Thursday, March 4, 2010

Grades are artifically sabotaging one kid at a time

Five years ago, I abolished grades from my classroom. I still have to give a grade on the report card, but other than that, I make grades as invisible as possible. I provide formative assessment in the shape of written or spoken feedback but never a grade (except report card).

I can remember asking a very intelligent student of mine a few questions about grades. Here is how it went:

Me: What would you consider to be a good grade?

Student: I have to get honors.

Me: Why do you have to?

Student: My parents expect me too.

Me: What happens when you get honors?

Student: I get money, and I stop.

Me: You stop what?

Student: Learning. Why would I need to learn more if I have honors.

Me: *thud* (that was the sound of my jaw dropping)

It's sad but true. Grades make kids think of learning in a linear fashion. (I've written about this before when I discussed asymptotes). And because they come to see learning as linear, they start to see education as a destination rather than a journey.

This is no small problem. Just look at what she said. She said that she stopped once she achieved her goal. She said she stops... *thud* (that was my jaw again)

I don't know about you, but if we do anything to discourage learning in any way, we have got to stop doing it. Dont' we?

This student, like so many others, didn't even need this fabricated incentive to learn. Rather than encouraging her to learn more, grades were actually artifically sabotaging her.

I stopped giving grades 5 years ago. When will you?

For more on abolishing grading, check out this page.


  1. I'll stop giving grades, when...
    -the expectations that I "update my gradebook" online once a week is eliminated
    -students truly "get" self-assessment, and
    -I can figure out a way to communicate with dozens and dozens of parents about their individual students progress on an ongoing basis

  2. Grading/assessment has been the big weight on my back this year. It seems to be the main area halting my progress in becoming a better teacher. I want to do it different and thanks to your insights Joe & those of others I'm starting to visualise how to do that.

    @Matt Townsley in response to your conditions - I'd ask you to consider these questions respectfully:
    1. Could you not 'code' your assessment in a way to still update your gradebook weekly (e.g. with rubric scores or performance levels that would be meaningful to students) - at a previous school we had performance levels from 1-8 in each subject area with descriptors

    2. Will students ever truly "get" self-assessment if they don't practice using it on a regular basis? As teachers, we must stop explaining it to them and start talking about it with them in terms they can understand on a level with them as partners interested in the same goal - the student's learning.

    3. Grades are a facade that stand-in for real communication of progress. How does an 'A' or 73% tell a parent anything about their child's real ability to solve problems with math skills, write an essay, understand a book or think critically? Why should you as the teacher be the only one communicating about the student's progress? Involve students in the process and ask them to share with their parents.

    As I said above, I'm not where I want to be with my own assessment practices. However, I think it is taking the easy way-out to throw-up reasons to maintain the status quo rather than confront ways to do it better.

  3. thanks to both of you for visiting and commenting. Blair, I could not have said it better. How will kids ever 'get' self-assessment if they never get to do it.

    We must teach them to.

    Matt Townsley, I am not saying it is easy, but what are you doing to change any of the 'yeah, buts' that you list. If kids gave you a list of reasons why they couldn't do an assignment for them, what would you say to them?

  4. @Blair @Joe
    I wrote those questions as a bit of a reality check...probably more for me than anything. I've been blogging about not grading homework (, moving towards a standards-based system ( and "grading" less while increasing opportunities for feedback. I see Joe's post as one of those "over-the-top" ideals that pushes us all to examine ourselves. Personally, I think for as many Joe's, we also need folks who are willing to be a part of the change by embracing the current system of "grades" (sorry, I can't get rid of them...just change the way I give them) so that perhaps, someday, grades could be abolished. I agree with Joe - eliminating grades is the ideal - but the questions I brought up are reality for so many teachers. Merely telling them to eliminate grades is like telling kids to "get it" without addressing their misconceptions. For as much as we talk about the end result, ten-fold could be written about the "how" and interim fixes to our broken system. When will I get rid of grades? Once the system moves in that direction via a collective group of educators working together to change their individual practices as much as the system permits.

    I think we're definitely driving in the same direction, Joe...just via different vehicles. Appreciate your writing. Keep it up.

  5. GREAT discussion. One other tidbit to add: In my psychology class, I talked with students about the "overjustification effect" - a well known phenomenon in cognitive psych. It happens when an organism is performing a behavior for intrinsic reasons (curiousity, etc.) and then is rewarded for the behavior. After the food rewards stop, the behavior stops - the extrinsic reinforcer took the place of the intrinsic motivation and when the extrinsic reward stops, the previously intrinsically rewarded behavior stops. So a kid likes to read, reads, we notice, give the kid a reward (gold stars, higher grade, etc.) - what does that do in the long-run to student motivation?
    In the end, I hope grades can be seen as ONE of the forms of feedback (not the most imporant or even informative form, but a form) and we can "put them in their place", instead of the elevated, inflated sense of importance they have right now. They shouldn't be rewards or punishments - they should me measurements, and treated as such

  6. @Matt Townsley, I do believe we should abolish grades, but I also talk a lot about what we can do to minimize the damages. That is, even I 'have to do' somethigns like place a mark on the report card, but there are a lot of things I can stop doing that some teachers wrongly feel like they have to (like grade every assignment or averaging averages to come up with a final average)

    Thanks for the discussion. I enjoy this open line of communication!

  7. I wish I could. I am on another plane when it comes to assessment expectations that are the opposite of my administartion and the parents.
    I teach at a small private school in Vancouver (160 kids) that is NOT ELITE but provides service for a very small population. we have students who are fragile learners...average, honours...all types. However because we are a 'private school' the parent expectation is that all of their children will get the grades they need to be accepted into mcgill before the end of the first term so they can begin their medical degree. in fact we are unofficially mandated to "put the students best interest forward" to aid in the application to these schools. I am on the line because i did not contact a parent because their child is getting less than 80%. the child is a traditionally average, somewhat lazy gr9 boy.

    my grade 12s acknowledge that I am forcing them to think....which is good..."but is there another assignment i can do to raise my mark?"


    i could write for hours...but i have to create marks for term two that I can back up mathematically. apparently there is NO ROOM for subjective analysis. 17 years of teaching experience does not gain an ounce of support.

  8. @Matt Townsley I'll check out your blog and read about your changes to your grading - always interested in how others face the same challengs. I intended my response as a consideration of how you, I and others can work within the existing system where grades are required.

    @Malcolm Feel for your situation. Don't have high parent demands at my current school, but have been in that situation before. It is really unfortunate since assigning a numeric grade and 'averaging averages', as Joe says, is just as subjective. Keep challenging your students and parents to think about why they want "grades" so badly, with that in hand you might be able to give them what they really want.

  9. I'm a college teacher. I stopped grading individual assignments in the late 90s. It was liberating. Instead I pursue dialogue around written work, see Here's my rationale (and how I assign an end-of-semester grade),

    Peter Taylor

  10. Peter... I like that. This can be used across a wide scpectrum of courses...all in fact. Very much in line with the Mastery of Skills where the 80% reflects that all concepts are being understood to that satisfactory level.

  11. @Blair - Your questions were very good questions. I admit I ignored them a bit and "answered" them in an indirect way instead...
    1) I think standards-based grading is one option for "coding" grade books. Recording completion more regularly to communicate responsibility (rather than some random points for homework)
    2) I couldn't agree more with your thoughts about self-assessment. Some students, in my opinion, need (or at least think they do) extrinsic rewards. If increased self-assessment is a result of grades, that's a good thing, but you're right...we need to make this explicit rather than implicit.
    3) Graded are polluted. Amen. Standards-based grades are an interim solution until as Joe suggests, grades are eliminated.

    Do I see grades being eliminated anytime soon on a system-wide level? Maybe I'm too realistic in saying no. I think there's a better chance of moving towards standards-based grading so I've decided to put my energy in that direction. Many elementary classrooms are already using them. Why not at the secondary level, too?

  12. A great interview with David Langford discusses how to improve education using ideas from Deming


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