Special Report
Assessment Opinion

No, Students Don’t Need Grades

Teachers should put the focus on learning, not letter grades
By Mark Barnes — January 10, 2018 6 min read
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Editor’s Note: This Commentary is part of a special report exploring game-changing trends and innovations that have the potential to shake up the schoolhouse. Read the full report: 10 Big Ideas in Education.

Technology and social media continue to disrupt education. Classrooms are morphing into maker spaces; STEM labs and media centers are filled with fascinating electronic gadgets. Teachers spend less time in front of the class and more time in the middle of the action. Schools, teachers, leaders, parents, and students across the country are embracing this brave new world.

In the midst of rapidly changing technology, and consequently, pedagogy, there is another fundamental change I would argue more educators need to embrace. It’s a growing movement to alter the one function of education that most stakeholders steadfastly refuse to revise: how we assess learning.

If you’re interested in disrupting education far more than the 3-D printer or smartphone ever could, consider schools and colleges where there are no grades. Imagine classrooms where teachers never place numbers, letters, percentages, or other labels on students’ work; where report cards don’t exist; and where the GPA has gone the way of the dinosaur.

In a gradeless classroom, the perpetual lies that numbers and letters tell about learning would cease to exist. Honor and merit rolls would disappear. There would be no school valedictorian. Clubs that celebrate high performers would disband. Many colleges and universities would change how they admit incoming freshmen, and academic scholarships would need a makeover.

Moreover, 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.

Now, this may sound like only a big, perhaps even unrealistic, idea. But the gradeless classroom already exists in schools worldwide. While I don’t claim to be the creator of no-grades learning environments, I and thousands of my colleagues across the United States and around the world have turned it into a movement that is helping educators reimagine how they assess learning.

The Teachers Throwing Out Grades Facebook group, which I founded, is 8,000 members strong and shares daily ideas, strategies, and success stories about eliminating grades. Some have encouraged school leaders to completely change assessment, while others have spearheaded pilot teams that are modeling no-grades classrooms for their colleagues.

I went gradeless more than a decade ago, after half my students failed my language arts class one year. A thorough review of the grade book revealed an abundance of zeroes, indicating that students didn’t fail; they just didn’t complete the work. And I never gave them a chance to complete it.

The next year, I switched to an assessment system based on observation, feedback, iteration, and student self-evaluation. Students began completing all assignments, became more engaged learners, and even passed standardized tests at higher rates than their peers in classrooms with traditional grades.

There are four steps to creating a no-grades classroom that educators should follow:

1. Be accountable first to students. We owe students the best chance to learn, regardless of any overarching mandates we receive about grading. Don’t worry so much about what colleagues might think and focus on what works for your students.

2. Tell parents exactly why you want to eliminate grades. When you explain that you want to provide detailed feedback on all activities and give kids a chance for real mastery learning, how can parents argue? Address their concerns and be transparent about how this will help students.

3. Team up with school and community leaders. Approach the decisionmakers with details about your plan to eliminate number and letter grades. Remind them that you’re not eliminating the evaluation of learning. Outline the benefits of making assessment an ongoing, meaningful conversation that leads to mastery learning.

4. Bring students into the report-card conversation. If your district mandates report cards, you might not be able to escape assigning a number altogether. Sit down with your students at the end of each marking period and discuss: What work did they complete, and what skills did they acquire over time? How did students handle your feedback? Then, simply ask them to grade themselves.

Alternative assessment might sound like a daunting idea. But when we give students a break from fixating on an anxiety-producing score, we allow true learning to be the focus—not what’s going in the grade book.

Background: The No-Grades Movement

By Kate Stoltzfus

One of the most hotly debated questions in education is the role of grades: How do teachers effectively assess student learning, and how do schools gauge progress in fair and adequate ways? Research has shown that grading is a solid predictor of student-success outcomes, but it is not always an accurate representation of what students actually know; in fact, it can both increase cheating and hurt student-teacher or peer-to-peer relationships.

Though educators have played with alternative forms of assessment for decades, school districts, individual teachers, and even states are increasingly questioning and replacing long-favored methods with more experimental practices. A driving force for the changes is the effect of grades on student motivation. As Alfie Kohn, a well-known critic of grades and test scores, has maintained, students often focus on earning a good grade at the expense of learning.

See Also

Want to learn more about giving up grades? Watch a video with six tips by Education Week Teacher blogger Starr Sackstein, who is the author of Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades Classroom (Times 10 Publications).

While alternative efforts have similar philosophies, they vary in execution. Standards-based grading, which is more common in elementary schools and picking up steam for older students, favors detailed feedback reflecting how well students grasp specific course objectives. Competency-based learning, for which students earn credit for mastering learning at their own speed, has also been gaining ground. The most radical of these approaches is the small but growing movement to dispense with grades altogether.

This is where Mark Barnes’ work comes in. Barnes is the founder of Times 10 Publications, known for its widely popular Hack Learning series of more than a dozen books that re-imagine teaching and learning. Written by teachers, principals, superintendents, and instructional coaches, the books cover topics such as literacy, leadership, stress reduction, and project-based learning. Barnes is also the creator of the global Facebook group Teachers Throwing Out Grades.

The goal of the no-grades movement is to steer students away from passive learning and into a more active role in their schooling. The focus is on the learning process rather than the score, the pressure of performance replaced by an environment where students feel free to make mistakes, continuously self-evaluate, and develop deeper understanding. It also champions increased parent involvement and teacher feedback.

In an education system that counts on accountability, some parents and school leaders remain skeptical of such practices, especially for middle and high school students. Their concerns are over how students will receive fair credit and how higher and continuing education programs that require a GPA will view students without one. Evaluations can also be confusing to parents who are more used to the traditional A-F system.

The answer for the best route to assessment is not easy. But as more schools and teachers think about assessment in broader terms, there’s clear recognition that the oft-used scales are not the only way, or perhaps the best, to measure what students know.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2018 edition of Education Week as Student Assessment


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