Education Opinion

To Grade or Not To Grade

By Starr Sackstein — April 14, 2015 3 min read
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Guest post by Nicholas Provenzano, the Nerdy Teacher

He came to me after school covered in dread and wrapped in anxiety. They had a pale complexion and had a hard time getting the sentence out they wanted to ask. I felt their nervous energy pass over to me as the first word left their lips,

“Can you explain to me why I got a ‘B’ on the essay?”

The grading debate has been growing in the past couple of years and I have been trying to gather as much information as possible on why I should throw out grades. I have to say, I’m not completely sold on this. I’m struggling to even write this post because I feel like I’m not sure how I really feel. Are grades really that bad? Are they really that important? I’m not sure I can give anybody an answer, but I think there is some value exploring new ideas and that is what I’m hoping to do in this post.

After talking with certain people and reading tweets, you might think that grades are directly from the 8th Circle of Hell, but were evicted for being too evil. There are times where I feel like I’m a terrible human being for giving my students grades on their assignments based on what I read in my Twitter feed.

I have to say that I just do not see this as a big issue for me.

I give letter grades to my students and I use rubrics to help them better understand what I’m looking for on an assignment and how different levels on the rubric equate to a letter grade.

This all works well for me and for my students.

The students that need more information can come to me and we will sit and discuss their essay in more detail. I spend a full day in class discussing essays and larger assignments to go over the bigger issues that I might have seen as a whole.

The students might focus on the letter grade on the assignments, but that is not the focus of the class. So, what is the big deal?

(Long pause in writing...like...20 minutes.)

The more and more that I think about it, this conversation needs to be about feedback and less about letter grades.

I keep taking long pauses in writing this post because I’m trying to find the reasons why I need to keep giving letter grades and why I need to get rid of them and I can’t find truly good ones for either.

I keep going back to feedback.

When it comes down to it, the letter grade on its own IS pointless.

The most valuable part of any assignment that students get back from a teacher is the feedback. I feel the “grade tossing” movement is all about using grades as the only feedback. That is terrible teaching. A letter grade alone does not tell a student anything. This part of the argument is something I can fully support and will share with others.

The reason I am struggling so much with this entire concept is because it seems to be all or nothing and I do not think I can get there...yet. My focus as a teacher over the years is to give better feedback to my students to help them grow as readers, writers, and people.

While some students might remember the letter grades they have received on a certain essay or project, they truly remember what the learned. Students do not come back to me down the road to talk about the letter grade on a project, they talk about the experience they had in class and what they learned along the way.

Grades are only a problem if a teacher stresses them above the learning process. Feedback is a crucial part of the learning process. Grades are a part of the process as well, but a small part.

I do think that letter grades have become too important to students and I know that colleges are partly to blame for that. As a result, that pressure comes to the high school level and it continue to trickle down to the earlier grades. This is a larger conversation that needs to take place and it is not going to be an easy one. As long as colleges use GPA to help determine who gets in and who gets left behind, it will be an uphill battle.

By switching the focus to feedback over grades, more valuable conversations can be had about the type of feedback students need at all grade levels and how teachers can provide it to them to help them grow as learners. For me, I know that I can continue to improve on the type of feedback I give my students so they can have a deeper understanding of what they know and what they can continue to work on in class.

More than anything, this post has made me think about the type of feedback I give my students and I hope it does the same for you. I’m not sold on tossing out grades in my class, but the conversation has made me think about my practices and that is important for any teacher that wants to continue to improve.

Nicholas Provenzano is a high school English teacher and an education blogger. He writes on his website, TheNerdyTeacher.com and has been featured on CNN.com, The New York Times, Consumer Report, and other media outlets. He was awarded the Technology Teacher of the Year by MACUL (Michigan Association of Computer Users in Learning) and ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) based on his efforts to integrate technology into the classroom. Nicholas is an Evernote Educational Ambassador, Google Certified Teacher, and is on the Remind Teacher Advisory Board. Above everything else, he is just a nerdy teacher trying to make a difference in the classroom. Contact Nicholas Provenzano at TheNerdyTeacher.com or on Twitter at @TheNerdyTeacher

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress 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.