Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Fears of Abolishing Grading

Even if you can rationalize why we must abolish grading and how we replace grading with something far more supportive of student learning and school improvement, there are some fears you must face before moving forward.

If I don't give a grade, why would students learn or do anything I ask them?

A couple thoughts come to mind here. Firstly, if there is no better reason for a student to do something you have asked them to do than the grade you are offering them, then I would question the quality of your request. If it requires an artificial inducement or fabricated threat to entice compliance from your students, then it is seriously time to rethink what you are asking them to do.

Secondly, this is a horrible way to think of students and, rather than an indictment of the student's lack of motivation, maybe more telling of the teacher's lack of motivation and need for bribes and threats.

If I let my students grade themselves, they will all chose 100% or an A.

To immediately disclude even the possibility that your whole class might achieve 100% is evidence that you  consciously, subconsciously or unconsciously grade on a bell curve. Sound assessment practice dictates that norm-referenced assessment is archaic and utterly useless in reporting student learning. Seriously, what would be wrong with everyone getting 100%? I'll tell you why it's so awkward of a thought - because the very nature of the high standards fad means that some students must be made to fail. The very idea of everyone achieving excellence somehow translates into 'those damn teachers are too easy on those damn kids'. And so we raise the bar high enough to ensure a certain portion of children are made to fail. But I digress...

In the last 5 years that I have had students pick their grade, I can count on one hand how many students are completely dillusional about their grade. It is truly amazing how eerily accurate students can be when they honestly reflect on a grade for themselves. Ironically, I have found far more students to be too hard on themselves, and I am forced to actually increase the mark they would have given themselves.

Even if some students did select an inflated grade for themselves, what real harm is being done by this? We have such a queer definition of accountability - even if one kid happened to 'get away' with a higher grade than he 'deserved', wouldn't it be worth it to allow the other 99 kids the opportunity to have some say in their assessment?

Won't asking my students to pick their grade place undo stress on our relationship, if I end up disagreeing with them?

Absolutely not. Traditional grading typically provides students with no opportunity to feel like a stakeholder in their assessment because they are never asked to provide any input at all. But, let's say for argument sake that you disagree with a grade a student selected for themselves. That disagreement may be subjectively artificial depending on the scale you are using. The larger the scale, the more likely you are to disagree. For example, there is a far greater chance of disagreement with percentages, there are a lot of number between 1 and 100, than with letter grades. A smaller scale is always better, if we are trying to reach some kind of consensus.

Also be sure to ask yourself 'is this the hill I'm willing to die on?' Are you willing to slug it out in a disagreement over 1%? How about 5%? Now this is a trick question because it is all relative. If we are talking about the difference between 49% and 50% then the difference is a pass or fail - life or death for the student. But if we are talking about 64% and 65% then I have absolutely no idea what the difference between these two numbers are.

I could go on and on, but I have one last question for you.

Do you see how bloody distracting grades are?

Can you see how we could talk about grades forever and never really discuss learning?

To be honest, my fear is that we are so driven to distraction that we may continue trying to tinker around with grading with rubrics and complicated averaging metrics in an attempt to make it work when really we need abandon the entire system.

For more on abolishing grading, check out this page.


  1. Brilliant post! How many of us have had been in discussions with peers centered on the themes you've identified.

    Will part 2 be a post that describes the challenges of practically implementing this on a school-wide or district-wide scale?

    Change starts with one person, and is incremental, but lasting systemic improvement won't come until we pass the tipping point. I'm not sure how to get there...


  2. The main thing to realize is that there is no connect between the grade a student gets from two different teachers. And what does an 85 or a 65 say about the student? Does it say that one worked his butt off to get that grade while another slacked off and could have gotten a 90 or 100?

    Grades are not totally meaningless, but our obsessions about them are not justified by the paltry information they convey, if any at all.

  3. @educationontheplate You say grades are not totally meaningless. Could you explain a purpose they have that is meaningful?

  4. Just found your blog via Twitter. Love it! I can't wait to look around. I just blogged on the same topic and I'm linking to this post.

  5. Glad you find me, Karen!

    I look forward to discussing these kinds of topics!

  6. HALLELUJAH! I teach at an alternative (public, still) school where I might actually be able to convince staff and students to let me experiment with not giving grades AT ALL in my classes (they would have to be pass/fail; given their current levels of performance, all students would pass). But to sell it as an experiment, ideally, I would have to find some examples of PUBLIC schools that have tried not using grades. I've done some Internet research to no avail... does anyone know of any? Schools that use some system other than number or letter grades... something like written assessments?

  7. To do this at a larger scale would require a great amount of justification, both internally and externally. The system(s) are built upon the notion of grades when considering class rank and other measures that compare students within and between schools. The challenge isn't likely to be establishing that grades have little meaning, but rather getting these systems to change. If you do anything that effects a student's ability to get into college X, no matter how worthy the change, it will be scorned by students, parents, and admins. This is an instance in which both bottom-up and top-down approaches are required for equitable change.

  8. The thing I hate the most about grades is the whole Shtick where everyone can't pass. Like you said, if they do, "they must be going easy on those kids". Because obviously we just aren't smart enough to not fail right?

  9. Joe,
    What is rather subtle but interesting here is that it really isn't about "abolishing grading." It is about "abolishing *teachers* from grading." The power of assessment has been transferred to the hands of the student. This was a practice I engaged in on my own early in my teaching career in Central Harlem. The students and I would develop a rubric. They assessed themselves and asked for input of at least two other people who they felt had valuable feedback. I suggested this be one adult and one student, but the choice was theirs. I explained that unless I found something highly egregious (which never happened) the grade was theirs.

    Oue job as educators is to empower young people to assess their own work with feedback of those whose opinions they respect. That is exactly what happens when we take the power of assessment out of the hands of the teacher and place it into the hands of the student.

  10. Joe,

    I love your paragraph about students giving themselves "inflated grades". As soon as I read it, I couldn't help but think about the number of "inflated grades" I gave students early in my career. I think teachers are much more likely to give students "inflated grades".

    Great post as always!

  11. Hi Joe

    Many people in you comments "hate" grades and grading, claiming things like some kids must fail. Surely that is the system of grading that they use (which usually is a decision well up the food chain from teachers), rather than the idea of grading itself. If you use criterion referencing (as my school does), then all can pass (or all could fail) depending on if they hit the standard or not. You yourself do not abolish grading, but instead give your students a significant input into their own grades.

    I guess however, that the bottom line is that until colleges and universities change their entrance requirements, we are stuck in producing grades which they recognize and accept. As they change, we will become more free (at least in the high-school where it is more apparent) to alter or remove the practice of grading. cant wait for that to happen, but not sure it will in the near future


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