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Exploring Ways to Say So Long to Traditional Letter Grades

By Madeline Will — February 05, 2019 8 min read
A+ in chalk on a traditional blackboard.
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High school junior Jadyn Sullivan tends to get stressed about schoolwork. Like many of her peers, she worries about her grades.

But in her physics class, there is no traditional A-F grading scale to worry about. That’s because David Frangiosa, Jadyn’s teacher at Pascack Hills High School in Montvale, N.J., uses standards-based grading instead.

In that system, students don’t get grades on their assignments. Instead, Frangiosa gives them detailed feedback, and their performance is measured against specific course standards for mastery of the content.

Jadyn will only see a reported grade twice during the year: a midyear progress report and the final grade on her report card, which is based on a month-long final project. In many ways, she said, that is freeing.

“I feel like I’m learning a lot more than I would” if there was a grade attached to each assignment, she said. “I’m trying to actually find the answer rather than worrying about if it’s right or wrong.”

Jadyn’s experience is not the norm in schools, but it’s part of a growing trend of educators rethinking grading.

“In my opinion, it’s probably the biggest elephant in the room in regards to school reform,” Dan Kelley, the principal of Smithfield High School in Rhode Island, said of traditional grading. “We start [grading] at a young age, and it becomes all about accumulating points, and it’s not about the learning anymore.”

There are a few different strands of grading reform. Some schools have “no zero” policies that say the lowest score a student can receive on an assignment is a 50, at times even when a student fails to turn anything in. In addition to standards-based grading systems like Frangiosa’s, there is competency-based learning, which allows students to progress in their learning at different rates based on how well they’ve mastered a set of standards or competencies.

The most radical approach of all is ditching the grade book altogether—in favor of giving students detailed feedback on their performance throughout the year and working with students to jointly assign a final report card grade, when the school requires it. (It’s a small but passionate movement: About 10,000 educators are in a Facebook group devoted to throwing out grades.)

While these approaches vary, the educators who experiment with grades have a common rationale: The traditional A-F system doesn’t inspire students to learn for the sake of learning. Grades are too heavily based on nonacademic factors, like punctuality and compliance. They stress some students out and cause others—particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds—to give up.

“Are students in school to get a grade and graduate or are they in school to get better at something, to improve themselves, and to actually learn something?” said Mike Stein, an English teacher at Coffee County Central High School in Manchester, Tenn., who has gotten rid of grades in his classroom. “Sometimes, the answer can be both. Unfortunately, all too often, students get so focused on the number that it’s literally all they care about. It’s my job to do whatever I can to help them learn, even if that means taking away the numbers at the top of the page.”

But the traditional grading system is entrenched in America’s schools, and educators who experiment with grades have faced pushback from administrators, teachers, parents, and students themselves. And many school districts are not logistically set up for making radical grading changes, educators say.

“Grades aren’t the best way to communicate learning; it’s the easiest way, it’s the most efficient way,” said Starr Sackstein, the director of humanities for the West Hempstead, N.Y., school district and an edweek.org opinion blogger, who has written books about rethinking assessment.

“When we start ... understanding that kids aren’t numbers or letters, they’re complex people who often require a lot more than that—it’s not that we don’t want to give it to them, but I think we sometimes feel burdened by the extra responsibilities [and requirements] in the school system.”

Shifting Students’ Mindsets

A body of research has found that grades tend to reduce students’ interest in learning. Anecdotally, teachers who shifted away from the traditional A-F grading system say that after some implementation bumps, their students seem more engaged in the subject material. They take more ownership of their learning. And they stop asking the dreaded question: “What do I need to do to get an A?”

“My classroom has never been more enjoyable to me since I started this,” said Frangiosa, who volunteered to switch to standards-based grading four years ago when his assistant principal was looking for someone to develop and pilot the model.

“I’m a science teacher. The nature of my class is to investigate,” he said. But before he made the switch, “any time I gave students feedback, ... it would all go back to the grade.”

Now, students receive one letter grade at the end of the year—and it’s not based on their understanding of the content, but rather the skills baked into the course standards. While students take (and must pass) periodic content quizzes, their final grade is based on skills used in their final assignment and assessment, because that should be their best work, Frangiosa said.

This year, about 10 percent of teachers in his school are using alternate assessments, although not all are standards-based, he said.

The standards-based model, he said, gives students “the opportunity to try things out of their comfort zones and not be afraid to fail, because these mistakes and failures are really where we learn.”

Stein, the Tennessee teacher who went gradeless after presenting a plan to his principal, said his students have appreciated the “mindset shift” that comes with not having a grade. Other teachers in his school have expressed interest after seeing how engaged his students are, Stein said, but no one else has taken the plunge.

Still, he does have to give his students a final grade to put on their report card due to school policy. His workaround: letting students pitch him what grade they think they’ve earned.

Typically, about two-thirds of Stein’s students give themselves the grade that he would have given them. A handful of the remaining students will try to inflate their grades, but it’s more typical for students to low-ball themselves, he said.

That’s common, grading experts say.

Without grades, “students became better advocates for their own learning; they were able to speak to what they know in terms of the standards. They were able to ask for help more succinctly and know what they needed help with,” Sackstein said. “I think they also became more confident learners.”

A Lightning Rod Issue

Still, it’s hard work to rethink grades, educators say. They can face resistance at every corner, including from students, who are used to “playing the game of school,” Sackstein said.

And without all parties on board, the reform can fail. Five years ago, Kelley, the Rhode Island high school principal, had to walk back a few grade-related changes he made. He had preceded the changes with three years of conversations about grading practices with staff members.

The changes called, for example, for teachers to allow revisions on summative assessments and stop giving zeroes. Teachers were also asked to consider how and why they were grading homework.

Kelley thought that it was a good first step toward lessening the focus on grades, but the rollout went poorly.

“I’ve never had so much anger, hostility, frustration,” Kelley said. “Here I was thinking as a leader, we took our time with the conversation, but grading practices are so ingrained [that] it is really, really, really hard to break some of these practices that I think are toxic.”

Most of the pushback came from parents, he said.

A common critique of grading reforms is that they don’t teach students personal responsibility or work ethic.

Laura Fuchs, a high school history teacher in the District of Columbia, said she understands the arguments for getting rid of traditional grades. But grades help hold her students accountable. Learning that responsibility, she said, is important as students prepare for the workforce.

“No job is going to pay you if you don’t do what your boss tells you to do,” she said.

Perhaps no area of grade-related reform has been as hotly criticized as the no-zero policy. But for Michael Megyesi, the principal of Chesterton Middle School in Indiana, switching to that policy for homework and classwork was a game changer for his students. Before, many students were failing classes, even though they were passing the tests.

“The zero was more indicative of their behavior than their academic performance,” he said. “This eliminates all behaviors from the grade.” Now, if a student is failing a class, teachers know it’s because he or she doesn’t know the material and can deliver early interventions, Megyesi said.

Equitable Grading

Megyesi said the no-zero policy also puts students on a “level playing field.” Some students, he said, don’t have support at home, and it’s not fair to punish them if they are unable to complete their homework.

Indeed, Joe Feldman, an education consultant and author based in Oakland, Calif., said traditional grading “thwarts efforts to make schools more-equitable places.”

The practice, he said, is vulnerable to teacher bias and favors students with privilege while harming those from low-income backgrounds or with special needs. Instead of motivating students to work harder, Feldman, a former teacher, said low grades often cause students to withdraw from school out of discouragement.

After all, A, B, C, and so on are labels that educators are putting on students, said Mark Barnes, the creator of the Hack Learning book series and an advocate for getting rid of grades entirely.

“The more you work to get kids to believe in learning for the sake of learning, the better they become as learners for the rest of their lives,” Barnes said. “When you put a grade on something, learning stops. That’s the worst thing about grades. And as teachers, we should want learning to go on forever.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2019 edition of Education Week as Exploring Ways to Say So Long to Traditional Letter Grades

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