Giving Grades the Deep Six

Eileen SmythUncategorized

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At The Learning Cooperatives, we view liberation from grading as a cornerstone of our approach. This decision isn’t only based in ideology, but experience. I’ve taught for over twenty years in various types of institutions including some that used grades and some that didn’t. I’ve observed that grades often do a lot less good than we hope and often more harm than we’d like to think. In gradeless spaces, I’ve found that students tend to focus more on their learning and do better.

And just to be clear, I’m speaking here about all sorts of students at all levels of ability, not just those who struggle academically. A grade of “A-” can be just as devastating to some as a “D” or an “F” is to others. Even a perfect score can inflict real harm. A surprising percentage of “A” students feel a sense of emptiness set in, and find themselves wondering “is this all there is?” Others can become addicted to the rush associated with being seen as “perfect” and continually work like fiends to get their next fix. A small percentage, particularly among sensitive or insecure students who don’t usually get high grades, can shut down altogether. To preserve their moment of triumph they make an unconscious decision not to test their abilities again and stop working.

This might all be justified if grades were the natural outcome of student effort and ability. If that were the case, they could be proffered as legitimate life lessons, painful but necessary feedback needed for improvement. But they’re not, and students know it. As USA Today reports, in 2017 very close to half of U.S. high school graduates receive an “A” average, up from 38% in 1998, while at American colleges, the mean GPA has risen from 2.52 in the 1950s to 3.11 in 2007.

The usual reaction to this grade inflation is that we need to buckle down, make the classes more challenging and do what we can to have a more “normal distribution” of grades. Typical is a recent article by Thomas R. Guskey arguing that all we really need to do is change the meaning and consequences of grades, but he never questions the legitimacy of grades in general.

However, a small but growing online contingent of teachers is pointing out that the emperor has no clothes — that there is no way to reform the grading system and that we just need do away with it. There are forums in most major social media platforms, such as Facebook’s Teachers Going Gradeless dedicated to the idea that grades are an inescapable part of the problem. Such groups are emboldening teachers to tip-toe out of the grade-skeptics closet and ask permission to launch individual classroom programs that dispense with grades. Happily, some principals have been agreeing and the teachers’ online allies follow the ups and downs of their experiments closely, offering advice and encouragement as things progress.

And it is not just students that are harmed by grading. Today, public school teachers themselves are graded using expensive rubrics purchased from external companies exploiting the niche opened up by the accountability movement. In my observation the assessment process can have the same demoralizing effect on faculty as it does for much of the student body.

There isn’t much chance that either public or private schools are going to reform or dispense with grades on a large scale anytime soon. The most that can be hoped for, I think, is limited adoption by a few districts of the school-within-a-school model that attained some popularity in the 1970s and early 80s.

We turn our backs on grades and all the baggage that has accumulated around them. PLC, BLC, RLC and centers like them across the U.S. and Canada instead turn toward a brighter future, in which teenagers take genuine pleasure in their learning and in discovering their own educational path.