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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Is It Time to Get Rid of Grades?

By Peter DeWitt — December 02, 2014 4 min read
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In the past few years since teachers and their principals have been reduced to numbers on a their yearly evaluations there have been many discussions revolving around the idea that educators are more than numbers. It doesn’t feel good to get one number that is supposed to represent all of our hard work throughout a year. It feels disingenuous and arbitrary.

Unfortunately, for many years before accountability and mandates, students were reduced to numbers and we did not do a lot about it. That is most likely due to the fact that we were reduced to numbers when we were students in school. Numbers have been a part of schooling for many decades.

When I’m talking about numbers, I mean grades.

Grades have always been very easy. Super easy! We need grades in our grade book! How else can we prove we have been teaching???

As teachers, we give tests that students complete, and then slap a number at the top of their paper. Students who received a high grade were labeled good students and those who received low grades were considered poor students...or lazy students...or students who just don’t do well in school. Even better, take a student’s grades, average them up, and then we have data to show which students are high performing and those that aren’t.

We don’t like when data is used against us, but we have been doing this to students forever. And there are at least two educators who want to change that. They are starting a movement! As we push forward talking about number, some teachers are deciding to get rid of grades, and two bloggers/writers/educators you need to follow in order to learn more about the movement are Starr Sackstein and Mark Barnes. The movement is labeled #TTOG...Teachers Throwing Out Grades.

For full disclosure, Starr guest blogged for Finding Common Ground numerous times before she began writing her Education Week Teacher blog called Work In Progress. Mark Barnes, is someone I have been reading for a few years ever since I read his books Role Reversal and the 5 Minute Teacher, both published by ASCD. I wrote What if You Had 5 Minutes to Inspire a Student based on Mark’s work. Mark writes the Brilliant or Insane blog, and if you read it you will see why that is the perfect title.

For further disclosure, Starr and Mark both wrote books for the Connected Educators Series (Corwin Press) for which I am the series editor. However, I didn’t ask them to write books because they were friends. I asked them to write books because they have powerful ideas, which is only matched by their powerful writing styles.

But even with the dual power of great ideas and writing styles, getting rid of grades is not easily done.

Getting Rid of Grades: Easy or Hard?

As much as we talk about adults being reduced to point scales and how much we dislike it, the idea of getting rid of grades for students is not so easy...which seems a bit hypocritical. If we get rid of grades, what will we have? What will the parents think? What about our principal? What about colleges and universities? There are too many roadblocks to getting rid of grades, which becomes a vicious cycle and the major reasons why they continue to have a strong hold over our lives.

Before we can make a case for getting rid of grades, we need to understand why we should get rid of grades.

First and foremost we know that just because a student gets a good grade on a test doesn’t mean they are high achievers. It may mean that they are good test takers. The idea of getting rid of grades doesn’t have to do with some soft liberal idea that we need kids to feel good about themselves. I mean...why would we want that, right?

Offering effective feedback is what is most important. John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, gives feedback a .75 effect size which is nearly double the optimal hinge point of .40 which means students make a year’s growth in a year’s time. Although it doesn’t have the highest effect size of all of John’s research, it does however have some of the greatest implications for educators and students.

In Seven Keys to Effective Feedback, which was an article in the most mind blowing issue of Educational Leadership (ASCD, 2012) ever published (Ok, remember this is an opinion blog), Grant Wiggins wrote,

Effective feedback requires that a person has a goal, takes action to achieve the goal, and receives goal-related information about his or her actions. I told a joke--why? To make people laugh. I wrote a story to engage the reader with vivid language and believable dialogue that captures the characters' feelings. I went up to bat to get a hit. If I am not clear on my goals or if I fail to pay attention to them, I cannot get helpful feedback (nor am I likely to achieve my goals).

Unfortunately, it’s easier to give grades, especially when there are large class sizes. And although John Hattie’s research shows that class size has a small effect on learning (so far!), Hattie believes lower class sizes would have a larger effect if when we had small class sizes we offered feedback instead of grades. Vicious cycle again...

Another reason why we see tests and grades more than feedback is due to the following. In What Feedback Is and Isn’t (Grant Wiggins personal blog) Wiggins wrote,

There are five reasons why students and teachers get too little feedback and why the feedback is often unhelpful: Most so-called feedback is really advice or praise (as in the four examples above) The feedback is not clear and descriptive enough about what did and didn't happen as a result of some action taken to achieve a purpose. (e.g. a total score of 72 out of 100 on a math quiz is the feedback; it's meaning for action is unclear.) The purpose of the task is so unclear (or non-existent) to the performer that the feedback is either random or mysterious. (Without a specific teacher goal for the observed lesson, feedback and advice are pointless.) The learner has not been provided with any exemplars of excellence against which to compare their work and thus obtain feedback. (Rubrics are NOT specific enough for the performer; they are inherently general. Models plus rubrics provide the basis for useful feedback). The feedback is too late. (Thanks to a commenter for reminding me to highlight this crucial issue, as I have done in earlier posts. It is especially noteworthy on standardized tests and final exams: there is NO feedback.)

Are those five reasons also why students may get low grades?

In the End

No matter how you feel about grades and feedback, you need to get into the discussion about it with Starr Sackstein and Mark Barnes. They will push your thinking and make you step outside of your comfort level. They also don’t mind pushback on the ideas. Perhaps it will give you a reason to join Twitter!

If we really want to change education for the better, we need to take the same energy we have devoted toward getting rid of the point scales tied to our evaluations and put it toward NOT reducing our students to grades. But alas...vicious cycle again.

For other examples of alternatives to grading see Larry Ferlazzo’s powerful blog about Formative Assessment.

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(Creative Commons picture courtesty of Sage Ross).

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.