Students today are under enormous stress. There are limited spaces at colleges and universities, which means even small deviations from perfection on report cards and exams can affect their futures. Teachers are also pressured by parents and administrators to ensure students get good grades.
Some educators have had enough. They are calling on district leaders to move away from 100-point or A-F systems and instead adopt no-grade schools or alternative evaluation options. For districts that have relied on grading for so long, this seems like a dramatic proposal.
Learn more about the no-grade movement and what proponents and opponents have to say.
Students, Schools and Employers Rely on the Current System
It’s easy to address the arguments in favor of grading systems. Grading started as a way to standardize how students were evaluated across schools and states. From high school through college, grade point averages (GPAs) are used to assign a numerical value to a student’s performance.
“Every grade counts toward the student’s overall GPA, and GPAs matter for internships, college admissions, and job applications,” writes the team at Marco Learning. “Like it or not, a student with a 2.5 GPA who retains everything from their classes is less likely to get into Yale than a student with a 4.0 who throws away all their papers the minute high school ends.”
Even in the workforce, some employers immediately reject candidates who don’t hit certain GPA thresholds. If some high schools move away from grading, graduates from those schools will have a harder time showcasing their efforts to colleges. And without college GPAs, recent grads won’t be able to highlight their success in the job market. Grading is fully integrated in today’s society.
“On the positive side, grades can be a motivator for students to strive for excellence and higher academic standards,” writes the team at Strobel Education. “They can also provide feedback on progress over time, which can help students identify areas where they need to improve.”
In a perfect world, grades wouldn’t hold so much weight that they could determine student futures. Instead, they would highlight where learners need to focus their attention in order to become well-rounded adults. However, it’s this exact pressure and standardization that stagnates grade reform.
Parents Use Report Cards as a Primary Indicator of Success
Colleges and employers aren’t the only ones who trust grades as the primary indicator of student performance. In a 2022 report by Learning Heroes, parents and teachers were both asked how they know a child is successful in school. Parents listed report cards as the number one source of this information. Teachers ranked report cards sixth. When a district tries to do away with grades, parents often complain that they won’t know how their child is doing in school — or how they stack up against other students.
In the same report, parents said their second indicator of their child’s success was feedback from the teacher, while teachers ranked their in-class observations as the top source of tracking student success. If parents can look past report cards and teachers can spend less time grading and more time communicating, both parties might be on the same page.
Unfortunately, there are other barriers to this option. Teachers need to be able to have open discussions about the weaknesses and strengths of the students they work with. That’s not always an easy talk to have with parents.
“Teachers are neither trained nor given ample time to have honest conversations with [parents],” says education writer Jenny Anderson. “They rightly fear that they will be blamed, not believed, or not supported by their principals if they tell parents exactly where their children are performing.”
It is easier for teachers to point to standardized evaluations to show whether students are successful or not if they want to convince parents that their kids need extra help or additional learning resources.
Grades Don’t Actually Reflect Knowledge
The main argument against the use of grades is that they don’t actually reflect how intelligent a student is. They showcase performance, not knowledge.
“Research has shown that grading is a solid predictor of student-success outcomes, but it is only sometimes an accurate representation of what students know,” writes Dr. Tassos Anastasiades at Global School Consulting Group.
While an A-student might be bright, their grades reflect how they complete their reading assignments, turn in their homework, and dedicate time to studying. A student can be equally smart but disinterested in the work. As a result, they would get poor grades because they didn’t do the homework or care about the material.
This is also the main argument against employers using student GPAs in hiring practices. They reflect diligence, not intelligence.
“A student’s grades are a better indicator of how diligent and self-disciplined they are rather than how intelligent they are,” says Matthew Zane at Zippia. “And most companies want more than just diligence and self-discipline in their workers.”
While employers value employees who show up on time and do their work, a high GPA doesn’t necessarily reflect a student’s critical thinking, problem-solving ability or and creativity. A recent grad might not have the soft skills to thrive in today’s workplace.
Grade critics emphasize the importance of focusing on the value of what students learn and how they can apply information and ideas to new concepts. Grades can reflect what students absorbed at a specific time period, but don’t show how students can use that information in the future.
“Focusing on the exchange-value of education, like good grades that can be used for advantage, undermines the use-value of education,” says Dr. Ethan Hutt, co-author of “Off the Mark: How Grades, Ratings, and Rankings Undermine Learning (but Don’t Have To).” “We should place value on knowing things and being able to do things by emphasizing how schooling and education is an incredible gift in and of itself.”
Busywork that is easy to grade takes away from the big picture of what is actually useful, he adds. It simply highlights a student’s ability to retain and repeat information within a short period.
The Goal Is to Provide Feedback Students Can Use
If the goal of grades on the student side is to prove what they know, then the goal on the teacher side is to assess students accurately and provide feedback. This should create a loop where students apply that feedback to future lessons.
“Assessment is feedback so that students can learn,” says Dr. Denise Pope, cofounder of Challenge Success and senior lecturer at Stanford University Graduate School of Education. “It’s helping them see where they are and helping them move toward a point of greater understanding or mastery. Grading doesn’t always do that, but assessment should.”
Individual teachers might not be able to eliminate grades in their classroom, but they can develop grading habits that focus on assessment and learning. This allows them to stay within district and parent expectations while focusing on the student experience.
“Marks and grades still matter in school because they provide important feedback to students,” says Michael Zwaagstra, a public high school teacher and senior fellow at the Fraser Institute. “There’s a world of a difference between an essay that merits an ‘A’ and one that deserves an ‘F.’ Teachers are not doing students any favours when they shield them from feedback that they merit and deserve.”
This often is why educators develop rubrics for assignments and walk students through them before they start each project. A rubric for an essay might have students develop a thesis, cite five authoritative sources, and proofread a paper to make sure it is free of typos and grammatical errors. In theory, two students at different writing levels can both showcase proficiency and an understanding of the assignment just by following these basic directions.
David Clark at Grading for Growth created an alternative grading glossary of different types of grading and grading-related terminology. This includes labor-based grading where students complete certain tasks to receive grades and contract grading where teachers and students reach an agreement on what will be evaluated before starting an assignment. You can scroll through this glossary to see how instructors are taking different approaches to assessment.
Researchers Are Exploring Alternative Options
At first glance, eliminating grades might seem outlandish. Yet it simply requires districts to move away from the idea that students need to be rated through point values. Some states and regions are already implementing gradeless systems and assessments.
The province of British Columbia in Canada has eliminated grading for students in grades K through nine. Instead of receiving letter grades, their report cards will highlight whether a student’s performance is emerging, developing, proficient, or extending. “This is something we think is very good for the students,” says Education Minister Rachna Singh. “It will give more descriptive feedback.”
Other education experts point to gradeless evaluations outside of school. An employee doesn’t receive a report card, but they have an annual evaluation. An engineering company won’t receive a grade on a building it creates, but the project team will evaluate whether everyone stayed on time and on budget while meeting the expected requirements.
“I would just say that all you have to do is just look outside school and you’ll see it everywhere,” says Robert Talbert, mathematics professor at Grand Valley State University and coauthor of “Grading for Growth.” “When my son, who’s 14 now, was 6 or 7 years old, he was taking the swim class from my university, and he got a report card. And it had no points on it. It had no grades on it. It just had levels on it — the instructor would circle the level that he had completed and use some highlighters to show what skills he’s good at doing, what skills he needs to continue to work on.”
If employers are concerned about student performance and knowledge, they might benefit from schools moving away from grading. There could be better ways for students to be evaluated and build healthy habits that demonstrate their performance.
Instead of Eliminating Grades, There are Equitable Solutions
While it might seem like there are clear battle lines drawn for and against grading, the reality is that all parties are trying to work toward fair assessment systems. Teachers, parents and students alike all want reasonable evaluations of the work being performed.
“Equitable grading doesn’t mean everybody gets an A or that we don’t care about deadlines or that students don’t do homework,” says Joe Feldman, Crescendo Education Group CEO and author of the book “Grading for Equity.” “Those are all misconceptions. We don’t want students to just be constantly in this pressure cooker of wanting to get that extra point here or that extra point there.”
One common source of equitable evaluation is allowing students to re-do assignments they did poorly on. If a student didn’t understand adverbs at the start of the year, they could learn about them and prove to their teacher that they mastered the concept before the end of the semester. This allows students to prove their knowledge while making poor grades less punishing.
“The assigning of even a small number of catastrophically low grades, especially early in the marking term, before student self-efficacy can be established, can create this sense of helplessness,” says researcher James Carifio.
Poor grades demoralize students and can turn them away from the subject or classroom experience entirely. They might assume they are just a bad student or possibly dumb. When students are given a lifeline to address those low scores and prove what they have learned, they become more engaged and are willing to try again. This builds resilience because students understand that it’s okay to fail something the first time as long as they keep learning.
Another call for equity is to eliminate zero scores, which can pull down student grades to the point where they can’t succeed.
“Zeros are usually about behavior,” says Joshua Kunnath at The Core Collaborative. “A zero for not completing an assignment or assessment is punishing the student’s decision to not do the work or to cut class when she knows there is an assessment. A zero for plagiarism is punishment for copying someone else’s work. But none of these purposes for the zero are directly about student learning.”
A brilliant student could potentially fail a class because they didn’t want to do their homework – or couldn’t because of their home situation. The grade doesn’t actually reflect what they know.
Many teachers agree that they don’t want to “teach to the test” and place students in high-pressure grading situations. But they also don’t have the ability to eliminate grades entirely. Their best option is to focus on grading students based on that child’s knowledge, not their compliance. This allows students to engage with the material without getting caught up in busywork that teachers have to spend hours grading after school.
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