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Classroom Management: Rethinking Grades

James Paterson

Should we rethink grading – or eliminate it altogether?

Teachers, parents, and students – often tired of the testing and grading grind and skeptical about its value – may have noticed something is happening to the familiar A-F and 100-point classroom management assessment system in many schools. Many of them would agree grades are important as a method to assess and report on student work, but also would say grades are the focus of too much teacher time and student worry, and may not accurately assess learning. Now, classroom management policies are being implemented to lessen the pressure grades create, make them more fair (even by just not giving zeroes, adjusting the 100-point scale, and allowing redos), and some educators suggest the real solution is just eliminating them altogether, including some educators connected with the growing TeachersGoingGradeless movement.

Standards-Based Classroom Management

As a solution, many school districts have pledged to focus more on standards-based grading, some with greater success and diligence than others.

Standards-based grading (SBG) involves measuring students’ proficiency on well-defined course objectives. It uses learning goals and performance standards and proficiency-based targets rather than many assessments. Meanwhile, it separates achievement from effort and avoids penalties and extra credit.

It more directly indicates what the student has learned, its advocates say, and promotes better-targeted instruction and allows the student more ways to demonstrate that they’ve learned the material before they move on, they suggest.

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The U.S. Department of Education has established the following guidelines for standards-based grading:

  • Grades must be related to academic standards and course expectations.
  • Public criteria and student work samples are reference points for grading.
  • Grades should be based only on individual academic achievement.
  • Grades are based on quality assessments and properly recorded achievement evidence.

In Kentucky, which was the first to try the system statewide in 2013, parents got two report cards, one with a letter grade and one indicating how proficient a student was. The parents liked the new report cards better. “They became our strongest supporters because it gave them more and better information,” said Thomas Guskey, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Kentucky and a leading advocate for standards-based grading. “When parents have the experience of this, they can see the value.”

Competency Measurement

A number of states and school districts have encouraged teachers to begin using competency-based education (CBE) systems. At a landmark summit where CBE took a major step forward seven years ago, educators from around the country agreed that schools and districts using the competency model were working in isolation and without standards, so they established these guidelines:

  • Students advance upon mastery.
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

“Competency-based efforts are certainly not a silver bullet,” a report from the summit noted. “Only high-quality implementation will produce meaningful results.” The session was co-sponsored by International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL), a leading advocate for CBE.

How They Compare

In a thorough description comparing CBE and SBG, Matt Townsley, a top Iowa school administrator in Cedar Rapids and an expert in grading systems, says they have similarities: Learning based on specific standards and competencies, student ownership of learning through communication about their understanding, and an emphasis on formative assessments.

But in an interview, he said in competency-based systems, students do work and earn credit at their own pace, which is not always the case in standards-based systems, where “Seat time” may still be used. CBE also promotes learning outside of the classroom, Townsley says, giving students credit, perhaps if they can prove their understanding of a subject. He also says teachers always will factor in alternative ways of students understanding concepts with competency-based learning, but that is optional in standards-based classrooms.

“SBG is a way of thinking about grading and assessment that more clearly communicates with parents and students how well learners currently understand the course objectives, standards and competencies,” he writes. “CBE is a system in which students move from one level of learning to the next based on their understanding of predetermined competencies without regard to seat time, days, or hours. A competency-based system may utilize a standards-based report card to communicate student learning; however, the two are not the same.”

He notes that SBG is found more often in schools, especially in elementary levels, while CBE has gained attention but is not widely used.

And Then There was None     

Alfie Kohn, who has been described by Time magazine as “Perhaps the country’s most outspoken critic of education’s fixation on grades and test scores,” says we should do more. He says that grading is simply a “Two-step dance” because we need to find out how students are doing and share that information. “Gather and report — that’s pretty much it,” he says.

But in an interview, he said that grading is counterproductive because it has proven to sap motivation, decrease real achievement, and use forms of measurement that don’t evaluate a student’s understanding and aren’t fair.

“Because of the inherent weaknesses of letter or number grades, they actually don't provide meaningful feedback about a student's learning - only about a student's compliance,” he says. “More important, research shows that giving grades actively undermines students' learning and interest in learning.”

He worries that SBG will not solve these problems – and might make matters worse.

“More frequent temperature-taking produces exactly the kind of disproportionate attention to performance at the expense of learning that researchers have found to be so counterproductive,” he says. “Kids who are graded and have been encouraged to try to improve their grades lose interest in the learning itself, avoid challenging tasks whenever possible in order to maximize the chance of getting an A, and don’t think as deeply as kids who aren’t graded,” Kohn explains. “The problem isn’t with how we grade, nor is it limited to students who do especially well or poorly in school; it’s inherent to grading.”

No matter how you determine that a student should progress through material, he recommends replacing grades with various kinds of narrative reports that offer a “Qualitative account” of student performance and particularly conferences with students and parents.

The two teachers who organized the TeachersGoingGradelsess group, Aaron Blackwelder and Arthur Chiaravalli, say there are three reasons teachers should consider going gradeless:

  • Grades are limited in their ability to support and communicate learning. Instead, they rank students and detract from motivation. Going gradeless allows teachers to communicate learning with students and parents more authentically.
  • Grades hurt the student-teacher relationship. Eliminating grades breaks down barriers and allows for more trust and interdependence between student and teacher.
  • Grades standardize students and discourage growth. Going gradeless makes revision and reattempts part of the learning process so students can be challenged at an individual level.

They note that teachers can take a step in this direction by only grading summative assessments or by not grading homework or daily class work. They can also move away from grades for non-academic behaviors such as late penalties, participation and missing work. “Although certain work habits or dispositions play a role in student success and may need to be addressed elsewhere, they have no place in an academic grade,” says Blackwelder.

The two say some teachers worry that if students don’t do practice work, they won’t learn the material.

“One common sense way of addressing this concern is to only allow retakes of summative assessments once students have done the practice,” Blackwelder adds. “And if teachers are really concerned students will not do the work, maybe they should reconsider the value of the curriculum and consider how they can make the assignments more meaningful and interesting.”