Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ditch Grading

Or at least ditch the current practices around grading.

I work in a lot of schools, and realize that I see a continuum of practices that range from innovative and awesome to ridiculous and damaging. It’s time to put honesty back on the table.
It’s time to transform all aspects of educating kids.

I remember the report cards when I was young. If there was anything less than a “C” on it, I was in big trouble. But now that I think about, what did that “C” or any other grade on the report card, really mean? For me, back then, it meant that I did what I was asked to do and the grade represented where I fell on the continuum of responsibility. If it was a good grade, it meant that homework was turned in on time. It meant that work was done neatly. It meant that I was able to regurgitate the information that I had been “taught.” It meant that I could fit into the niche of success that was acceptable and appropriate at the time. It DID NOT necessarily represent that I LEARNED anything. When I had bad grades, it indicated that I didn’t do homework or classwork, or didn’t work neatly, etc. That was more than a quarter century ago.

Flash forward to now.

What has changed? Really, truthfully, what has changed for a large majority of teachers?

I was listening to a parent recently discussing her frustration with her son’s school. Her son is a senior and may not graduate. Her son rarely does homework, but understands the content well enough to perform at a 90% and above on classroom assessments, and does even better on state level assessments. The kid has had homework issues since second grade, much of it around the fact that the kid understands the material and doesn’t have any interest in continuing to practice something he’s already got down cold. (The parent indicated that over the years, she has all but taken away every privilege in her arsenal, imposed countless punishments, and shed many tears over the homework issue.) She was at her wit’s end. Her kid can learn and perform, but has checked out of the intermediary homework step, but homework, at his school, is a considerable part of the grade. The missing homework is causing him to fail. (Yes, I know that the percentage of what homework counts as part of the grade here is ridiculous in itself.) If homework (and some classwork) were cut from the picture, and the kid’s grade (in his math class specifically) was an average of just what he scored on tests and quizzes, he would have a 91%. Academically, then, he is learning. Behaviorally, he is most definitely falling down, but unfortunately for him, his grade represents more about desired behaviors and less about the actual learning that has taken place. The grading represented a punishment.

A colleague recently shared a link to a rubric that YOU CAN ACCESS HERE. I’m looking at the rubric and wondering what learning is actually taking place. I can’t tell from what this person has put together what the real learning objectives are. All I see is an opportunity to assign points to a continuum of either/or responsibilities related to a task. Also, anytime I see a rubric that is going to be tallied up for points/scores/grades a red flag goes up. But that’s what happens in schools. Either you did it, you did a portion of it, or you didn’t do it--and in the case of this rubric, a student could “DO” next to nothing and still get credit for it! How does this represent levels of proficiency? How will a student grow from a lower level to a higher one? (Will they even be given that opportunity?) This rubric doesn’t inform opportunities for further learning, it just drums up a grade.

So what is the real message we’re sending?

That the “DOING” is important, or the “LEARNING” is important? I wrote in a previous blog post last year that students rarely ask what has to be “learned” in order to move on, they ask what they have to “do.” This is a serious flaw in our system.

A teacher asked me a few months ago what the most radical thing she could do in her classroom would be. She was trying to be provocative, trying to find a real risk to take, and I answered her with: “remove grading from your practice.” Her mouth actually fell open. She wanted to know how she would know that her students had learned anything? I asked her, honestly, if the grades she took gave her that information now. They didn’t. They largely represented “DOING” behaviors rather than actual “LEARNING” and proficiency levels. She wasn’t ready to take that big of a risk, but I still stand by what I told her.

How many kids would have a more positive experience in school if some of the negative aspects of “grading” were removed? What would education look like if we specifically quantified the learning rather than the behaviors around the learning? What does that shift look like for all stakeholders--specifically, how does this transfer to parents’ understanding of proficiency levels and how kids will grow academically?

In short, how can we provide evidence that learning has occurred without the stigma of grading?


  1. I think the bigger issue is trying to put a set amount of material into a calendar - which requires a letter grade so students can move on without knowing all that is needed. If we would allow them to move on once they have shown 100% competency - and take away the calendar barrier - grades/homework would be insignificant. Why settle for 90%?

  2. I'm with you Mike. Ready to have that talk - but it would be a HUGE undertaking at my school/district. VERY high achieving community - these are the people who did the best on everything ever graded, or say they did, and expect their kids to do the same. For my part, I've dispensed with points and averages. I'm using a 4-level rubric (based on what I leared from Marzano's work), and most of the grade is based on evidence of skills, not "credit" for "doing." When it comes time to translate to a letter grade at report card time, I'm eyeballing a grade for each standard area (reading, writing, listening and speaking). The grade I assign is usually better than the average grade. I don't completely like the power law that Marzano recommends (you can get a final grade higher than any assessment you completed), and I don't like just assigning the highest recorded grade. It would probably be some kind of weighted average, favoring the higher and more recent scores. Anyways, bottom line - students receive more direct feedback on their skills rather than receiving a bunch of points created to make an arbitrary process appear objective.