Assessment Opinion

A New Grading System Meets a Critic’s Empty Words

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 17, 2017 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

TheStar.com is a Toronto based online news source. It is not one we usually follow but an article caught our attention and caused us to want to comment. Heather Mallick, an award winning journalist, and not an educator, wrote a provocative piece about grading. The article begins:

Mayfield “To strive. To seek. To find” Secondary School in Caledon, a pretty town just northwest of Toronto, is testing getting rid of grades throughout the year. Students in four Grade 9 subjects will consult with the teacher at year’s end and negotiate the grades they feel they deserve.

On the one hand, this is a bit adorable and gives stroppy teenagers a head start on years of arguing, bursting into tears and stomping off. On the other hand, it’s the end of the civilization of which we once dreamed.

Change and Risk Taking Should Be Lauded

When schools step up to consider new ways to engage and motivate students they should be lauded. Calling this “a bit adorable” is disrespectful and demeaning to those educators who probably invested research and thought to come to this decision. Perhaps the school didn’t do a good enough job in educating the public on the reasons for their choice and the research that supported their decision. We don’t know. But those with their eye on education best find out more before foisting dismissive critiques upon the bold educational reformers. We also wonder about her hyperbolic conclusion that opening evaluation to a conversation between student and teacher is the “end of a civilization of which we once dreamed”. What if adolescents really do know what they deserve given the work they have completed and what if there is real stuff behind a teacher’s letter or numerical grade? Isn’t a discussion about that worthwhile? The decision makes us wonder but it didn’t do the same to Ms. Mallick.

Everyone Has an Opinion When it Comes to Schools

When physicians decided to go from performing surgery on cancerous tumors to adding pumping chemicals into patients’ bodies and then exposing them to targeted radiation was there a clamor by the public to call this “a bit adorable”? Actually it has continued as the protocol for many, even though to a non-medically trained ear, it sounds “a bit frightening. “Think about changes in the medical world. No one outside of the profession would feel they had a voice in a progressive move forward. As consumers within the medical world, we trust the research was done and tested, we trust the concurrence within the profession, and the practice is implemented, usually to the benefit of all. But, it isn’t so with education. Is it the process of clinical trials and federal approvals that makes the difference? Everyone has an opinion, often based on their own experience, however long ago. Their current view of the world or their own child’s school and classroom provide data that becomes generalized. Our governance system with good willed, community members elected to boards of education which, in turn, determine much of what we do in schools probably aggravates this environment. The medical field has no such community control.

Unlike other fields, those who have little or no professional training, knowledge, or understanding as educators have long criticized education. We already know that. We wondered what this school may have done to communicate about their decision to abandon traditional grading so we looked at their website. Within two or three clicks we foundthis quote from the research and a short video both explaining the support of the idea from the field. Then another click takes you to a further explanation of ‘Why take the focus off of grades?” Not enough? We can only assume there was work put into speaking with teachers, students, and parents. We are curious about how the critic supports her comments against the research of the likes of John Hattie, Mark Barnes, Elizabeth Wissner-Gross, David Nagel, and the work of Starr Sackstein.

Respect the Process!

In the case of this grading policy and this school’s new direction, research was done by professionals, experimentation took place in the filed, and conclusions concurred by others in the field took place. All this was done by the school. They studied the research done by professionals who had done the work and drawn conclusions. They are trying it in their district. But in this case...unlike in a medical environment...it becomes a bite in the popular sport of educational criticism. School leaders will always have to energize their skills of collaboration and communication as they venture into what we call ‘non-mandated change’. They also have to put on tougher skin or learn the moves of aikido and let the criticism pass by.

Change leaders have responsibilities that often exceed their training and experience. We are hopeful that the community in which this school exists is better informed than the author of the article criticizing them. Change leaders have to:

  • know their students and what’s happening on the horizon that might help them
  • collaborate with stakeholders when planning a change
  • establish realistic timelines for indicators of success
  • communicate verbally, face-to-face, on websites, through social media, in meetings, etc. all affected by changes being made
  • support those implementing the change
  • celebrate small victories publically
  • maintain focus on monitoring and adjusting the practice/change being instituted

and, as is the case with this article...

  • watch and listen for criticism, both public and behind the scenes and confront it with information

The people in the middle of the work will appreciate being defended and the encouragement will feed morale. These are the visible steps change leaders have to utilize if they are to lead successful changes. And in the case of Mayfield Secondary School, we wish them success with their courageous decision to question how grading is used and valued. And given all else that troubles our world right now, we sincerely doubt if these educators are negatively impacting civilization as we dream of it. Really.


*Also of interest: Professor Thomas R. Guskey’s postabout changing the meaning of grades.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into becoming 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo by balancepft courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.