3 Problems with Traditional Grades

For the last two years, I’ve been moving farther away from conventional grades. This has been a huge shift for me. I used to grade everything and dump hundreds of points into my digital gradebook over the course of a semester. When grades were due, my gradebook spit out a percentage for each student and that was the grade he/she received.

There are several problems with this approach. For this blog post I will focus on the top three problems with the traditional approach to giving grades:

  • Grades happened to students.
  • Grades did not require that students think about their learning.
  • Grades did not necessarily reflect mastery of grade-level skills.

Traditional Grades Happen To Students

Like too many aspects of education, students play a very passive role in the traditional grading system. Click To Tweet They submit work, that work is assessed by the teacher, and the teacher enters a score into a gradebook. If a teacher uses percentages, then the student may not even understand why a particular assignment impacted their overall grade in the way it did. For many students, the grades they receive when a report card comes home is a surprise. That’s a problem.

Grades shouldn’t be a surprise. They should not happen to students. Grades and the development of skills should be an ongoing conversation between the teacher and student. (For more on this, check out my blog “Conversations Instead of Grades.”)

Traditional Grades Do Not Require Students Think About Their Learning

Grading and assessment are probably the most time-consuming aspect of a teacher’s job. We feel we must stay on top of each child’s progress and attempt to know where they are in their learning at all times. Ironically, students are rarely asked to evaluate their work and reflect on what is says about their learning. This makes no sense to me.

In John Hattie’s work, he states that “self-reported grades comes out at the top of all influences [on student achievement]. Children are the most accurate when predicting how they will perform.” Hattie highlights the importance of having students set goals for their academic success. After setting goals, students should be given time to look at their work and reflect on what that work reveals about their skills and academic progress.

This year, I dumped my digital gradebook and instead share a Google document with each student that has target standards and skills for each unit. I give students time every single day to open this shared document and select a piece of work to reflect on.

They give themselves a score between 1-4 to indicate where they believe they are on the road to mastering this skill given the work they did on this specific assignment. They link to their work or insert a photo, then write a couple of sentences explaining why they gave themselves a particular score. I like that this approach requires that they think critically about their work and what it reveals about their journey towards mastery. (For more on this approach, check out my blog: Ditching Traditional Grades & My Online Gradebook)

Traditional Grades Do Not Necessarily Reflect Mastery of Grade-level Skills

Some students do well in school because they understand the game.Click To Tweet They turn in all of their assignments and manage their time well. These students typically receive top marks for their effort. However, effort is not the same as mastering skills. I felt uncomfortable about this reality for years. I had students who received As on their report cards because they did everything I asked them to do, but I knew that some of those students were not actually A level students in terms of their English skills.

In fact, I’ve had several tough conversations with students this year about their skill levels. I have students who have always received As and expected to continue doing so in my class. When we look through their body of work during our grade conversations, they have everything submitted but their scores hover between 2.5-3 on most skills. They don’t like hearing that they are not receiving an A because they have not demonstrated mastery of those skills.

Even though these conversations are hard, they motivate kids to keep practicing and working. Students seek me out for strategies about how to develop their research and analytical skills. They are aware that my focus is on their development as learners and not on the accumulation of points.

As another year winds down and many of us are gearing up to send home final grades, I think it’s healthy to question how we approach grading. Do students know what their grades will be? Have they been asked to set academic goals and reflect on their learning? Are their grades a reflection of their skills?

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6 Responses to 3 Problems with Traditional Grades

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  3. Charlotte S. Wellen, NBCT says:

    I teach at a Glasser Quality School, based on the ideas of Dr. William Glasser. At our school, we also address the problem of grading taking away the intrinsic value for learning in our students. When they arrive at our school, many students have previously realized that they can get their power needs met, at least short term, by refusing to work hard. No one can make them work or achieve academic success. They feel that their educations are being done TO them by the adults in their lives and they don’t see the point, so they resist doing the work.

    Although we still grade, students can only earn A’s or B’s on their assignments. If they don’t reach the B mark, they must keep on working, trying new methods to get at the meaning and skills they need. They can stay after school for extra help, and we also offer Saturday School, for students who have decided they would like to get complete. It’s not required at all. It’s completely voluntary, yet it’s usually crowded.

    What we see, after decades of this “experiment,” is that our students gradually move toward an intrinsic value to their work. They begin to ask questions such as, “Why did I let myself fall behind in my work and get all these incomplete grades? Why didn’t I work toward a B or an A? Don’t I want to graduate? How do I plan to graduate without getting these credits?” Once this type of self-assessment forms in a student’s mind, then academic achievement of a high order isn’t far behind.

    We lay the blame for the lack of motivation so often seen in high school and middle school students squarely on the back of the extrinsic grading system, where teachers label their students. This is especially damaging because it gives students permission to stop working. We really can’t understand this at all anymore. If we know that a student has poor essay writing skills, for instance, how can we, as the professionals in his life, give him the out to quit working on them by writing down an F in the grade book? Not only does that F tell the student that we think they are deficient, it allows them to give up on learning these skills and to define themselves as no good at writing essays.

    In reality, the fact that students are simply lacking in essay writing skills at some point in their lives is normal. No one is born knowing how to write essays. Everyone needs help to master these complex skills. Just about everyone needs plenty of practice and support. Giving an F or even worse, a D, only gives an excuse to stop working on these important skills. Without further work, how do we expect any student to improve? And we see that once failure starts in many students’ careers, it continues and becomes an inner self-criticism and even a self-hatred.

    We often hear the argument from the schools that use the failure-based grading systems that our mastery learning is too easy. From our students, though, we hear that it is very demanding because in the past, they were allowed to stop working when it got too challenging. They were allowed to just turn in mediocre work and get a C, D, F, or even a 0. Now, they must keep working toward that B. What they soon learn is that a B is not beyond them. An A is not beyond them, either, for the most part. They learn that if they stick with something, especially something difficult, it feels great to realize that they can master it. They are willing to stick with it because they can fail and fail and fail to “get it” until they do get it. Voila! The problem isn’t that they are lacking intelligence. The problem was that they just needed to keep working until they reached understanding, which, surprise, wasn’t actually beyond them at all, though they had, perhaps, feared that it was, based on their experiences in other schools with fear-based grading scales.

    The work of Dr. Carol Dweck, for instance in her book, Mindset, illustrates with a great deal of research, these exact findings.

    It’s time for all schools to give up the A-F grading system, so that our students are encouraged to keep working, not to give up on themselves, or on education itself.

    Love,
    Charlotte Wellen, NBCT

    • Dear Charlotte,

      Thank you SO much for sharing in detail your approach. I love the idea that students have so many opportunities and built in support to continue reworking assignments and developing skills. I agree that our traditional approach to grades kills intrinsic motivation for so many. As I read Daniel Pink’s Drive and Carol Dweck’s Mindset, I kept returning to our traditional grading system and how little sense it makes in the context of human motivation and growth mindset.

      I appreciate your perspective and love learning from educators who are experimenting with different models!

      Catlin Tucker

  4. Dennis Metzger says:

    Check out https://www.ttms.org/

    Steve Peha has developed “The 3P Grading System”; I believe that you will find it interesting.

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