Posted by: darcymullin | January 26, 2012

Rethinking Letter Grades


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.

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Responses

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. This is a brave step your staff is taking, and I commend you for it. I, and I am sure many others, will be watching how this unfolds. And I hope your example inspires others. It has for me. Best of luck.

  2. Lots of work but a great direction to be going.

  3. […] blog post, Rethinking Letter Grades, by Darcy Mullin reflects what I really feel, so please do follow this […]

  4. Good luck – I mentioned your post in my own here: http://messyprofessional.wordpress.com/2012/01/26/mr-d-on-assessment/

    I look forward to following your progress. Thanks for your courage to proceed.

  5. Darcy,

    I am so excited to hear that your whole school is moving toward a letter-grade free grading system. I would love to hear more about what other teachers think. Are they all onboard? Yes, there will be challenges, for sure. Educating parents will be key in the success of this change. But, I agree, the greater good far outweighs the negatives that will come as a result of this change.

    Kodos to you and your staff for taking this leap! I look forward to reading more about the process.

    • Actually, the whole process started with a Grade 4 teacher and has been completely driven by our staff. I am new to the school this year and have had very little influence. My role has been that of avid supporter.

  6. …Our district…Sooke SD62 has a no letter grade practice up to grade 5. This practice has been in place now for a couple of years and I believe it has been a positive move. Educating the parents seemed to be a bit of the challenge in grade 4 when we first put it into place. When those students moved on to grade 5, the parents quit asking about the grades and engaged more positively in how their children were doing in their everday learning. Letter grades at the Grade 4 and 5 level is really a non-issue in our school. Good luck and congrats!

    • It’s great to hear about that policy. Our school is K-5, so we will be doing something very similar. I agree, educating the parents is a big step. The meetings we have had have all been very positive, it is the unknown that make people uncomfortable. Parents understand letter grades since that is what they were given, but they do not understand AFL. It is our job to provide excellent information about student learning, so that the letter grade is moot. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  7. Well done Darcy!
    I know that there are some schools that have a “no grades” policy for primary grades – in my opinion this is a good thing. One of my children is in grade 4 and is, for the first time, being exposed to letter grades. It has been very interesting to see her reaction to this. Up until now the focus of the conversations between her and us (as parents) has been on the learning process. For the first time, this year with the introduction on grades my daughter has become more self-conscious about her “grade” – to the detriment of a focus on the learning. As parents (with the help of her teachers) we have had to be more intentional about keeping the conversations about her learning – not ever mentioned letter grades.

    Again congrats and good luck!

    • Johnny, I appreciate your comment. If we start getting rid of letter grades in the intermediate grades I think we can hard wire kids for learning ( process over product). By the time they get to the senior grades or university the will demand descriptive feedback to get their learning to the next level. I’m teaching Grade 5 this year and a number of the kids did not have letter grades last year, and I cannot remember the last time asked me what their mark was. Let’s hope that continues as they move on to middle school next year.

  8. Hey Darcy,

    When did you become a bleeding heart…!!!??? Unforunately grades, at this point in time, are exactly what the colleges look for when excepting students into specific departments…. Life is competitive, what can you do…??? I agree that letter grades aren’t the only way to determine the perfomance and understanding of children, but taking away the element of striving for a top marks will only hinder them when they do get to High School….Being realistic and honest with children is the best way to prepare them for an adult life… We’re not here to always make them feel good, we’re here to make sure they can proceed to the next step of their life..

    P.S. Now that we’ve disagreed… It would be great to sit down and have a beer…(or two….:o ) Again…!! Next time I’m in the interior, I’ll look you up.. Hope all is well Buddy..

    • Hahaha. Dave we are going to have to agree to disagree. I know that is what universities look at, but should they? Remember we went to University together. I would argue that we are two relatively intelligent people, but neither one of us were great students. My marks were not great, I was not engaged in the material, nor motivated by the grade. If I had a better sense of the big picture and how to get there, I would have learned more. I have no doubt about it. Just because Universities want letter grades doesn’t make it right. Agreed, next time you are in the Okanagan I’ll buy.

      • I agree on this. Too be honest, I think the universities should be responsible for their acceptance process and don’t need to piggy-back off of school grades. Obviously they can get valuable inputs from schools, but ultimately it should be their job to determine who they want at their school. Unfortunately I don’t think there are any easy answers on exactly how universities should approach this. Part of me thinks they should weight towards entrance exams, but that ends up with situations like the USA and the SAT, or worse it could end up like in South Korea or Taiwan.

      • Last night I was reading Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind and he was talking about how the SAT was ineffective at predicting success in college. He created a test based on creativity and humor. Students were given 5 New Yorker cartoons and had to create a funny caption. Also, given a prompt, they were asked to write a humorous story. The premise is that humor is a right brain and creative way of thinking. This ability to think creatively is a better predictor of college and career success.

  9. Thanks everyone for taking the time to comment. One thing I feel I should make clear is that this is a direction we are moving and it has come entirely from the staff. One of our teachers, Carol Barton, did her Masters on the impact of letter grades and did all the hard legwork last year when she piloted it in her class. Based on the success of the program, I followed this year and others have chosen to follow next year.

    It is a brave step forward and I am proud to be a (small) part of it.

  10. Hi Darcy,
    I think there are many schools having this conversation and your article is inspiring to those who are close to taking that final step and making the transition to the use of descriptive feedback instead of marks. There were some very good conversations in our school because of your post. It is about learning, not sorting. Bravo.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Paul. I think it is a conversation more and more people are ready to engage in.

  11. Great post, Darcy. It’s very encouraging to hear that this might be happening in our schools. I was reading the assessment issue of the magazine Myron had published a piece in last month, and although I thought his article was good, the one that really resonated with me was one by Alfie Kohn — basically outlining the research supporting abolishing grades altogether. Powerful stuff, and hard to refute, even though it challenges our old beliefs about the value of these things.

    I did some research in the area of e-portfolios a few years back, and posted about some of the micro-assessment stuff as well. This one might interest you, as it refers to a conversation Myron and I had at the very beginning of his assessment overhaul: http://headspacej.blogspot.com/2007/06/micro-assessment-vs-project-based.html

    • Thanks for commenting Jeremy. I really enjoyed reading your post. It aligns quite nicely with my vision of education as well. You may want to check out some of my other posts on Project Based Learning.

  12. Good stuff Darcy, it will be really interesting to see how this works out for your school. Do you guys have anything in place to gauge success? I think classroom feedback will tell the story?

    I once met a secondary school English teacher who essentially got rid of grades for one year. She told the students at the beginning of the year that everyone starts at an A, and as long as they complete their assignments they will finish with an A. Part way through the year she noticed that a couple of the students didn’t seem happy in her class and weren’t doing as well as they usually do. Something very interesting came up when she talked to one of the students. The student said that English was the one thing they excelled at. It was the only thing that set them apart from the other kids – they weren’t good in sports, math, etc. But they said that since everyone now had an A, the teacher had taken away the last thing they made them special.

    I think the lesson from the above story is that despite our attempts to instill internal motivations, there is still be a place for setting achievement goals or awards that can be displayed with a sense of pride. An overall grade is not the answer, for the reasons you wrote, but maybe there is something else that can do this (and maybe there already is!).

    • I think success will be measured by how much students are learning and growing. We are still going to be reporting, just not using letter grades. The impetus will be on us to hone our assessment and reporting practices to ensure that students and parents have the information they need.

      I think the story about the English teacher is more evidence for the dis-use of letter grades. Students should be motivated by the learning, not the ranking. I understand the need to set goals and achieve them – self reflection is imperative to growth.

      That said, I don’t think it is feasible for a high school teacher (who sees more than 150 students) to report in this way. High schools would need to reorganize first.

  13. […] kids explain their learning to me.  It is so powerful…we get so much more information than letter grades could ever give […]

  14. […] No letter grades K-3 will continue.  However, it looks like letter grades will be optional in grades 4-9 – the decision will lie with school districts and with schools.  Anyone who reads this blog regulary knows who I feel about this. […]

  15. […] not real big on letter grades, but I will give a progress report for each of the […]

  16. […] Rethinking Letter Grades – This post comes from a teacher at a school that was planning to move to a "no letter" grade policy in 2013. […]

  17. […] have written before about letter grades and how our school is moving away from them.  This year our entire intermediate team has chosen to […]

  18. Reblogged this on craig ketchum and commented:
    Rethinking letter grades: a coherent argument put forth by Darcy Mullin.

  19. If schools get rid of letter grades they must replace them with more accurate percentage scores. Without having a measurable / comparable standard how will Post Secondary schools possibly be able to effectively select suitable candidates?
    Kids are really proud when they get an A, why take that away from them? Yes, have additional comments on how the student can improve, not just a grade, but we do need a way to measure progress. When I was a student I would use my letter grade as inspiration to improve, my daughter is the same way.

    • CJay, I’m not sure I agree with your assertion that percentages are more accurate. Even percentages are very subjective, clean perhaps, but very subjective. It’s not as simple as saying the answer is right or wrong. How do you assess writing, problem solving or any higher order thinking numerically? It is difficult for sure and even more difficult to be consistent between educators in the same building, let alone a district, Province, State etc.
      Even post secondary institutions are realizing how subjective and inaccurate percentages can be. Many in BC are now emphasizing other areas and are looking at the whole student.
      Kids are proud when they get an A, but what does an A mean? I think a student is equally proud when they understand which standards the excel at. It is the quality of data that matters.
      Summative assessments still happen. Teachers, students and parents need to know if students learned the material. It is the quality of information that matters. How can you encapsulate multiple learning outcomes in one letter? I’m not sure that can be done accurately.


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