Another nail in the coffin of grades

4097009340_4175110833_bI talk a lot about grades.  To friends.  To colleagues.  To random strangers at my second job.   A lot.

And one of the biggest points that I try to make is that assessment should be a measurement of mastery that helps the learner and their “community of support” (parents, teachers, coaches, etc) to have the information that they need to improve mastery.  We destroy the constructive potential of assessment when we give it too much importance.  When students are driven to “succeed” on tests and grades and not to improve themselves, the effects can be devastating.

Linda Flanagan tackles the emotional toll of grades in a new piece for KQED’s MindShift blog and it’s a must-read for anyone who has an opinion about grades.  Which is, you know, everyone.  In the article, she cites recent research by scientists at USC that shows how grades become the motivator for students, robbing them of intrinsic motivation to learn.  Students who once paid attention in class, and continued learning at home, begin to focus only on the work that affects their grade.  This is obviously not the kind of behavior that leads to lifelong learning or independent learning.

The researcher, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, writes that “students’ knowledge of a subject is tied to their experience of the grade”.  The way that students perform is therefore directly connected to the effect of the grade.  I think that more teachers need to understand the consequences of using grades as motivators.  As Immordino-Yang puts it,

“Whether the grade is good or bad, you’re taking the student away from focusing on intrinsic interest and tying their experience to grades”

Add this to the list of reasons that we need to redirect our attention on meaningful feedback rather than high-stakes letters.

What’s your take?  Put it in a comment.

photo credit: Flickr user anniferrr


Sexism, brought to you by traditional grading practices

So, thanks to a recent article in The Atlantic, we can add another item to our list of reasons that traditional grading practices don’t serve students well.  From the article,

“The testing situation may underestimate girls’ abilities, but the classroom may underestimate boys’ abilities.”

The author, Enrico Gnaulati, goes on to describe situations in which schools are removing the work habits information from what they call “knowledge grades” to make them a better representation of mastery by students of all sexes.

Sounds familiar, huh?


Rick Wormeli nails it

Hitting on the same points as my previous post, Rick Wormeli wrote recently in Larry Ferlazzo’s Education Week Teacher column,

“Grades are first and foremost communication; they are information, nothing more. The moment we make them something more, we corrupt their constructive use.”


“The grade is NOT the reward, nor can it ever be considered such. Once a grade becomes a bartering tool, its power to inform stake-holders and be used to make instructional decisions or document progress accurately is impugned.”

Wormeli goes on to list “non-negotiable elements” of grading systems.  This is seriously worth a read.


The 3 Biggest Dangers of Using Grades as Motivators


One of the fundamental issues with most teachers’ grading schemes is that they continue to treat each grade as a reward or a punishment, rather than simply as a measurement.  It might seem like a trivial difference, but the way we look at grades (and use them) has big effects on our classrooms.  Whether you seek to encourage work habits by praising high grades, or prevent laziness and lack of attention by criticizing low marks, you aren’t doing yourself or your students any favors.

Now, before I dive into this short list, an important point.  We must teach and encourage resiliency, responsibility, and work ethic.  The skills are critical to the success of our students.  But, the key is to provide this instruction and reinforcement separate from grades.

#1: Losing Sight of Student Learning. Once we acknowledge that grades work best when they communicate student mastery, we are forced to admit that giving and taking points for reasons other than mastery is a bad practice.  When we penalize students for late work or incorporate zeroes for non-submitted work into their average, we are saying that their grade represents what they know AND some other stuff.  With this veil over the meaning of the number (or letter), it becomes much less useful for grouping, identifying weaknesses, and gauging improvement.

Continue reading


Why Minimum Grades are Lies

F Minus GradeAs grading reform has spread across the land, some fervent “reformers” have taken steps that–while driven by a commendable desire to give students every opportunity to succeed–fall short of that goal.  They don’t make any sense.  And that hurts the movement toward more fair and effective grading practices.

What nefarious change am I warning you about?  It’s the newly popular practice of automatically bumping zeroes to higher scores.

Now, let’s be clear.  There are LOTS of reasons to change the current letter grade system used in most American secondary schools.  Most of these stem from the primary goal of grades: communicating mastery to parents/students/educators.  When grades fail to do this clearly, they need some work. Continue reading


What IS the purpose of a grade?

bigstock-Funnel-with-arrows-33911276It’s back.  I guess it never really left, but it was sure quiet for a while.

In the news again, both locally and nationally, is the issue of grading.   On social networks and in face-to-face conversations, I’m asked how I feel about the idea of not giving grades at all or of allowing late work or getting rid of zeroes.  And, as always, I can’t ignore it.

I don’t know why this one topic is so important to me.  Maybe it’s because a lot of other things in education depend upon it.  Maybe it’s because I think I’ve actually figured most of it out, which isn’t true for, like, anything else in the world.  Or, perhaps, it’s just that when people get this one thing wrong… they really get it wrong.

So, let me start by acknowledging that I have rode on this roller coaster before.  You can find my earlier writings on this blog (here, here, and here) and in a column I wrote for SmartBlogs Education.  I’ve even hosted a guest post on this subject, written by the impeccably outspoken Erica Speaks.  So, yeah, we’ve covered it.

And, so, my objective here is to simply get some frustration off my chest and address one simple idea:

Why do we give grades?

If you ask one hundred teachers this question, you’ll get one hundred different responses.  Some common themes will emerge, but this is a very personal issue for a lot of educators.  I appreciate the inherent intimacy of discussing this topic, but I also need to point out that grades can’t do all of those things.  Not well, not at all.  In short, someone must be wrong.

Grades can’t encourage better student achievement AND assess teacher quality AND decide who belongs in college AND who should play sports AND communicate mastery.  They just can’t.  These goals require different information and have different standards.  They demand different tools and measurements.

Both historically and in terms of their greatest value, grades serve to tell everyone what a student knows.  Period.  Any other functions just complicate them and encourage grade inflation/deflation, cheating, laziness, dependency, frustration, and arguments.  Not to mention how they affect students.

And, to address what may be the most common (and vexing) complaint of those who disagree with me and my ilk, that does not mean that we shouldn’t be trying to do those other things.  We DEFINITELY need to be encouraging a strong work ethic.  We OBVIOUSLY need to decide who gets to graduate.  We MUST identify who needs help.  And to accomplish these goals, we need more and better tools.  We need systems that build intrinsic motivation and reward independence.  We need to create tools that help each child find the best post-graduation situation for their needs and skills.

Above all, we need to stop trying to cram so much information into one letter.  When you try to put every color of the rainbow in one dot, you can’t see any of them.

What do you think?  Am I wrong?  Tell me!  I can take it.  Really, I can.


Grades as measurements

The following post was originally published on SmartBlogs Education on January 23, 2013:

medium_406716712I have gone to great lengths in my classroom over the past few years to teach my students everything I know about grading and assessment. Why? Because I am trying to dispel the notion that a grade (all by itself) is an accomplishment. I want them to understand that learning is the goal. Grades exist simply to communicate the amount of learning.

Convincing my students, however, is easier than convincing their parents, other teachers, administrators and community members. It seems that everyone has bought into the idea that a good grade is an achievement that should be rewarded. It’s common sense, right? To earn an “A”, students must have worked hard and sacrificed, and we want to encourage that kind of character. We compensate students with sports eligibility, scholarships and plaques for academic excellence. In some families, there is even a financial reward.

Why do we do this? Well, the answer is simple. We learned in our Psych 101 courses that if you want a behavior to occur more often there must be a positive consequence when it does. Put aside for a moment the findings of Daniel Pink and others that this sort of classical conditioning only works for simple tasks. The underlying problem is that a grade is not an accomplishment. It’s a measurement.

Consider this: would you give your daughter a prize for being an inch taller at her annual check-up? Would you clap a student on the back and praise him for having a body temperature of 98.6 degrees? Of course not because these measurements are seen as important information that a medical expert will use to diagnose and treat problems. So, why don’t grades work the same way?

The easy answer is that we have created this monster. As parents, we have incentivized our children to earn better grades. As teachers, we publicly recognize the best scores. As school leaders, we herald the honor roll. We create intense pressure among nearly all of our students to earn the highest marks.

This pressure breeds negative behaviors. We see students so focused on earning an “A” that they stop thinking in creative ways. Students begin to undermine each other to improve their rank, rather than developing collaborative skills. Cheating becomes rampant in a world where all that matters is the letter on the report card.

All of this can be seen in a typical classroom, especially near the end of a marking period. Students who slacked off for weeks beg for extra credit. Those who have not demonstrated superior content mastery try desperately to find a way to excel. Unintended lessons supersede the important ones: Effort is more important than mastery, appeasing the teacher is better than studying, and if I can’t turn my “F” into an “A” there is no reason to try anymore.

So, what’s the solution? In my classroom, it comes down to re-education. I train my students to understand the value of assessment. They know that formative assessments help me (and them) to understand their weaknesses and address them. They see the value of improvement over the absolute mastery level. They begin to see each test as a check-up, not a challenge.

Obviously, I can’t change a system that values letter grades so highly. But, I can help my students value my feedback and their own growth over the fleeting thrill of an “A”. And I can look on with satisfaction when they begin to care about their own progress without rewards or consequences from anyone else.

photo credit: timsamoff via photopin cc