Thinking of Tossing Out the A-B-C Grading System? Think Again.

By Catherine Gewertz — February 25, 2016 3 min read
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A group of middle and high school leaders pulled away from the crowd at the big principals conference here to talk about the prospect of running their classrooms without letter grades. But the problem was that no one had been able to pull it off.

This story-sharing was one of about 20 sessions in a grassrootsy brainstorming event on Thursday here at the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ annual conference. Principals who chose to skip the traditional presentations this morning gathered instead in a big room, and tossed out ideas of what they really wanted to talk about. Then they broke off in smaller groups to follow those muses. To permit frank exchanges among colleagues, I was allowed to sit in only if I agreed not to identify anyone.

The suggestion for the session came from a Massachusetts high school principal who wanted to find out if anyone was experimenting with “gradeless classrooms.” There was obvious interest in the topic; a small drove of principals followed him into a sunny lobby area to chat about it. He told his colleagues that he was trying the idea out in an entrepreneurship class that gave students descriptive feedback instead of letter grades.

Even in a class that wasn’t part of the academic core, however, teachers were reluctant to embrace the practice, asking questions like, “How do I do this so I can still turn it into a grade for college transcripts?,” the principal said.

No other principal in this discussion group had tried ungraded classrooms, but many said they dearly wanted to. They were clearly frustrated with the limited meaning of assigning letter grades, but their ventures into other approaches had met with resistance, largely from parents.

The principals told stories of trying to move to standards-based grading, in which students are evaluated descriptively on how well they’ve mastered particular academic skills and knowledge, rather than on whether they turned in homework, showed up to class on time, or performed extra-credit work. Another New England principal said he supported his teachers’ push for standards-based grading only to face a firestorm of opposition from parents, particularly parents of high-achieving students.

“Those parents freaked out,” the principal said. “They were going, ‘Where is my kid’s A?”

Eventually, the principal backtracked in the face of parent opposition, and the teachers who trusted him to lead that change are frustrated and disillusioned, he said.

A number of the principals said they’ve been inspired by Starr Sackstein’s book, Hacking Assessment, which advocates moving to deeper, more meaningful ways of gauging student learning. But when they’ve tried standards-based grading, they’ve often run smack into pushback from parents or confusion from teachers.

A district administrator from Illinois told a story about a teacher who felt caught between the desire to provide meaningful feedback on report cards and the need to supply the information expected by high school athletic programs, which base eligibility on grades, and most colleges, which rely heavily on grades in a students’ transcript. Another principal said his teachers resented standards-based grading because it took away their power to grade students down for showing up to class late.

However frustrating, the experiments with standards-based grading have created good discussions. Principals reported that they and their teachers have been asking questions like this: What are grades about? Are they about mastery, or just pain and suffering? What’s the purpose of a report card? If we can’t describe students’ learning in meaningful ways, then what are we doing?

Several principals said that secretly, they’ve been supporting teachers’ desires to adopt descriptive, non-letter-based ways of evaluating students for long stretches of time, and then assigning letter grades at the end of the term or the year to supply the data that long-established systems require.

“I want to focus more of our time on what we’re doing, how we’re teaching, how students are learning, and less on how we grade,” said one principal.

For these principals, it sure sounded like letter grading is a system that interferes with, rather than supports, meaningful feedback on student work. But layers of obstacles keep it from changing.

How do grading dynamics play out at your school? Does this dialog sound familiar?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.