What Grades Do To Education

About five years ago I made the best decision I’ve ever made about my teaching. I decided that I was done with grades.

I had come to this decision after years of students who came to ask why I took points off of their essay instead of how they could improve. I would spend hours and hours providing feedback to students on their writing and on the day I passed the work back to them, the students would look at their grade and either stuff it in their bag, throw it out, or challenge me about how I graded it. Very few students actually took the time to think about what they did and how they could improve.

Some students would be content with, for example, their 95 and wouldn’t change a thing on their next writing assignment. Others would see that they got a 70, again, and conclude that I just hated them and there was nothing they could do to improve. They saw the number that was on the top of the front page of their essay as a representation of their value as an English student. It didn’t matter how much I conferenced with them about what they did well and what they could improve on, they were mostly concerned about the grade.

My IB students have to complete a presentation to the class as one of the requirements for their diploma. In an attempt to provide meaningful feedback I would conference with them after they presented. Unfortunately, the conference was more of me speaking at them than a conversation because they were waiting for one thing and one thing only: their score. After I would tell them the number, they would either say “Yes!” because they got a score that was acceptable to them or feel dejected and hang their head in disappointment. This was a presentation that some of them worked on for weeks. The mere fact that they had done the work and experienced the presentation should make them proud, but the number destroyed any sense of accomplishment. Learning had taken a back seat to the numbers game.

I mean this is school after all. Students are supposed to learn, right? But students today see their education as something to get through to get into the right college; every class they take is a numeric badge that they wear indicating how good they are at playing school.

These interactions with students after their presentations are what drove me over the edge. I was sick of playing school; I wanted my students to actually learn and grow.

So, I stopped giving them their scores at the end of the conference. The change was immediate. They actually listened to what I was saying to them. Because they knew they weren’t going to get their scores, they asked specific questions about what they did, what was good about it, and what could they could do to improve. Another benefit was that they didn’t feel the pressure to share their scores with their peers; there were no scores to share. Their education was specific to them. All that mattered was how they did, not in comparison to their friends.

The students’ reactions were mixed. Some hated that I wouldn’t give them their score and thought it wasn’t fair. Some loved it because they felt a weight lifted off their shoulders; as long as they did their best, they were happy. Even if a student and I both knew that they didn’t do very well, for whatever reason, the simple fact that it wasn’t put into a number made the conversation between us productive: they walked away from the experience having learned something.

Because this approach had proven to be beneficial, I wanted to take it full scale and apply it to my whole class. I got approval from the administration to start it on a voluntary basis. Approximately a third of the students participated that first year. The results were much the same as they were with the IB presentations. The students attitudes about their education changed; they were thinking about their learning, not just showing up to do some work to get a grade.

Students still got grades (unfortunately that is still the world in which we live), but they didn’t see their individual scores on assignments and assessments. They did, however, see their averages at midterm and the end of grading periods. In lieu of providing students with feedback via scores, I set aside a lot of class time to conference with students about how they were doing in class. Not only did the one-on-one interactions strengthen our student-teacher relationship, but also led to more meaningful student self-reflection.

The next year my grading system was implemented for all students in my classes. Some students and parents weren’t happy, but even those students grew in the way they saw education. They asked better questions and the conversations about how they were doing in class were more about improvement and growth rather than numbers. Not all, but many of the students who didn’t like the idea at the beginning of the year liked it and saw its importance by the end of the year.

One of the concerns that parents and students have at the beginning is that they would be failing and not know. This isn’t the case. If a student is failing (or close to it) I let them know as soon as I do. But on the whole, almost every student knows roughly how they’re doing in class. They may not know that they have a 93%, but they generally know that they have a low A. It is very rare that a student is surprised when he or she receives their report card.

This program’s success stems from the relationships I build with my students. I spend a lot of time working with them one-on-one and in small groups giving them specific, timely feedback about the work they do in and out of class. Without this feedback, the students would be lost and not know how to improve.

Education should be about preparing students for the world, not just the inside of a classroom. Let’s teach them how to evaluate themselves and strive to improve without the carrots and sticks we call grades.

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