Sunday, January 16, 2011

What About Doing Away With Grades?

Trophies, Smiley Faced Stickers, and A's do not set the stage for longterm success!

Before you answer the question posed above with..."You are crazy!" Please read and listen to some of what follows.

There have been interesting conversations coming out of Canada this week about the abolition of grades and awards ceremonies in schools.

The conversation stems from an article titled Winners and Losers that was in the Vancouver Courier yesterday. The article focuses on a decision made by Chris Wejr and his staff at Kent Elementary in Agassiz, British Columbia to do away with year-end awards ceremonies in an effort to recognize each student.

As I listened to Chris being interviewed by radio station CKNW 980 in Vancouver  yesterday, there was one comment that really hit home for me.
"Kids improve when they get descriptive feedback not when they get an A."
My thoughts immediately turned to my own son who is a consistent honor roll student in his middle school, with high honors all four terms last year in grade 6.  I even asked the question in a post last year - Does it really matter?  Add into the equation that 295 of the 465 students in my son's seventh grade class made the honor roll in the first term this year and I wonder even more.  He is getting good grades, but how about detailed feedback about his ability to write, read, communicate, problem solve, think critically, etc.?

Chris summed up what I am seeing with my son in his post last June Death of an Awards Ceremony when he said:
"What motivates students? Grades (and honour rolls) or learning? There are many students that are unfortunately only motivated by grades.  This is not their fault, it is what has been taught to them.  The comments such as “if you want an A, you must do this…” or “if you do this, you will lose marks” have taught students that grades and achievement is more of a priority than learning.  Grades are extrinsic motivators while learning results in more intrinsic motivation.  So, do we want students to motivated by grades or learning?  Learning!"
Not to mention the fact that research has shown that praise without concrete feedback can cause negative repercussions in regards to the motivation of students.  Carol Dweck has done a great deal of research on this topic and she sums it up quite clearly in her book Mindset
"There is a strong message in our society about how to boost children’s self-esteem, and a main part of that message is: Protect them from failure ! While this may help with the immediate problem of a child’s disappointment, it can be harmful in the long run." 
George Couros, another progressive Principal in Stony Plain, Alberta, also focused on this topic back in August in his post The Impact of Awards.  He had another quote on this topic from Alfie Kohn's The Risk of Rewards:
"Children are likely to become enthusiastic, lifelong learners as a result of being provided with an engaging curriculum; a safe, caring community in which to discover and create; and a significant degree of choice about what (and how and why) they are learning. Rewards–like punishments–are unnecessary when these things are present, and are ultimately destructive in any case."
Lately at BHS, we have been involved in discussion about how we weight classes.  To be honest, I have trouble getting excited about any conversations about grades and course weights. I think the more important discussion is the one that focuses on our curriculum and ensuring that we are offering courses that are engaging all students and we are actively assessing our own effectiveness in this process.

Unfortunately, in my experience as a student, there was no correlation between my best learning experiences and my best grades.  While I know this is not always the case, I know that anyone who has gone through a formal education can relate to what I am saying.  Despite this knowledge, I think that parents who see all A's on their child's report card do not question the substance of actual learning that the A represents.

How do we change this? Am I wrong about grades?  Should I be so as concerned as I am?


  1. No, you aren't wrong. I think it is an extremely important issue. Just because we've been giving grades for a long time doesn't mean we should continue to give them.

    How did grades start anyway? I mean, here we are using grades, but I don't even know WHY we are using grades or how we started using them.

  2. I think you know my view on this... thank you so much for continuing the conversation. There is a big movement in BC that focuses on the research done by Dylan Wiliam and his article "Working INside the Black Box"
    and his thoughts on Formative Assesment, rather than summative assessment or Assessment FOR learning rather than Assessment OF learning. I have been using this for 3 years and it is so powerful.

    It is so refreshing to see educators questioning how we motivate kids... conversations like this is how we move forward as a system. Thank you so much for continuing this important conversation!

  3. I also believe in the use of Formative assessment in the classroom and that sometimes grades and awards are not a true reflection of what we have learned.

    However, the case to consider - maybe, are the grades we are giving linked to a valid assessment of understanding? as stated by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe

    I am all for e-portfolios/portfolios of students work showing what the student can do. However, how do we compare these to other students in our school, out of our school, across the nation. Do we need to compare? How do I measure progress, do I have a matrix of 100 skills and have to tick them off? I have seen this method publicized recently. As a Manager how do I oversee the progress of my students in my school. How do my student apply and get accepted to university? Do all Universities base admission on Portfolios now?

    The students learning is always the most important factor we need to consider. Extrinsic rewards do not help in learning, however, I still feel that our social systems and culture still require some for of measure.

    How do we tackle this?

  4. I love it! There's a school system near me that has moved to a standards-based quarterly report card instead of traditional grading. This provides a much more detailed explanation of what skills students has mastered.

  5. This is a provocative post with far-reaching implications and many, many more questions to consider. For example, what does the grade really say about a student? Are the grades merely a way of making comparisons among a group of students? Do they show what a student knows now or just what they knew at the time of assessment?
    THis is a conversation that needs to happen among more educators. THank you for continuing it and sharing your thoughts.

  6. Patrick,

    Great conversation starter. Grades are simply a lazy way of giving feedback. Excellent, superior, average, below average, failing. They have evolved into a way to compare learners to one another. They generally represent a percentage of "points" awarded for completing items, answering items correctly, and a students compliance with teacher expectations. They in no way measure individual learning and do not give feedback as to what kind of learning or growth has taken place. My kid's C may represent more growth than your kid's A. Some students may even be able to earn an A without even showing any growth. Fundamentally flawed system. We have to have this conversation! It could get messy (re: Chris Wejr's Award ceremony discussion) but messy discussion is what we need. What does an effective feedback system look like? How do we get our learning communities on board? My concern is that now that we are staked to minimum scores on high stakes tests, and we have to concentrate on the learners that are on the bubble to make "AYP", that students on the high end and the low end get no descriptive feedback at all.

  7. Great post and addition to my Grading page:

    I always had the same feeling about the honors program in elementary and middle schools. The schools in the district my children attended were encouraged to have as many students as possible on the honor roll.

    High schools will have trouble eliminating grading because of the college selection process.

    I know that if I were teaching today I would have a whole different feeling about grading although I would probably be in for a major fight about with my administrators.

  8. I can honestly say that I put serious, serious thought into the various ways of assessing my students' work. I use summative assessment, formative assessment and some fantastic rubrics from our FL Dept, from MaFLA, from courses which I've taken throughout the years, etc. From these various assessments, I can honestly determine if my students have mastered and aced the materials. I love our FL Dept's rubrics.We have put in numerous hours perfecting them. I strongly believe that they give an accurate measurement of the students' performances. When the students receives the A, it is because s(he) has truly met all of the requirements.
    I also have a policy in one of my Honor's classes where the students can correct their tests, quizzes, etc. and earn back half of the credit. Not only does their grade augment, but they're relearning the material and mastering it. I've noticed that the material in this Honor's course is quite challenging and that my students want to do well. High grades mean a lot to them. I do not wish to water down my evaluation methods. I still use the challenging tests, but I allow the students to go back and review their mistakes. I have found that by giving them opportunity to correct their mistakes, they are in fact learning and perfecting their work. The few students who do take advantage of this do receive those higher grades and often tell me how much they are, in fact, learning. I can sincerely say that these students come in to the course with less anxiety and stress. I wish to build up their self esteem and encourage them. Like the Vidal Sasson commercial in the ' 70's says, "If you (they) don't look good, we don't look good." When my students are excited about learning, it motivates me, too. After all, I'm in this profession soley for the students and their success.

  9. Patrick, I think it so wonderful that you have started this conversation (or continued it, I should say) here. I see a lot of comments from fellow educators, but I would love to hear reactions and thoughts from parents about the idea of doing away with grades.

    I also commend you for your honesty as an administrator. There aren't many out there who would admit to these kinds of feelings. Though perhaps it is more about the culture your school community has built than about your own bravery. Still, I think that it's commendable that you have not remained silent when something feels wrong to you.

    I look forward to seeing how these ideas mold and shape the future of BHS!

  10. Great post and conversation.

    Jerry mentioned this above, but for my kids (all juniors and senior English students) grades are attached to college - kids and parents constantly worrying about GPA and admissions, and the competitive nature of that process.

    How do you counteract a force like post-secondary education admissions?

  11. As a parent of three daughters, I liked the early education report cards that gave us descriptive feedback rather than a letter grade. But how can we realistically abolish letter grades in the upper schools? MCAS reports our children's abilities in numbers and percentiles in comparison to the school, district and state. SAT's give us a numerical grade for college applications Credit totals are required for graduation. GPA's and class standings are important to our students and their quest for higher education. Abolishing grades is futile unless we abolish other alphanumeric grading systems. Perhaps middle schools and high schools could design a report card that combines the letter grading system AND descriptive feedback so both parents and students will understand how this grade was achieved and where improvement is needed.

  12. Thanks for all of the comments on this post! I am glad to see one parent response from BHS from Marilyn. We can really do whatever we want as a school community in regards to assessment. The whole point is that if we emphasize a culture of learning based on students achieving certain pre-determined benchmarks that move beyond numerical or letter grading that we would not see any negative consequences on mandated tests such as the MCAS. The focus would actually move off of grades, MCAS scores, and SAT scores and onto a system where students and parents have a deep understanding of what we are focusing on and concrete examples of student growth with feedback.

    I think the article Chris mentions above gives some keen insights into this and I have full confidence that a school that undertook such a mindset would actually see improvements on assessments imposed upon them by external forces.

  13. Check out the movement happening at Waukee Middle School in Iowa! No more grades!

  14. I'm 100% on board with the idea of getting rid of grades to have descriptive feedback become the norm. It saddens me because at the end of our first semester, I have one parent seriously talking about pulling her 7th grade son out of my Algebra 1 class because it kept him out of the Jr. Beta Club by only a point. I use standards based grading and the kids love it. The parents love it . . . until it means the difference between honor roll or not. What will it take to undo the "grades" culture that has become so rooted in our educational systems?

  15. I would love to get rid of grades - but two issues have arisen where I teach. 1st - the number of students per day is prohibitive to providing timely, written descriptive feedback (>200 per day) and 2nd - at the HS level, students apply for scholarships that are based on grades. We have difficulty even moving to a letter based "grading" system.
    The final issue, which is far more difficult here is the motivation factor. Few of our students will do the work without an extrinsic motivator, and our curriculum is not intrinsically motivating for many (regardless of the differentiated instruction and song/dance the educators provide).
    Suggestions for next steps are needed.

  16. I am a parent, Three of my kids are adults, one is 17 and another is 12.
    I absolutely hate the way the report cards have changed. The "descriptive language" Tells me about the particular things my child has mastered or not but it leaves me with no idea of how well he is doing for his grade level.
    We just received a letter today informing us that our daughter made the honor roll last year and inviting us to a banquet.
    My husband and I are so proud of her and all the hard work she put in last year.
    She was as pleased as punch when she came home and found out about it.
    As far as we are concerned,Grades are part and parcel with teachers and curriculum as motivators.
    Why do people think that children shouldn't face reality until they leave school.
    Children who have problems in school deserve to get assistance with it, but need to face the fact that in life, they need to work hard to succeed and if they don't they will have problems. This is reality. If we pat children on the back for a mediocre performance we are doing them no favors. If that higher grade is in front of them and they are motivated to reach for it, GREAT! that is how it should be.
    I look around me at the way the western world has changed regarding children and shudder. We are raising Me,me,me kids Who believe that THEY are the important one and family and community either come second or not at all. It makes me sad.
    We lived in Okinawa Japan for 3 years and were blown away by the way they raise their children, There is no concept of "Me". They are taught from the start that they are the child of... The grandchild of... from the community of...From the city of... etc and that everything they do is a reflection on their family and their community.
    They are happy, well adjusted, motivated children who get into far less trouble than the children over here do.
    I am done ranting :-) I just feel very strongly on this subject.

  17. I agree that this discussion must occur, and I found a very helpful link on a previous page about weighting assessments more heavily because that is where students demonstrate mastery of the content. That is great as long as the assessments are based on the standards then you are on the right path to standards based grading. We can still use the ABCDF system but we need to think about how we assess kids, are our assessments fair, and do we allow redo's for kids to demonstrate that they have reached the standards.

  18. It's not really about "Facing the facts of life" it's about grading kids based on what they know...not about being in class, doing their homework, being "good kids" which is what most A's are now. A's don't mean anything, but when you know what they are learning and what they need to practice grades become targets for learning and are much more meaningful. I couldn't disagree more with your post...

  19. bmccloskey

    You have the right to disagree with my post.
    This is after all Canada Eh :-)
    I understand your meaning but feel that it is not the right way to go.
    I live in the Niagara region, Brock and Niagara college are great institutions. I went to Brock many many years ago, Lately it seems there are more and more children from other areas, Provinces, Country's attending both of them and the "Local" kids either do not qualify or are not motivated to go to them. I don't know if this trend is the same in other areas of Ontario.
    I suggest that we look at why this is. What has changed from a few years ago?
    Maybe we should look at other countries successes and failures in education, Their systems and motivators etc. I don't think that changing the way we grade kids will help, I think it will be changes to the current educational system, Methods, Motivators etc that will help the most.