Assessment Opinion

Grading Students’ Work: Past or Future World? #TBT

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 18, 2014 5 min read
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This Throwback Thursday begins with a personal note from one of us. In cleaning out the attic of an old family farmhouse, I found report cards from the early nineteenth century. With interest and care, I opened the brown edged paper and found grades by subject area and a few teacher remarks. Pausing, I thought back to the rural school in a very different time, where four siblings bundled up to walk miles to school. Generations of families valued report cards enough to save them for over a hundred years. There is also a box tucked away with my own report cards in it from the two room school house where I attended grades K - 5. On one of those early report cards, the teacher observed that, as a 5 year old, I was “smart and had trouble following rules.” Laughing out loud, I knew my coauthor of this blog, Jill, would agree still. We’ve been thinking about grades these days, so it all ties together.- Ann

Alfie Kohn, well-known child advocate has been researching, writing and talking about the effects of grading on children’s learning for years. His first book was written over 28 years ago. Some of the foundational research for his advocacy reaches as far back as the 1940’s. Today, his work continues to argue:

  • Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning.
  • Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task.
  • Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.

Now, Peter Dewitt, Starr Sackstein and Mark Barnes have been writing about eliminating grades...and there is a Facebook page (Teachers Throwing Out Grades) and a Twitter account (#TTOG) dedicated to this conversation.

Social Media Accelerates and Broadens The Conversation
Alfie Kohn, wrote books, gave lectures, and even established a webpage. If you didn’t read his books, or attend his lectures or search for his webpage, you may have been out of the loop. But now, social media is making a difference. Not only is it easier to be in the loop, the loop is getting bigger. Far more people stay connected through social media avenues; and teachers outnumber school leaders. The impact of grading on student motivation, learning, and progress seems to be gaining momentum. There are thoughtful discussions taking place and leaders can join or watch and listen. But are they? What is going to happen to this idea that used to sit passively in books, when the ability to connect with other like-minded people around the world can grow exponentially?

Perhaps as you read this thought barriers arise. Grades are part of schooling and of how teachers communicate progress and development to parents. How can this idea ever take hold especially in a public school? Or, for that matter, how can the use of standardized tests used as high stakes measures ever be diminished? We wonder. As the power of social media grows and the engagement of those who are advocating to abolish grades catches fire, is living in the “can’t happen world” becoming a dangerous place?

Change Involves Attention to Cultural Values
How can we consider changing the tradition of grading without engaging in serious and respectful conversations with those advocating for it? What is being proposed to replace grades? How does that four times a year communication from teacher to parent take place in the future and how will progress be measured? In order for these respectful conversations to take place, there is leadership work to be done on the home front. There exists a greater possibility for success if we pay attention to these rumblings now and begin taking action early. If not, one day this issue will land on the doorstep of unprepared leaders who may have been ignoring the popularizing trend to eliminate grades.

One challenge lies in the traditional value of using grades for accountability purposes. It may be a value held deeply by educators, parents and students. We know it is deeply embedded within the values of some students, who watch each point in a grade or average as if it were life defining. It becomes a habit for the most competitive ones and it follows them into graduate schools. This, like most changes in a system, requires a cultural as well as structural consideration, and in order to be successful, needs time and attention in order to address questions like:

  • Why do we want children to be graded on their assignment?
  • What value do the grades have?
  • How are the grades used?
  • Should some grade levels include grades and others not?
  • If we do not grade students’ work, how will progress be noted?
  • How will teachers be held accountable if grades are not noted?
  • How can we be sure that students in Kalamazoo, Michigan and in in Disco, Tennessee are receiving an equivalent experiences in their classrooms?

When the movement reaches the schoolhouse door, if there has been no preparation, there will be a rush to respond. Why not gather a committee now, investigate the issue locally, and have a community that is aware, informed and engaged?

Social Media Opens Doors
The faculty room, PTA meeting, even private discussions are opening up for listening and watching and learning. Consideration, research, and conversation are required. Blogs, Facebook and Twitter and the like are all offering leaders an opportunity to pay attention to what people are thinking and feeling. Sometimes, these are overwhelming but this is a conversation we think needs leader attention before it appears at a board meeting or in a contract negotiation. This discussion can be monitored in one’s own time and place. Surely, there are schools ready to engage in this conversation. And, there are places not ready or not in a position to make a change like this. No matter, this is a healthy discussion to have. It involves:

  • caring about students
  • sharing ideas and values about assessment and its uses
  • opening and sharing of practices used in each classroom
  • parents’ views of grades and how they use them to measure their child’s progress
  • school governance and policies addressing evaluation.

The discussion holds the possibilities for expanding ideas, demonstrating the fearlessness to engage ideas that may threaten long established school traditions and listening to voices from the edge with respect. Social media gives the leader an opportunity to listen in on conversations that are informative and revealing. There are many conversations taking place ‘out there’. This one, in particular, is worth watching. The contributors are thoughtful, respectful, and open. They share their thoughts and attempts, their intentions and their hopes.

We know many leaders are hesitant to enter the social media arena but it is increasingly short sighted to hold that position. Here is a way to enter that is not threatening. This avenue allows for information gathering, listening to thoughtful educators share radical ideas, and learning, as a listener rather than a contributor. Possibly, after a while, participation may seem a natural next step. But in the meantime, there is a rich conversation going on that everyone can be part of and it is about what is good for children. Isn’t that worth a listen?

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

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.