Teaching Profession

Do Students Really Need Grades? Teachers Are Divided

By Madeline Will — January 30, 2018 3 min read
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Do grades provide an accurate snapshot of a student’s performance? Or are they anxiety-producing scores that prevent educators from focusing on true learning?

In an Education Week opinion essay by Mark Barnes, the creator and publisher of the popular Hack Learning book series, he writes that gradeless classrooms are a “brave new world” that more educators need to embrace.

“Teachers would learn how to effectively assess academic performance, and students would become independent learners, driven by curiosity and inspiration rather than by the empty promise of a ‘good’ grade or the threat of a ‘bad’ one,” Barnes writes.

See the full essay: No, Students Don’t Need Grades

School districts across the country have been questioning and even replacing the traditional grading system with more experimental practices. These practices include standards-based grading, in which students receive detailed feedback on how well they have mastered specific course objectives, and competency-based learning, in which students can show what they know and progress toward mastery at their own pace. (For a breakdown of the differences between the two practices, see this analysis.)

And some school districts have implemented “no zero” policies, so that students who finish their assignments will receive at least a score of 50. The idea is that this allows struggling students to stay motivated and stay in school—it’s easier for students to recover from a 50 than a zero. (The District of Columbia has a “no zero” policy, which is explored in Education Week’s and NPR’s podcast series, Raising Kings. It’s interesting to hear from educators who both oppose and support the policy.)

See also: When It Comes to Grading, Is ‘50' the New ‘Zero’?

But many teachers are skeptical of the idea of throwing out the gradebook entirely. In the comments section of Barnes’ essay, many weighed in with their concerns:

“This builds no work ethic or personal responsibility; these are the biggest problems we have in our classrooms and the workplace today,” one commenter said.

“I have a hard time accepting that 4th graders don’t need letter grades in math,” another commenter wrote. “It would be nice if they did not, but it’s probably not reality.”

Another commenter put it this way:

If I had to peg a number to it, I'd say about 60 percent of middle class suburban kids (the kind I teach) would find a grade-less classroom quite rewarding, if more choice were allowed. 20 percent would probably not be affected at all and would perform the same, either way. But another 20 percent would see this as a field day to goof off more than they do already. No grades? No tests that mean anything (because there are no grades)? Party time! You would need to start a system like this in kindergarten and let that class work its way up if you truly wanted systemic change and to alter mindsets about the purpose of school and learning. Old, ingrained habits die pretty damn hard."

Still, there are many educators who are excited about the idea of a gradeless classroom.

One commenter wrote that not giving grades does build a strong work ethic and a sense of personal responsibility: The current system “decreases autonomous motivation and does not support competency,” the commenter wrote.

Education Week Teacher opinion blogger Starr Sackstein frequently writes about why she threw out grades in her classroom. “Learning ends when you put a grade on something,” she once wrote. “Learning isn’t about grades, it’s about mastery.”

In this video, she shares six tips for going gradeless and focusing on ongoing learning:

And Barnes gave another four pieces of advice for teachers—including asking students to grade themselves and being transparent with parents.

Teachers, would you consider going gradeless? Let us know your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter.

And for more “big ideas” like going gradeless, check out Education Week’s full report, featuring essays on improving student motivation and parent engagement.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.