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Making the Grade

You can feel the anticipation mount as the teacher is returning an important assignment to his/her students. As every paper is artfully placed on the desktop face down (we must protect privacy, after all) each document is swiftly flipped over, and the students eagerly focus on the top of the page. There resides the gold standard (often recorded in red ink), the teacher’s assessment, “the grade.” And, each student must be prepared to respond to the query from their neighbor: “what grade did you get?”

Who cares?

Kids do. They have been conditioned to measure their academic value by the weighty, and often subjective, mark scrawled across the top of the page. A “good” grade is reason enough to celebrate, to even engage in a bit of self-righteous congratulation, interpreting this mark as a testament of their worth as a student, maybe even as a person. On the other hand, a “poor” grade often contributes to embarrassment and self-doubt; feelings that may progress to disenfranchisement, and even worse, self-loathing. Grades hold tremendous power over kids. They influence ranking in a competitive system of college admission. They suggest a level of knowing. They define a level of achievement.

In truth, grades don’t accomplish any of these things. In fact, they may cause more harm than good.

Of all places, a recent article in Teen Vogue focused on this issue of grades. (Actually, a publication like this is the perfect place for an expose’ on a topic that directly effects teenagers.) In an article titled “Why Are Grades Important? Some Teachers Say They Do More Harm Than Good,” Zach Schermele, a freshman at Columbia University, explores the implications of traditional grading in the American education system. He may be in his first year at Columbia, but his research and his insights are profoundly relevant. Here are some highlights from his compelling piece.

“Grades can do more damage to student progress and intrinsic motivation than they can help,” Paul Solaz, a fifth grade teacher from Illinois. He goes on “How does a 68% on a test help a child improve their skills or knowledge in a subject? How does a C minus on a paper help the student revise and improve their writing?”

Alfie Kohn, author and commentator (often critically) of educational practices adds: “Studies have shown that three things are likely to happen when students of all ages are led to focus on grades. First, they tend to become less interested in whatever they are learning. Second, they’re apt to pick the easiest possible task - for example, the shortest book or the most familiar topic for a project. Third, students tend to think in a shallower, more superficial way.”

Pursuing the path of least resistance is not the kid’s fault. We’ve created a system that encourages it. Worse yet, our system of grades fails to accurately reflect, and report, on academic growth and what they actually know and are capable of doing.

Shame on us.

The good news is that ever so gradually, teachers are going “gradeless” in their classroom assessment practices, and focusing on feedback instead. Aaron Blackwelder, a high school English teacher from Washington state, has been at the forefront of the gradeless movement since 2016. He co-founded Teachers Going Gradeless, an international network of educators who advocate for the approach. He reports having an epiphany some nine years ago when he asked a student to evaluate her own essay during a conference. “There was no discussion about the strengths of the work nor mention of what could be improved. It was a conversation about a grade and not the learning. I still believed in fostering the conversation, however, I realized the problem was with grades and grading.”

According to Marcus Schultz-Bergin, a lecturer at Cleveland State University, “ Grades tend to put an end to students caring about the assignment.” Feedback on the other hand “continues a conversation.”

I like that . . . “continues a conversation.” It suggests the need to address the very purpose of assessment and reporting. Is learning a process or a destination? Believing, as I do, that learning should never stop, I would vote that it’s a process. Just like a conversation is a process. And, it is the process of learning, the process of understanding, the process of developing that needs to be the focus of our assessment practices. I always think of a letter grade as a sign that announces the end of the road. “Time’s up for this journey. Here’s where you ended up.” But, until we reach the end of the road, until the clock runs out, our focus must remain on the emerging process. Through conversation. Through feedback. A collection of letter grades averaged together fails to tell an accurate tale and they fail the learners, depriving them of the education they deserve.

Here’s the great thing about conversation. Conversation isn’t a one way, single sided monologue. Conversation is a dialogue, requiring the equal participation of two individuals. Letter grades are monophonic - one person informing the other of an outcome. While feedback engages both the teacher and the learner. And, it invites students to reflect, self-evaluate and engage in the process of learning in a new and exciting way.

Now, let me be clear. I am not advocating endearing phrases or encouraging remarks as a replacement for grades. “Nice job!” or “keep up the good work” might feel good, they don’t tell the learner anything of substance. No, what I am advocating, along with others in the “gradeless classroom” movement, is providing students with genuine feedback; like what Advanced Placement (AP) English teacher Gina Betz is incorporating in her classroom. “Initially, I waded into the gradeless classroom waters for my own wellbeing,” she told Teen Vogue. “I wanted to reduce the hours of schoolwork I was doing at home each night. After only a few weeks, I realized that I wasn't getting the benefits I'd hoped for, but my students were experiencing benefits I never anticipated.” Now, she focuses on providing her students high quality feedback. And, the payoff? “Students test ideas, make discoveries and embrace failure in an environment where learning is transformational, not transactional.”

I want to be a student in her classroom.

Every child deserves to be in classrooms that are transformational. Every child deserves to be in classrooms that celebrate the process of learning, including the bumps and stumbles along they way; classrooms that are laboratories of growth and self-discovery through feedback.

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