Mark Barnes, http://www.brilliant-insane.com
For the naysayers, who may have started reading this article out of sheer curiosity, let me begin by saying that for more than a decade as a teacher, I used traditional grading practices in my middle and high school classes.
Activities and projects were assigned an arbitrary point value. Then, I’d judge the work and decide what score it should receive. One summer, I reflected on a particularly difficult school year, in which many of my students failed, and decided I needed to rebuild myself.
The following year, I changed everything, and I completely eliminated grades. During that transformational summer, I researched many outdated, traditional teaching practices and discovered how to help students learn in much more engaging ways. Most important, though, was the new knowledge that measuring learning with numbers, percentages and letters is not only impractical, it is potentially harmful to learners.
Grades are always subjective
Since the teacher decides how material is taught and assessed, the grade is subjective. One can argue that many activities and test questions are either right or wrong, but if you don’t give students a variety of ways to show what they know, as well as chances to relearn lessons, then objectivity is compromised. Providing meaningful narrative feedback about what is done and what, if anything, still needs to be accomplished gives students a chance for real learning.
A points and percentages system discriminates
Students who are motivated by grades complete assignments. They always turn them in, earn their points and, consequently, get high overall grades. Students who don’t see any value in the activities that garner points don’t complete them. They, in turn, receive zeroes and failing grades. Hence, the grades create a culture of “good” and “bad” students. The high achievers are promoted to advanced classes, while the low achievers are placed in remediation. This sort of academic discrimination can turn a child against learning and scar her for life.
Poor weighting of activities punishes some students while rewarding others
Most teachers struggle with weighting activities (an unnecessary practice when there are no grades). I’ve seen teachers whose tests are 75 percent of a marking period’s grade, while others value homework at 50 percent or higher. Consider the student who does all of his homework but is terrified on test day. In Mr. 75 Percent’s class, this kid fails. Conversely, an intelligent student, who wants to manipulate a bad system, will ignore all of the activities and projects, ace the tests, and easily pass.
Grades turn even honest kids into cheaters
I’ve often asked students copying a peer’s work why they do it. The answer is always some version of the same thing: “It’s due next period, and I’ll get a zero, if I don’t hand it in.” In a class with no grades, students never have a reason to cheat. There’s no punishment awaiting them, if something isn’t done.
Grades eliminate the opportunity for self-evaluation
In a class driven by conversation and narrative feedback, learning becomes a conversation. Adults want the opportunity to discuss their performance. Shouldn’t students be given this same chance?
Eliminating grades will force colleges to “join the club”
Many educators who are in favor of teaching without grades say they must grade, because students need GPAs to get into college. The fact is more and more colleges and universities are moving to looking at the “whole student”, emphasizing portfolios, essays, field work and recommendations. Some schools are not even interested in GPAs. If educators band together, creating a new culture of assessment — we might call it Assessment 3.0 — colleges will be forced to change how they admit students.
When students perform for points or letters, they lose interest in learning
Grades are the carrots and sticks of education. They reward the “good” kids, whose parents browbeat them nightly to complete all activities, study hard and get those A’s. Promises of Honor Roll or Merit Scholar await those cunning enough to maneuver the flawed system of grading. They may even get to the Ivy League, having learned very little about learning. Meanwhile, their counterparts, many of them likely impoverished, hungry and struggling to comprehend the value in the assignments and tests they see daily, face a life of remediation, retention and ridicule. Sadly, some of these kids are the brightest of them all, but they are doomed by the letters, the numbers and the grades.
If you consider even for a moment that eliminating traditional grades is the right thing to do, what stumbling blocks stand in your way? Please share them in our comment section, and let’s revolutionize learning together.