Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Grading Moratorium: Carol Barton

Carol Barton has joined the Grading Moratorium. Want to join? Here's how.

Carol Barton
Grade 4
Summerland, British Columbia, Canada

At what stage of the abolish grading game are you?

For the last two years I have not included letter grades on student report cards. I have not used letter grades to mark student work for many years. I recently completed my Master’s Degree in the summer of 2010 - my research project involved developing an alternative reporting tool to complement letter grades as I was unable to eliminate letter grades completely due to Ministry Policy. I followed up my research project by implementing a pilot project for the 2010-2011 school year where I did not give letter grades on the traditional report card. Parents were given the option to request letter grades for their child if they wanted them.

I have made presentations to my School Board and to representatives from the elementary schools in my district who were part of a 'reporting and grading' committee. Since the committee meetings I've been invited to speak to intermediate teachers at several schools within the district. For now this has been put on hold because of our job action – we are currently not writing first term report cards. I have had great support from our Superintendent, the Director of Instruction, my school administrators, colleagues and parents.

I found an interesting website from Damian Cooper, an independent education consultant from Ontario, who specializes in helping schools and school districts improve their instructional and assessment skills. In his video Does the Drive to Quantify Learning Get in the Way? Damian makes a good point about not being able to eliminate letter grades; but I hope, however, that one day we will be in the position to report student progress without having to use letter grades:

Damian's website has other resources that are also interesting:


Why do you want to or why did you abolish grading?

The biggest reason I have for not using letter grades is the negative effect that letter grades had on my students. I have included a section from my research project to explain:

At least fifteen research reviews in the last twenty-five years have documented the impact letter grades have on students (Fuchs & Fuchs 1986; Natriello, 1987; Crooks, 1988; Bangert-Drowns, Kulik, Kulik & Morgan, 1991; Dempster, 1991, 1992; Elshout-Mohr, 1994; Kluger & DeNisi, 1996; Black & Wiliam, 1998; Nyquist, 2003; Brookhart, 2004; Allal & Lopez, 2005; K├Âller, 2005; Brookhart, 2007; Wiliam, 2007; Hattie and Timperley, 2007; Shute, 2008 as cited in Wiliam & Leahy, 2009). The research described how grades reduce the natural curiosity of students to learn. Letter grades decrease students' desire for challenge, and grades diminish their quality of thinking. Schools tend to rely on motivating students extrinsically with grades and positive reinforcement like awards for good marks. This diminishes the students' natural curiosity to learn as their intrinsic motivation, or natural curiosity is extinguished and extrinsic motivation involving getting good grades and having parents excited with good results is now their goal. It is interesting to note that researchers found the more students were pressured to get good marks the less likely they were to challenge themselves. Another downside to letter grades described by researchers is that grades have a tendency to diminish the quality of student thinking. Kohn (1999) wrote about studies which found that if students lost curiosity in what they were learning because of grades, it is likely that their thinking would not be as powerful. One particular group of studies he referred to discovered that students who received grades were considerably less creative than students who received written feedback but no grades. Stiggins pointed out that if assessment was to support student achievement then letter grades should not be a part of a balanced assessment system. He wrote:
If they are to have a productive impact on the learner, the nature of our assessment practices must continue to evolve in specific directions. For instance, the assessment results must go beyond merely providing judgements about to providing rich descriptions of student performance.

What do you do in replace of grading?

I strongly believe in using assessment for learning. Again I've included part of my paper to explain. Researchers (Earl, 2003; Marzano, 2008; Stiggins, 1999, 2008; Wiliam & Leahy, 2009; Wiliam, 2006) are adamant about the use of assessment for learning to improve student achievement. When evidence about student achievement is obtained and used by teachers and students to make decisions regarding the next steps in the learning process student achievement is inevitable. A critical difference with AFL practices is that the student, not an adult, is one of the key users of assessment data and therefore a key decision maker in their education. It was previously thought that parents, teachers, school leaders, and policy makers made the most important decisions regarding assessment data; however, years of research have shown otherwise (Stiggins, 2008). Three important aspects of AFL are to have the students work in collaboration with their teachers, to self-assess, and to know what they are presently learning and what will come next. The benefits of AFL are multi-faceted because the format allows for student success and it increases student achievement and improves student confidence, motivation and learning; something letter grades cannot do for all students.

How do you establish a grade if you have no grades?

I combine the results of assessment rubrics from student work, which indicate four levels of achievement: not yet meeting, minimally meeting/approaching, fully meeting and exceeding; with student self-assessments and reflections, quizzes, and tests, oral contributions, and teacher observations to see where the students are in their learning.

What fears did you have about abolishing grading?

I approached my research project with a sense of hope not fear. I had resented using letter grades for so long that I was excited to actually not use them. I was also curious to see what the reactions of the parents would be. Since starting on my 'no letter-grade' journey I have made connections with other teachers who have eliminated letter grades as well and I've been pleasantly surprised to have similar results – no negative reactions from parents; in fact many were very supportive.

What challenges do/did you encounter with abolishing grading?

I don't really consider it a big challenge, but the high achieving students (especially straight A students) and most often their parents, though not always, liked to have letter grades. This wasn't a big issue for me because of the option to request letter grades if they were wanted. I included the letter grades on a separate, very plain, document and had only written comments on the official report card. I was given the suggestion by another teacher who has eliminated letter grades as well. It is a subtle way to show that letter grades really don't tell you much about student achievement (what did they do well if they received an 'A', do they have areas to work on?, etc.)

Are you willing to provide contact information (e-mail, Twitter, blog, Skype, etc) for others who are interested in abolishing grading?

Yes, I can be reached via email: cbarton@summer.com

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I only hope more educators grab this vision. Grades are extrinsic motivators, which research shows do not work in the long run. Read "Drive" by Daniel Pink for details or start with my summary at http://bit.ly/jl7ara. Grades also build failure into the system, which makes no sense. I prefer the notion of you are not there yet as opposed to you failed and get to take the year over include the stuff you already mastered. Barely passing is also a problem as you will not be well prepared for the next level. Averaging is also evil as it locks in poor performances that you are stuck with for life. Keep up the good work.


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