Even Higher Ed gets the uselessness of grades

002hampshirefjgaylor-copyThe most oft-repeated response to progressive grading practices is that we need to “prepare students for college” where, it would seem, they will be battling one-on-one in academic arenas of combat.  Or something.

In reality, even colleges and universities are starting to become more aware of the consequences of using a single letter (or number) represent student mastery.  They see that developing responsible and productive citizens requires a culture of feedback and self-improvement.  They recognize that this comes from providing students with more just a grade, but instead a more detailed “evaluation”.  Case in point: Hampshire College.

In a recent opinion piece in The Hechinger Report, Hampshire President Jonathan Lash explains how his college got rid of meaningless grades.  He lays out the case for this change, and explains some of the pushback from the school community.  His most powerful statement, though, comes when he discusses the benefits of the “narrative evaluation” system that Hampshire College professor use,

“In narrative-evaluation systems, students never have to worry about accumulating a GPA. Instead, they focus on the quality of their work, with guidance from teachers who are often learning with them. Evaluations create closer relationships between teacher and student and enhance the teacher’s role as mentor.”

That’s a relationship that any educator—at any level—would love to have with his students.  And grades prevent that.

How do you think that college grading will change in the next decade or two?

photo credit: Hampshire College


Feedback in the “Real World”

floops_loopsLike many classroom teachers, I’ve worked in a variety of non-educational jobs over the years.  From pub trivia host to tour guide, each role gave me an opportunity to develop skills that made me a better educator.  Working at the Apple Store is probably the best example of this: being a part of a huge, modern, progressive technology company has shown me what the workplace of the 21st century will look like for many of my students.  It constantly reminds me of the difference between what we teach in public schools and what employers seek.  The most important lesson was the critical role of feedback.

Historically, feedback has been something provided by managers to workers, flowing downhill as if pulled by gravity.  Schools have mimicked this flow: teachers evaluating students and delivering suggestions for improvement.  In contrast, at Apple there is an intentional and pervasive climate of feedback by and to everyone.  Employees at all levels and with any amount of experience are required to approach one another, ask for permission, and use a structured protocol to describe what they have observed and the impact that it has had.  The result is a powerful climate of constructive criticism, meaningful praise, and eager self-improvement.

Returning to my classroom after spending time in that environment, I was faced with the hard fact that my students resist feedback.  They see it as evaluation more than as an opportunity to improve.  They cringe at criticism and respond with reflexive words of defense, like “Yeah, but…” and “I tried that”.  Feedback from peers is met with even more pushback: like most adults, students see criticism as something provided by the “ones who know” to the “ones who don’t know”.  Assessment is something that experts do.

Over time, I began to see that the importance of learning to give and receive feedback trumped the challenges of changing student perceptions.  Like so many much-needed changes to grading and assessment, students and parents have been programmed to think a certain way… and they are wrong.  We can not simply acknowledge their resistance to change and give up.  We must push forward to practices that improve learning and develop responsible citizens.

What is the role of feedback in your classroom?



image from Smashing Magazine, used with permission


How do I get started with fixing my grading system?

It’s no secret that I get pretty passionate about grading systems and the ways in which we evaluate student learning.  When I recently joined the faculty at a new school, I found myself in an awkward position with a choice to make:

  • Do I push forward with my own strongly-held convictions?
  • Do I stick with the status quo for now and bide my time?
  • Or, do I try to forge a compromise that makes some progress but prevents me from becoming a pariah?

I decided that compromise was the best first step for me.  But, what is the first step for helping my colleagues recognize the need for change and begin to make that change?

Continue reading


Let’s Talk and Learn!

The suspense is finally over!  Our three-day Voicethread conversation with authors, experts, and the public about Formative Assessment and Grading has begun.  Here is what you need to know to participate:

Keep in mind that you can stop by and learn whenever it’s convenient for you, but be sure to set aside a few minutes because you’re likely to get hooked on what you read and hear.  And don’t forget to come back by later and see how other have responded to your comments.  Keep the conversation going.

I’ll see you back here later today for a summary of the interesting bits from the first day of the discussion.






Grading Metaphanalogies [Guest Post]

My wise and well-spoken colleague, Erica Speaks, keeps the conversation going this week with another guest post, while I work on Kenan stuff.  Yet again, she makes a strong case:

You know, someone pointed out to me that anyone who reads our online debates from afar would think Paul and I don’t get along at all and must spend every opportunity finding something to ferociously debate. Well, that last part may not be far off, but overall, we actually agree on most things – pedagogically and otherwise. Honest.

We often discuss, debate, and think of things in terms of metaphors and analogies. Paul coined the term “metaphanalogies”. I like it – it’s how things make sense to me. So, when there’s a topic like grading where we have gone round and round about it, you can imagine we’ve used several. Well, he’s offered several, and I’ve shot them down. I’ll explain.

SPORTS: “The scoreboard reflects the game, not the practice.” Paul has pointed out that we judge players based on their performance in a game, not how they do in practice.

My problem with this metaphor is that in it, we the teachers are not fans, but coaches. Coaches of course judge players on their practices. In fact, players are denied playing time or even cut from teams. In the pros, players are fined or suspended from games, based on things that may happen in practice. Imagine, “If you don’t do your homework all week, don’t even bother showing up to third period.”

Also, in sports kids try out and are placed in classes or teams by their ability levels. (I don’t teach in leveled classrooms, but if you do, perhaps this aligns more for you.) Understand that I’m not arguing public school classes should have these things in common with sports. I believe in equal access to learning. And luckily, no one has to turn a cartwheel or throw a perfect spiral for success in life. They do, however, probably have to get through middle school. Again, more reasons the sports metaphanalogy doesn’t really work for me.

MEDICAL: Paul discusses here adjusting a patient’s temperature to encourage arriving to the appointment on time. This came up again in our discussion where he was “air quoting” me here.

As for temperature, I have a problem with comparing grades to something which student have no control over and can exert no effort to change. While I agree a grade is a measurement, I don’t agree that it is only a measurement. Height is only a measurement. If only people over 5’8” were allowed in college, I’d view this as a prelude to pessimistic resignation for many students.

So, what “metaphanalogy” correctly reflects grading? Throughout our discussions, I’ve really wrestled with this question. I knew when I answered it, I’d be able to get my head around the work that grades should reflect and the message they should send.

I realize it looks like I’m writing to a recurring theme, but I’ve determined that weight is not a bad analogy to grades. When this clicked for me, I had to concede several things to Paul’s arguments, but I think he owes me a few in return as well. 🙂

Even when one carefully follows a diet and exercises, the pounds on the scale do not always respond. Yes, you hope that effort yields results. Logic even suggests it; however, it cannot be guaranteed. For example, some people have conditions, like diabetes or a slow metabolism, that (much like a learning disability or lower IQ) make it an unequal playing field.

So, Paul, I hereby publicly acknowledge that the practice, the effort, should not be expressly configured in results. (Would that it were – many a time I have been faithful on my diet but not a pound has left me.) We don’t just read the scale differently because we put in the effort.

However, my resistance to discount effort lies in having experienced how hard it is to keep trying when results don’t come as easily as they might to others. (And yes, I am admitting that in this analogy, I am the equivalent of the “slow learner”.) I worry about that frustration point with our students. I fear those who need encouragement the most will simply give up because they will never measure up.

This issue is intensified by the reality of a fixed point of mastery for all. You could take me down to the skeleton, and I’d still be larger around the middle than the eighty-pound four-and-a-half foot teacher at our school. The level of mastery (in standardized tests, for a passing report card grade, or for the cutoff for honor roll – wherever one draws a line) is the equivalent of saying, “To be healthy, everyone will weigh 125 pounds, regardless of height, gender, age, etc.” Some could eat junk all day, smoke, use illicit substances…and still make that mark. Others could do everything ‘right’…and never make it.

“Grades shouldn’t be a motivating factor. Find other ways to motivate them.” Paul says this too, but what “other ways” should teachers try? Rewards, stickers and prizes? (Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards anyone?) Research aside, extrinsic rewards don’t seem to be an organic way to foster what we want, anyway. Don’t give me stickers for completing a workout. Value the change made, the weight lost, ie: the growth in learning. However, growth-alone models are flawed. Just like the students who score the highest on our standardized tests have a hard time showing growth, that 80-pound teacher would have a hard time in a model of “whoever loses the most weight wins.”

This “metaphanalogy” works for me for one last reason. While we can boil them down to a convenient, single number (the grade, the pounds) this can be dangerous, even though it is so simple to do. (Or maybe because it is.) Weight is an indicator of health, but not the “be all end all”. There are many other numbers to consider – and other factors not expressed in neat, mathematical digits. We have SAT scores and standardized test scores that are supposed to be cut-and-dry measurements of mastery. Should none of the averages in a class value the journey? And if not, where should it be valued and counted?

Paul & I agree that sweeping changes are needed, and that it will involve a re-education of all stakeholders. For me, we could start with: change the notion that all mastery should look the same. Perhaps a child that makes one year’s growth on the standardized test would be marked as “passing” – regardless of where s/he is in comparison to peers? Should a child with a 70 IQ perhaps get an A if s/he earns 70% mastery?


Measurements or Challenges?

I’ve been engaged in a sort of “war of ideas” lately, on the topic of grading.  I have to admit to some arrogance here, however, as I always go into these conversations knowing I’m right.  After all, I come from the perspective that a grade needs to be purely a measure of content mastery.  Anyone who gives out extra credit or includes practice work in a student’s average just isn’t enlightened enough to get it.

For example, I am constantly promoting the idea that assessments are not mountains to be climbed or puzzles to be solved, but measurements of mastery.  Teachers and parents sometimes argue that students try harder when there is a grade on the line.  I keep telling them, that we need to teach students that these are just “temperature checks” that inform our teaching, not some sort of challenge that must be overcome.

But, there are moments when I realize that I don’t have all the answers.  There are arguments that other teachers make that force me to re-assess some of the practicalities of an instructionally sound grading policy.  The fact is that moving toward a system like the one that I’ve described here and here (and others have discussed here and here), requires more than re-training teachers and administrators.  It means helping students and parents to understand why this is better than the alternative.

But, it’s also much bigger than this.

I came to this realization during another extended “sounding board” discussion with my friend and colleague, Erica Speaks.  She rightly pointed out that while I might say that assessments are just “measurements of content mastery” (can’t you just picture the air quotes here?), they have so much more impact than that.  I interrupted to remind her that we need to train students of this new reality.  She countered that school athletics, university admissions, and lots of others create an environment in which kids are made to feel that earning a good grade is an achievement that one gets through hard work.  Academic failure is described as a failure of will and effort.

Should a patient feel like a failure if her temperature is 100.8 degrees instead of 98.6?  She might if it meant that she couldn’t join the Marine Corps (or the Peace Corps).  Measurements have meaning when they are tied to extrinsic rewards and used as standards for participation.

It is now clear to me that grading practices are not going to improve until those “downstream” from public education are on board.  As Russ Goerend put it in a recent blog post,

“Grading is communication. Once all stakeholders are speaking the same language, it becomes a much less meaningful conversation.”


Looking for Something to Read this Summer?

Despite my year-round teaching schedule, it seems natural to catch up on my reading (both fun fiction and work nonfiction) during the summer months.  I spend a lot of my limited free time enjoying (and annotating) various professional and personal books.  Here’s my recommended list:

Helping Students Motivate Themselves” by Larry Ferlazzo

This new book does a great job of taking Ferlazzo’s lessons from his own classroom and making them feasible for any teacher.  His activities that are designed to teach self-control are particularly awesome.


Ahead of the Curve: The power of assessment to transform teaching and learning” edited by Doug Reeves

What? You thought that I might not mention a grading book?  Ha!  This collection of essays by assessment experts gives a nice cross-section of the current thinking on assessment and grading.  I especially recommend that chapters by Ken O’Connor and Bob Marzano.


Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life” by Carl Zimmer

This beautifully written book, like so many science books written by Zimmer, is appropriate for any level of science fan.  It’s as close to fiction as you’ll find in this list of recommendations.


Have you read any of these?  Have strong opinions that you are dying to share?  Put ’em in a comment!