To the Editor:
Imagine going into a performance review with your boss, eager for substantive guidance on how to grow and advance—and being handed a letter or number. Not much of a learning experience, you might think. Yet grades remain the standard for evaluating students’ performance.
Grade-based evaluation fails because:
• Grades are inarticulate, telling students nothing about what they’ve done well or might do better.
• Grades inhibit curiosity, encouraging students to do only what is required.
• Grades stress competition and reduce collaboration, a much-needed skill for meeting today’s challenges.
• Grade inflation makes it difficult to talk meaningfully about excellence.
• Grades won’t be part of students’ lives once they leave school because “real world” evaluation functions much differently.
Hampshire College, where I serve as the president, uses narrative evaluations instead of grades because they are teaching tools and our mission is to educate. Professors cite particulars as they convey detailed useful information. Students understand strengths and weaknesses in their work, and how they might improve, learning to strive for their own best performance.
Grades might seem necessary if one accepts the premise that one purpose of education is to sort out winners and losers, and who gets to go on to the next level of education, but two-thirds of Hampshire students go on to earn graduate degrees.
Thoughtful narrative evaluations demand more from both teachers and students. Far more is also gained. Rigor in education is not about being told how well you did, but about being told what you need to do next in order to improve.
A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2014 edition of Education Week as Hampshire College President: Grades Are Not Enough