Several blogs have been popping up lately about doing away with grades (see Parents React to a Classroom Without Grades and Why It’s Time to Give Up Grades) and it seems a worthwhile topic to explore. Let’s take a serious look at a world devoid of our traditional grading system.
The Common Core has certainly pushed–some say forced–us (teachers, students, parents, administrators) to make some serious changes at the national level all the way down to our individual classrooms. Some of those changes have been effortless and smooth while others have been laborious and frustrating. One impending reform is a transition to standards-based reporting as opposed to the traditional “report card”. This transformation will require doing away with our popular and widespread grading system. There are some benefits to this major shift that could become a way of life in our near future.
Learning Becomes the Focus in the Classroom
Passing. GPA. Class rank. Exemption status. Students concentrate more on these factors than they do on learning. Worse, grades become a motivational factor for students. (Grades should not be the reason why students work hard. Unfortunately, the reality is that grades are one of the only reasons students work hard and this is a problem.) Numbers have become the point of obsession when learning the skills should be paramount. And the students are not the only guilty culprits who give in to number obsessions, districts do it too. They prepare the students for the NJASK, and the HSPA, and now everything being done in our classrooms relates directly to our new standardized test mandate: PARCC. Will our students be proficient? Advanced proficient? We hope for those two labels to dominate our paperwork, but what do those labels–and their corresponding numbers–actually mean? Can you tell me?
All Stakeholders Have an Accurate Understanding of What Students Know and Are Able to Do
Grades should be indicators of what students know and are able to do. But sometimes teachers’ personal biases, test curving, extra credit policies, etc. infiltrate the scoring process and grades become skewed. (See Why Grades Fail Our Students). So, how are grades really relaying reliable information if they are influenced by factors other than student performance? It’s not to say that standards-based grading will completely rid the system of this misrepresentation of scores, but it will help level the playing field.
Regulation of the Reporting Process
At some educational institutions an “A” can fall within the range of a 100% to a 90%. In others, an “A” may equate to a 100% to a 92% (I have worked at districts with both of these grading systems–these numbers are not arbitrary). With standards-based grading, letters and their corresponding numbers no longer exist when it comes to reporting student achievement and outcomes. Instead, each standard has its own label that indicates a level of mastery which shows what students know and are able to do. For example a report card may look like the same ones you and I received in grammar school. A skill is listed and various columns appear next to it with “S” for satisfactory, or “N” for needs improvement. The column that is checked shows the student’s level of achievement for that skill at that moment in time. A standards-based report card is reminiscent of this.
RL.9-10.6: Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.
Approaching Mastery ✓
No Mastery Yet
Comments: Formative assessments showed steady growth toward mastery, but ultimately the summative assessment(s) proved that the standard has not yet been mastered.
Of course the 4 levels of mastery must be outlined. Those schools implementing the CCSS should make sure that each piece of criteria has its own indicators of mastery. Those indicators should be uniform as well.
With standards-based grading, the goal is no longer to get an “A” but instead, to master standards. This may sound the same, but it’s not. An “A” is nebulous when you really think about it. What do you need to do in order to get that “A”? (Answer most multiple choice questions correctly? What does that show?) What does the “A” really mean? (The student turned in a project on time?) With standards, the outcomes are clear. For instance, let’s go back to our report card example: RL.9-10.6: Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature. The skill is to analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience. Either students cannot analyze a point of view or cultural experience (No Mastery Yet), or they recognize that there are different point of view and they know how to analyze, but students cannot fully apply the skill to a point of view or cultural experience (Approaching Mastery), or they can analyze a point of view or cultural experience (Mastery), or maybe they can even go beyond analyzing a point of view and cultural experience, by evaluating others’ answers (Beyond Mastery). It is clear what is expected of students in order to master each standard. I suppose you could connect a grade to each level of mastery, D, C, B, and A, respective to the above example, but without the indicators those letters mean nothing.
We may be nervous about the ever-mounting changes in education, but remember, not all reform is negative. Some ideas have a lot of validity. As for doing away with grades, it doesn’t mean we are getting rid of assessments, it just means we are genuinely examining evaluation and how to represent it through a different lens. And that lens has the potential to make the way we view reporting student outcomes much more coherent and transparent.