Thursday, February 25, 2010

No good reason to grade

I have written quite a bit on abolishing grades, and today I want to impress upon you the idea that there is actually not one good reason to grade.

Here are the only three reasons I can think of that could possibly justify grading:

1) Motivation: Grades induce a kind of artificial, extrinsic motivation to strive for the reward of a high grade, or to avoid the punishment of a low grade. Either way, its the carrot or the stick that is the driving force.

2) Rank and Sort: Grades place students nicely on a fabricated heirarchy of haves and have-nots so that we can order those who are more worthy for post-secondary admissions and job placement.

3) Feedback: Grades provide students and parents with and idea where they stand.

I honestly can't think of any other reason to grade, and I honestly can't think of any good reason to use grades to achieve any of the three goals above.

Here's a quick look at why grades don't make the grade when it comes to achieving any of these goals.

Firstly, to fully grasp the chasm that exists between what science knows about motivation and what we typically do in schools, you must read Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise and Other Bribes. The first 300 pages completes an autopsy on the idea of using extrinsic manipulators to achieve compliance, while the final 100 pages of notes, references and citations drive the final nail into the coffin. A basic summary would go something like this: there are actually two different kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic, and they are inversely related; meaning, that if one grows, the other will diminish.

Secondly, the issue here isn't that we are not sorting children well enough. Rather it is that we spend any time at all sorting them in the first place when we could be using our time and effort to help them improve. Ranking and sorting, bickering over grade inflation and rigid criteria and higher standards does nothing to help children become better people. Kohn puts it quite succinctly:
What grades offer is spurious precision, a subjective rating masquerading as an objective assessment.
Thirdly, reducing something as messy as real learning to a symbol, letter or number provides little to no useful information. It simply can't tell a kid what they have done or how they could get better. Studies have shown that grades are a pathetic way to provide students with feedback. Period.

Like so many things in life, we have become distracted. We have been distracted by grades, honor rolls, achievement, winning, losing, test scores, data... and the list goes on and on.

Let's refocus.

Assessment can be simplified into two steps.



At first this may sound overly simplistic and rather benign, but here's the catch. You never need to use tests to gather, nor do you need grade to share.

So what do we do. I have mades some suggestions here. And I have more on this topic in the coming days.

For more on abolishing grading, check out this page.


  1. Interesting... Will be following your thoughts on Twitter and here. I'm a School Psychologist in Cincinnati, OH.

  2. I completely agree with you, but I do wonder what you do about quarterly or semester report card grades?

  3. If you want to know how I come up with a final grade when I have no other grades: read this -

  4. I couldn't agree more. It's time to do away with grades. Like you say, they have no real value and only spur negative extrinsic motivation.

    Especially in normal schools state schools, teachers have their students for an entire year or at least a semester. If you don't know your students well enough to assess them and help them out where they need it then you probably aren't doing your job. I can't imagine how giving student X a low grade rather than helping them out is in any way beneficial.

    Let the grading stop and the learning begin.

  5. Overall, I agree heartily. I have one question, though:

    Do you consider pass/fail the same as grading? I don't. I want there to be certification for some things. Either you know enough to do CPR properly and save a life, or you don't.

  6. Thanks for this article! I came across it while procrastinating in front of a stack of uncorrected mid-term exams. Very refreshing. My marking just got harder...

  7. I agree with Sue. There is a benchmark and a person has either met it or has not. People who have not met benchmarks would like to know how close they are to meeting them. So we sometimes offer phrases like 'beginning to meet'. Grading to you is synonymous with ranking. You dislike the reality of statistical normative curves or perhaps you dislike the way society insists on ordering students along the curve artificially. I share that dislike.

  8. I also agree with this summary and our division is starting the process of moving away from grades but I guess anyway you communicate to the parents there is some interpretation of grading happening. My second thought about this that it seems that younger children, typically, don't have the ability to intrinsically motivate themselves. I think it is something that is not quite built into their thinking yet. I believe that this is something that we, parents and teachers, teach them to do. So I would think that that stars and stickers need to be used at younger grades but as they get older they should be able to recognize themselves a job well done.

  9. Me thinks many of you have lost your minds. Why not do away, not with just grades but also with schools. Illustrating the absurd with the absurd.

    The dumbing down of our students and taking away competition will not lead to well educated
    American adults. It may lead however, to ignorant, wimpy socialists. Who knows, they may become advisors to B.H. Obama in his old age.

    Aubrey Cochran
    American History Educator
    Phenix City, AL

  10. Aubrey, beyond the rhetoric, are you suggesting that school should be about competition?

    Do you see competition as more important than collaboration?

    If abolishing grades is so absurd, then I need you to provide something that resembles proof for why we should maintain our grading systems. Something more than calling me names.

  11. Joe, as a parent and a teacher, I am looking at this issue from both sides. I am the carrot, I am the stick, but usually I just feel like the jackass. I tell my sons this is a system that they are intelligent enough to work with, beat, or use for self-reflection. But at this point in their lives they are not allowed to look at it off-shore through heavy lenses. And for my own students, I always allow late work (by quarters' ends at least - I have a life, too) without penalty. As for Professor Cochran, I would say as students, this is their time to learn, to be students, to grow their thinking. They are not little factory-stamped robots. There are plenty of countries who produce those in their educational systems. On another note, I sometimes feel that when you say "grading system" what does this matrix look like--I would like to know this enemy. I am sure you would agree that it isn't one size fits all for every age, or every school, or every teacher.

  12. I read "Punished By Rewards" a long time ago. Harder read, but worth it!! I am a junior high math teacher, but I read it as a parent when my boys were toddlers. What do you get when you clean your room? A CLEAN ROOM !!

  13. Aubrey,

    If the system we have now is leading to well educated adults then you would have a point. However, since the recommended literacy level for public speaking is 6th grade, the only ones that seem to have lost their minds are the ones who want to let things continue going they way they are.

    David Doria
    Computer Vision Researcher
    Albany, NY

  14. My wife is a sped teacher working on her masters and I am currently a teacher assistant working with ed/bd students while working on completing my bachleors so I may teach. My wife, while working on a project, ran across this website and called me in saying I will love this site.... well, from the short time I have checked it out- she is right. Just wanted to let you know. Until next time.

  15. I am not an education, just a parent. I think the grading process should continue. If an intelligent child is slacking off, the grades will show it. If a child that struggles with math is trying real hard, it will show it. By getting rid of the grading system, it will not be as obvious to the parent what their child is doing. The teacher may or may not know and may or may not tell the parent, as not all teachers do. I think the grading process should stay.

  16. I completely agree with you. I use the analogy, 95% is great, but what if the test is knowing the letters of the alphabet? What are the 5% of letters that students don't need to know? As teachers we should be more concerned with the errors students make vs. their test scores.

  17. Wonderful. Definitely following.Going to check out that book too - sounds like a good read. I absolutely *HATE* grading - and I was a typical straight-A student. Totally blame my insecurities and problems (at least most of it) on being extrinsically rewarded for "good work" at school. I learnt to make the grade, not to have the knowledge. One of the most basic driving forces for me to homeschool (unschool) my children - I want them to want the knowledge, find things out that matter to them, and retain the information if it is worthy, not because they will be tested and graded accordingly....

  18. It's just a way to create an objective value to take the subjectivity out of judging the ability of someone. And, like all such measurements, it's faulty usually to the point of being wrong. I doubt any person issuing a grade would like to be held accountable for it by an employer - even though it's a judgement of that graded person in some (sometimes arbitrary) way, with the blame spread out enough to be lost. In the world of work we tend to eventually choose people based on accumulated reputation. Before that companies want a number so that they have any way at all to filter job applications - it may be (and often seems to be) that candidates without a piece of paper with a number on it are better or as good as those with the paper - but until you can offer employers a useful way to determine a pool of people to choose from or change the culture of job application to better determine aptitude I believe we will be stuck with grades, and all of the resultant problems.
    I do look with some optimism towards companies that ask for passionate employees over well-graded ones, and sometimes I think that the system's faults will be it's own undoing - a lack of a way to distinguish one candidate from another because of academic inflation together with the unpredictable experience of accepting interviewees by grades may be driving employees to look beyond grading to rank - perhaps eventually mainstream academia will respond to that need, if it finds a reason to.


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