I have complained before about grading. The thing is, the more I do it (and as an administrator, I am now responsible for tracking the grades of over 700 students each year), the more flaws I see in the entire process.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, Ashley Lamb-Sinclair highlights this issue. I want to quote the entire article, but please just go read it. It begins:
At the beginning of this school year, my colleagues and I decided to avoid giving the sophomores in our English classes any grades for six weeks. Research shows that providing students with a number or letter in addition to quality comments prevents them from authentically reflecting. Quantitative grades also diminish student interest in learning, reduce academic risk taking, and decrease the quality of thinking. But beyond academics, as teachers, we saw the negative impact grades made on our students’ mental and emotional health.
The article is full of links to research that supports her experiment, and I have done my own share of reading on the topic (I'd recommend anything by Alfie Kohn on the topic, starting here). Personally, I would love to rid my classroom of grades, freeing myself and my students for authentic feedback. As it is, I sometimes try and trick students into actually paying attention to my feedback and to their learning, by giving them comments without the grade attached, asking them to assess themselves or their peers, and other strategies. And while these are all fine, they are not much more than Band-Aids. At the end of the day, students often care far more about the letter grade on their report card than the feedback I've provided over the semester.
One way in which this problem manifests begins with forcing students to study topics in which they have no interest, simply because The Curriculum demands it. Then, once that student is sitting in World History or Geometry or Chemistry class, the grades become one way for teachers to compel performance from those uninterested students. Grades become a way to raise the performance floor, to ensure at least a minimum level of achievement (and compliance).
In my environment, the more-noticeable impact of grades is not preventing students from simply sleeping through class or skipping school (they have other extrinsic motivations in their lives to prevent that). No, what I see here is that along with that raising of the performance floor, a lowering of the performance ceiling. Students are absolutely going to do what they need to do to get the A+, they will accept no less. However, many are also less willing to do more. If the rubric lists exactly what to do to get an A+, what's the incentive for going beyond that, for working harder or thinking more creatively than the teacher expected when writing that rubric?
What would my classroom look like without grades? To be honest (don't tell the administrators), I've deemphasized grades a lot in my World History class. It's not just that I'm an "easy" grader, but I've found that the more paths I give students to earn the grade they want, the less energy they'll spend trying to fight over every point. But if I truly got rid of grades? A few possibilities:
- I would have to work harder on creating assignments and giving feedback. Currently in my class, there are some student tasks where the only feedback I provide is a number or letter grade, which essentially says to the student, "Thank you for doing what I asked." Without grades, I would have to spend more time giving thoughtful feedback, but also more time planning those assignments. If the assignment is not worth me providing feedback, is it still worth their time doing it?
- If grades aren't motivating students, then what will be driving them? Maybe their own interests, or a desire to share good work with their peers, or any of the myriad other reasons that adult humans around the world do good work without getting a numerical grade for every task. Students would be preparing for the "real world" much more authentically.
- I would need to work harder to engage with every student. Again, I have a population that is relatively driven. But most of them are in World History simply because it's required rather than out of love for the material. For some, if they don't have the incentive to work for that A+ towards their GPA, they may not be interested in doing much. How would I engage them? I could give them more choice in topics we study, or maybe more freedom to demonstrate what they learned to their peers. Whatever it takes, I couldn't fall back on, "Just do this because I told you to."
- Communication with parents would become very different. Sadly, some parents in my community check their daughter's grades as if they are a stock ticker, either up or down every day. For most parents, the primary way I communicate with them is by the numbers I type in the grade book for their daughter. Without grades, how do I help parents feel connected and informed, while also helping them give their children the space to succeed on their own? Without letter grades and 200 canned comments to choose from for report cards, I would have to proactively give parents meaningful comments about their daughter's progress and what she's been doing. Not only would that take time to do that communication, but it would also require me to have strong relationships with the students to be able to have anything meaningful to say.
I know I've glossed over much of the research (but go read it, really) and potential outcomes. And the issue of grades is wrapped up with many of the consequences of compulsory education. But two things are clear to me: grades are harmful for students, but make things easier for teachers. I know what tends to win out in that scenario most of the time.