Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Do Grades Matter?

We have all been there. Its the end of another term of school. You are sitting at your desk waiting for the teacher to pass out your report card. Your palms might sweat, your heart might race with anticipation. Will it be good news or will you face the wrath of your parents? All of this anxiety over some letters on a piece of paper. But what do those letters mean?

Last night, during our weekly #edchat, participants discussed whether or not the traditional system of grading (A, B, C, etc) should be abolished for something else. What was so great about this conversation was that it was decisive. There were people who were clearly on one side or the other, which made for a great discussion.

Here is just a little of what was said:
  • Most current grading methods do not support the goals of standards-based learning. To change the grading practices will require LOTS of communication with all the stakeholders. We will have to turn a ship that been sailing for a lot of years.
  • I feel we need to evaluate the whole learner in their acquired knowledge, critical thinking skills, application of knowledge etc. If there was a way to adopt a system of standards that an entire nation/world could use - IDEAL! BUT, not likely as there are so many opinions on education and learning. Until then, each of us must do our best to create a system of assessment in our classrooms, districts that addresses the needs of each student on a daily basis.
  • I feel that there should be a combination of the traditional grading system along with other assessments. Unfortunately the current grading system is too entrenched and it would take a very strong effort to overturn or change it. Too many colleges & universities weigh their admissions on grades and test scores. It is sad that a lot of creativity is prevented in classrooms because of the pressure to produce on standardized tests.
  • Honestly, I'm not sure how to replace grading. Sometimes I think it's not necessarily the grading but the assessments that are the issue. Our school is experimenting a lot more with formative assessment, but already some folks are getting push back from parents. There is such an entrenched system from K-college and beyond...levels dependent upon levels that will be very difficult to change, but I believe we can. Education has become about grades instead of learning, which means a change is necessary. Movement toward more formative assessment methods is a start.
  • This is a debate that will continue long after we are gone. It may be that we should appreciate the looseness of the grading situation since it allows us a lot of flexibility.
  • It should be supplemented with other ways of showing your accomplishments. Don't see how you can completely get rid of grading when standardized exams are used to demonstrate competencies in fields like medicine, law etc.
  • Will somebody please tell me the functional difference between an 80, a 76, AND A 74?
You can read more of the comments here.

There were a couple of themes that we talked about. One, not mentioned above is the problem with student/parent motivation. How many of you know a parent who "bribes" their child with offers of payment for good grades either in the form of money or goods? So instead of the students reward being their education, the reward is a trip to the ATM. Perhaps it is just easier to say to the child, do this work on your own and I as the parent will pay you off so I feel better about myself as a parent because you got good grades. And what happens when the student does not return good grades? Most times they are punished. So instead of figuring out why they failed they are just labeled a failure and told to do better next time so you can earn the cash.

The modern/traditional grading system is so entrenched in the minds of our parents that the thought of doing anything different brings angry questions. One participant last night said they attempted to introduce more performance based, authentic assessments with no grades, just proficient or not, and the parents wanted to know why their child did not get an A. Why did it have to be "proficient?" If we are going to change grading we, as parents, have to change the way we think about how our students are learning.

The other discussion I noticed was the inconsistencies in grading. The last bullet in the above list makes a great point. What is the difference between a 74 or 75? Is the A a student gets in other class the same as an A in my class? If there was ever a reason to move away from traditional grading it is this. A student can work so hard in one class and only get a C and can go to their next class, work equally as hard and get an A. Yet when another school or college/university looks at those grades they assume that, because of the C they must be lacking in knowledge or ability.

We need to move to a more performance-based/portfolio based system of assessment. Students are so different. They act differently, they have different backgrounds and homes and they learn differently. Yet we continue to compare them as all the same using the grading methods we have now. Instead, lets look at individual students and differentiate our teaching and their learning. These students are producers. Let them produce and show what they know and how they know it. And instead of saying Johny you get an A but Billy you get a B for the same work, lets just say, yep you got it or nope you didn't. And if you didn't lets figure out why.

What do you think. Is the system of grading we have in place now good for students and education in general. Is it working? If so, what are the benefits? If not, what needs to happen?

Image from Flickr Creative Commons. View the original here.


  1. This is a very interesting topic. A district I worked for moved from traditional grading, to a standards based reporting method (a 5-point scale). It was extremely difficult to get parents and teachers to understand that a 3, was "meeting expectations" and that is where we wanted students to be. To get a 4 or 5 they had to go above and beyond the standards. One of the problems is that the current system is so entrenched people associated a 3 with the letter grade C and most thought that was unacceptable. I think a standards based approach is more appropriate for the time we are living in, letter grades mean nothing. Yes, it will take a lot to change it, and it will be difficult to get teachers to understand how to use them, but I think they will be more useful.

  2. The educational "inertia" on grading is so strong that I don't see widespread change anytime soon, which is unfortunate because I don't think there's any agreement on what grades mean. The real irony is that the fairest, most objective measuring system that we could hope to rely on for comparing two students in different classes or schools is standardized test results, and I'll hazard the guess that many who wish grades would go away also wish standardized tests would go away, too.

  3. I think the problem with grades is similar to the problem with numbers for GDP. They are numbers that purport to something real, but in fact they don't. There is a raging argument in the world of finance and economics about just this issue.

    On the other hand, "grades" can be a very good way to keep score. The importance of competition and scoring to kids, and to everyone, can not be under estimated. There is a body of research that points to "keeping score" as a basic human need. The mass appeal of sports might be seen within that context.

    I think a way out is to find behaviors that can be more "objectively" measured. Did you hand in the homework or finish the project? That's the minimum requirement. As in "do what you have to do, that gets you a B. To get higher than that, you have to demonstrate excellence. Excellence is determined by the teacher.

    This might imply that "fail, pass, pass with honors" might be a way to go. Some colleges use this system. Brown is one example that comes to mind. Some private schools use a similar system.

    As for "getting into college", that is rife with numbers and concepts that are useless to pointing to real things in the real world. A growing number of colleges in the States have decided that SAT scores will no longer be considered in deciding admissions.

  4. This discussion has helped me tremendously. I have had issues with testing since I started teaching, but kept waiting for the ship of academia to change course. I now realize that the ship may take decades to turn. Thanks to #EDCHAT I've decided to just abandon ship and steer my own little rowboat the direction I think we should be going.

    I teach anatomy and am going to change how I assess. Instead of large unit tests I am going to have many small tests on Blackboard. Each small test will draw 5 questions from a pool of at least 20 on that topic. The tests will be available all semester and students can retake them as many times as they want (with at least a day between attempts to encourage long-term retention). If a student gets 5/5 twice in a row they will have "passed off" that section and don't need to revisit it (but may if they want).

    I am hoping to encourage learning and enthusiasm, even among those who came in with little knowledge and have done poorly initially. I want every student to be rewarded for the total knowledge & skills they can demonstrate, and not have low test scores dragging them down throughout the semester.

  5. I think the image at the top of this article captures the issues perfectly. Surely warning lights should be going off over any system that looks so recognisable in today's society and yet is dated 1945-46. We struggle to find any relevance in grading systems because these system exists through provenance and not from a careful thought process that has assessed the needs of education in the world today.

    I work in a secondary school in Peru and the problem here contains all the elements covered in the post and comments but to an exaggerated degree. We use a system of 20 marks for everything because "it has always been done like that" with the distinction between a 16 and a 17 cryptically given as "a 17 is a better piece of work". When I explained to my students that they would not be getting more than a 15 from me for a correct piece of work, with 17 and 20 reserved for exceptional and faultless respectively, their main response was "can't it be a 17?" and when asked to elaborate, "because it looks better".

    The situation is give a hint of farce by the fact there are no standardised national exams in Peru, with final grades being allocated at the school's discretion. Even so, rather incredibly, the top students from the final year will be given automatic placement at a university with the rest heading for the entrance exam halls. Whether or not standardised exams are good or bad, a question outside the scope of this comment, a non-standardised grading system surely can't inform across schools. As such if a pupil does not fall in the top "chosen few" their interest in grades is little to none.

    The lack of consistency is received by the pupils as a lack of concern from the school, with, for example, pupils listed with up to 20 absences getting 17 for attitude and application. I cannot argue that the pupils impression is wrong.

    And yet we have to spend hours of our time as teachers allocating and inputing these grades.

    So where to go from here?

    In my opinion, assessment in education is a useful tool for student and teacher alike for reasons that are well documented. These reasons do not include 'blagging rights'. If a pupils is correctly using assessment for the purpose of reflection then the need for comparison to others is reduced and with it the competitive element. Competition, as mentioned in a comment prior to mine, important for young and old alike, can be encourage during learning activities not assessment.

    The purpose or objective of any assessment should be made completely clear for all stakeholders. Pupils, and maybe even parents, should be encourage to engage with the process of assessment through a clear understanding of what it aims to achieve. This will be different for each subject, or even activity, but should be made transparent. Often a teacher does not know why they are giving a grade, let alone are they trying to engage the pupil in the process. For one six week project I am running next term, which will have my pupils studying a subject of their own choosing in a manner of their own choosing, they will be giving themselves grades, by applying an assessment criteria presented to them at the beginning of the project. It will be interesting to see if they are more concerned with the grade than the learning content of the project.

    I am in a rather unique and exciting position to be able to try out some ideas in my classes. The school is in a period of transition and are asking for teachers opinions on all aspects of their education delivery. So I follow these discussions with interest and maybe I can try out some of your ideas for you!

    Can I explain that I am very new to teaching, although I have been a student for most of my life, and this is my first blog comment, so I apologise for any naivety in my comments or writing!

  6. Kevin at Utah eBikes: Good luck with your assessment/grading experiment. I tried something similar for a couple years, and generally liked it, but moved on to try something more traditional. Be prepared for possible pitfalls, including students to procrastinate to take/retake a bunch of tests at the end of the grading period (and loading you up with grading) and students who see the "retake as necessary" clause as permission to never be prepared for the tests on their first try.