Sunday, January 2, 2011

Framing the reality of grading

I have written extensively on how and why teachers need to abolish grading, and I believe that teachers, students and parents should fight like mad against those who wish to externally impose the "need" to grade. I am fortunate enough to work in a school district that, for the most part, trusts their teachers to both teach and assess their classrooms based on their students' needs. Because I am trusted, I am provided with the professional latitude to abolish grading almost entirely from my classroom (only on three report cards a year am I mandated to place a grade).

However, I am aware that not all teachers are fortunate enough to be trusted to be a professional. Many teachers are prisoners to external prescription and standardization. I am not ignorant to the challenges many teachers would face if they were to attempt to abolish grading. Here is but a small list of obstacles:

  • School districts mandate the use of on-line report cards along with a prescribed number of grades that must be updated on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.
  • Departments in schools often mandate a kind of school-based standardization requiring teachers to have a set number of graded assignments or exams.
  • Provinces or states mandate high-stakes standardized tests to be a part of the students' grade.
  • Most parents only ever experienced an education with grading, so they assume to understand what grades mean. For some parents, the absence of grading might lead them to assume there is an absence of learning.
  • Teachers who are compelled to teach far too many students in a day, week, semester or year resort to reducing children to grades because they can't feasibly assess any other way.
The obstacles for abolishing grading are as abundant as they are real.

When I talk to teachers about the idea of abolishing grading, they typically provide two reactions. Firstly, they (for the most part) agree that the pitfalls of grading are prevalent; however, they are quick to list off all the reason why nothing can be done about it. 

So what is to be done?

What would you think of a teacher or parent who reconciles to the reality that nothing can really be done about bullying?

It wasn't that long ago that some parents or teachers saw bullying as "boys being boys" as if bullying was this rite of passage. Today, our society has taken quite a different take on bullying. 

So what happened? How did we progressive from such apathy to action?

I won't profess to know the answer, but I bet it has something to do with the fact that we started to openly and actively ask provocative questions about bullying. Rather than framing the reality of bullying as something we must resign ourselves to, we started to see it as a problem to be solved. 

It's time we did the same for grading - and I suggest we start with the bulleted list above.


  1. Hi Joe,

    Thanks for a great post. I find the no-grading discussion really valid. What I always get hung up on (it may not be valid) is how would an outsider (say a college) effectively evaluate students without some "standard" (and I fully acknowledge that grades really aren't standardized) to do so? Would an admissions office need to read 6+ pages of narratives about each applicant as one part of the applicant's file?

    I run in to similar road blocks when I try to imagine online higher ed, where there is more open education accessible to anyone, regardless of means. How would an employer verify that the person really had studied what he/she claimed to have studied.

    Anyway, thanks again for a though-provoking post to start the new year!


  2. Good questions MrsC_Teach - I've been thinking the same too. Though I'm sure a decently thought through system of references rather than grades would be far preferable.

    I have one further question to add which is: what does the evidence show about the experience of individuals who have not been graded further on down the line, and most especially in more extrinsically oriented situations? In other words, how well does not grading students prepare them for a world of incentives and rewards? Do they cope well?And where is the empirical evidence that would be so useful to back up our arguments?

  3. Bullying became an "action" because kids committed suicide over it ... Hope we don't something that radical for change every time.

  4. J. Hamlyn,

    I have to wonder if the world is really one of extrinsic incentives and rewards. The transition from grade school to adult life seems to be one of learning to utilize the intrinsic rewards of good, honest work. In fact, if we stopped getting students hooked on extrinsic rewards from an early age, we might end up with a less materialistic society as a whole.

  5. Hi Ben,

    Thanks for your response to my comment. I know what you mean. You raise two points though – firstly I think it’s clear that, for good or bad, we live in a largely extrinsically orientated world: pay, incentives, prizes, accolades, rewards and the constant confusion of ‘success’ with happiness all point to a materialistically (as you yourself say) driven social formation.
    Your second point focuses on a conception of social change from the ground up through education. I’m very partial to this idea but my question still stands: how robust are intrinsically motivated individuals in a predominantly extrinsically oriented world? Without concrete evidence, all we have is conjecture and that's pretty difficult stuff to build our arguments upon.