We have met the enemy and…

He is us. Not grades. Sorry, Mr. Kohn. Your essay conflates grades and measurement with a culture which focuses on grades and measurement. You come to three conclusions about grades after citing studies that compare students “who are led to focus on grades” to “those who aren’t.”  In other words, the problem is not necessarily that we measure and report what children do in school, but that we consider that measure to be the most salient indicator of school success. We live in a town where many well-meaning parents can tell you their children’s GPAs and test scores. Some can even tell you other children’s stats. It is no wonder that children sense that grades are more important than learning. I contend that the mere presence of grades does not need to be a deterrent to learning. There is something much deeper than the practice of grading student work that is responsible for the state of our students.

My beliefs have been heavily influenced by my teaching experience. When I retired from Salem High School a year and a half ago, the school-wide practice was to not grade homework (or any practice work) and to not penalize work for being late. Our principal spent many faculty meetings having us discuss the importance of grading for mastery. In other words, a grade should reflect what a student knows and can do at the time the grade is given. There is an implicit recognition that grades occur at artificial deadlines and an official policy that final grades need not be the average of two 9-weeks grades or two semester grades. Getting to this point as a school was not an easy journey and there are still teachers who do not follow the policy exactly at times. A positive effect is that students have learned the language of assessment for learning. They ask what they can do to show they have learned material instead of what they can do for extra credit. On the negative side, the underlying motivation when they ask is still grades because they and their parents often believe that only students with all or mostly A’s get into good universities and have happy lives. Change happens slowly.

 

Merely doing away with grades will not stop parents from comparing children and children from comparing themselves. If we don’t rank children with grades, then we will rank them in some other way. How else to decide who will be granted access to university programs or internship opportunities? Hampshire College has stopped using test scores for admission, and uses grades (not just GPA) instead. The important things to remember are that these numbers are only one piece of information and that they are snapshots of one point in time. The numbers are likely to change over time and with learning. While grades and test scores are not perfect measures, neither are recommendation letters or portfolios. I believe that using grades and test scores as time- and place-based measures of student learning is appropriate and useful. And I believe that the culture surrounding grades can change. In the hands of reflective instructors, grades can be one useful tool for learning.