion through my own experiences. I have yet to see grades help kids.

Here is what I have seen. I have seen many, many conversations about the grade and not the learning. Many of those have been with the students. Many more of those have been with parents, on behalf of their students, of which many times involves some shady half-truths being said by the students to the parents, causing a tense conflict based on misconceptions. And why would students give shady half-truths (it's not my fault... the teacher didn't accept my work)? Grades are often further incentivized by money for A's and grounding for F's. You would do some shady half-truths too.

Many of those conversations have come between me and myself. I've agonized over the correct number of points to have a quiz so that it fit within the grand grading scheme for the course. I've had to balance objectives against objectives on the value of their points. I've had to scrutinize grades down to the half-point. I've spent much of the time I should have been helping students getting better on grading.

And, that's the biggest problem. Grades do not help students get better. Students accept what is given. The grades promote mediocrity. Think about the message... here is an objective, and you scored about 80% on it, which fits you in about halfway in our class. There's no impetus to improve on the 20% you've missed out in, because as many teachers have in their grading schemes, the chance to make up the missed points takes away the consequences for missing the original deadline. So, we can't have that, can we?

One maxim I live by in education, if something is worth knowing, it is worth knowing 100%. And, students should keep working on it until they get 100%. And, all else should be eliminated or enrichment.

Which brings up to what I saw as a principal. Teachers would hand out grades and assume that their work is done as well, and they would move on to the next item. After all, students were in control of their grades. There's this unwritten rule that grades absolve a teacher from having to re-teach material.

One of the best ways to judge the quality of a teacher is to set up a hypothetical: If three-fourths of your students got F's on the latest quiz, what is running through your mind? The not-so-good teachers will blame the students... they aren't studying. Or, perhaps the parents... they aren't making sure the students study. The good teachers will blame, or at least, point responsibility to themselves. What can I do to help students so that they learn this material, they will think. That is after all, the point of school, that students learn the material--not to be the judge of who is learning and who isn't.

And, that leads me to the 3rd thing I saw. They only rank and sort kids. They are a big way of saying "How do you compare to everyone else?" We never get a chance to have students compare themselves to... themselves. Never to look at how much they have grown, or what they have left to do. Never to let them have individual goals and plans. No, they are judged against everyone else, and then reminded over and over about how they do. Think of the message that printing honor rolls and having awards assemblies based on grades does for students. Is there any reflection on these things about what we have learned? No. Just who received what grade.

And, it isn't like grading is a science. How about this quote from Paul Dressell of Michigan State University:

A grade (is)... an inadequate report of an imprecise judment of a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an undefined level of mastery of an unknown proportion of an indefinite amount of materials.

If we are going to base all of our worth and value of educational achievement in something, it should be something a little more descriptive than a "C+", whatever that can mean.

The first that proponents will mention is that grades motivate students. Nonsense. Well, not to learn, at least (perhaps it motivates them to jump through hoops to gain the grade they would like). When students focus on the grade, the learning, and the benefits of the learning in of itself, become secondary.

Is that the type of motivation you want? Imagine having an employee who says to you "How much do I have to do to get a raise?"

When learning becomes secondary, grades determine the curriculum. Teachers begin to choose assignments that are easily quantifiable. They come up with absurd distributions (this test on verb conjugation will be as many points as that essay we wrote last week, despite only 10 minutes being spent on it). And, all conversations with students... and parents revolve around it. I felt like I partook in a ritual dance each parent-teacher conference. Instead of discussing what the student knew and didn't know (and how that set them for their future), we talked about what they needed to do to get a B.

Bottom line: if you can't get your students to do an activity without the threat of a grade being given to them, you need to start questioning the relevance of your material and your ability to engage learners. And, hopefully you are meeting your rule of 88.

A second, far-distant objection is that colleges depend on grades. That, without honor rolls and valedictorians and all the other methods of ranking and sorting, colleges won't know who to select. Given that half of students drop out from college, I'm not putting too much stock in colleges' selection criteria. If colleges want to improve the selection process, we can partner with them, but their relying on us to do something harmful to kids is not partnership... we are being taken advantage of, at our kids expense.

The answer is a standards-referenced report card. List out your standards. Show models of how students in the past have met those standards. Then, allow students some flexibility in 1) prioritizing the standards and the meaning they have on their future plans, and 2) how they achieve those standards. Let students create a portfolio. Develop better formative and summative assessments, whose data show students where they sit. Let students adjust their learning on the basis of that data.

Let students demonstrate their learning by demonstrating their work to their parents. Have the portfolio or presentations replace report cards. Put the emphasis on what the student has learned, not the hoop.

And let me not forget this: Let students collaborate and learn in coexistence. They don't have to be cut-throat to go for the best grade or feel the need to cheat to achieve. They don't need to make base lies to cover up for a poor grade. Getting rid of grading puts all people--the student, their fellow classmates, the teacher, and the parents--on the same side.

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