As mentioned in an earlier post our school is planning to move toward a “no letter” grade policy next year. I am excited about the possibility and believe it will enhance learning in our school for both students and teachers. That said, we certainly have some work to do.
Letter grades are easy. Effectively and accurately reporting on learning is a much harder process.
It is easy to create an assignment, or an assessment and assign it a value. Students complete the work and hope they get they highest mark possible…maybe even full marks. It is easy to quantify and it is a system we (teachers, students, parents) all understand. It’s a system that has been in place as long before I ever entered the school system. As educators we could continue this practice until the end of time – it would be comfortable and for the most part people would be happy.
For me, the downside far outweighs the upside. The use of numbers and letter grades automatically ranks students. The bi-product of rankings is students focus on the product rather than process, because they focus on product this system tends to demotivate students…even those who excel. Even more, the symbol (number or letter) is an inaccurate measure that does not represent student learning.
I’m not sure why we need to rank students. I have a hard time understanding the value in it. In my career I have worked at the Elementary and Middle School levels and I cannot a compelling reason to use letter grades. Honor Roll? Academic Awards? I defer to my good friend Chris Wejr who writes extensively on the problem with awards. I have never worked in high school, but if the only arguement is scholarships and University entrance I wonder if there might be a better way to do things.
Letter grades force students to focus on the product as opposed to the process. It is the process where the learning occurs. It is during the learning where students can get the feedback they need to grow. Using letter grades sends the message that once something is complete the learning is done. Not using letter grades, but instead using descriptive feedback sends the message that learning is continuous.
Letter grades only motivate students that are successful at getting good grades and even then it only motivates them to achieve a grade, not to learn. If they are aiming for an A, then once they get an A the motivation to continue is gone. In the absence of a grade, it is more likely that they will continue to push their learning. Those that are not motivated by grade are often marginalized and are afraid to take a risk to learn, fear of failure is too great. Descriptive feedback takes the fear away because it acts as a scaffold to take students to the next level of learning.
Finally, and perhaps the most compelling arguement against letter grades is that they are simply not accurate representations of what students know and have learned. How is it possible to demonstrate a students learning in over a multitude of learning outcomes in one letter or two numbers? I would argue it is not. Even if it was, the accuracy of letter grades get even more murky when educators include things such as: zeroes, late marks, effort marks etc. These things have nothing to do with learning. Tom Schimmer writes at length about this topic.
The move away from letter grades makes sense, but it will require our staff to focus their assessment for learning practices in order to accurately report on the learning of our students. A large endeavor indeed.