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Don't Get Rid of Grades. Change Their Meaning & Consequences!

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Today we welcome Thomas R. Guskey Ph.D.* Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Kentucky and known throughout the world for his work on student assessment, grading and reporting, professional learning, and educational change as our guest author.

Newspapers, magazines, and journals today are filled with articles about the evils of grades. Writers tell us that grades warp student motivation, destroy the morale of teachers, and corrupt the education process. The solution most suggest is to do away with grades completely so that students focus more on learning. But while the pursuit of high grades can divert some students' attention from the true purpose of education, abandoning grades will not solve these problems.

In many ways, "grades" are at the same place today that "tests" were twenty years ago. Back then, as accountability advocates pressed for an increased emphasis on students' test scores, writers began to criticize tests. They said, and rightly so, that the multiple-choice format and restricted content of the tests used in most schools confined the curriculum and diminished valid learning opportunities for students. They described tests as evil and corrupt, and we needed to get rid of them.

Educational measurement experts tried to point out that these criticisms were true for only a narrow range of tests. They stressed that other forms of tests expanded students' response options, tapped higher level cognitive skills, and more closely resembled learning in "real-world" contexts. But these reasoned voices were drowned out by critics who found it easy to gain public support with their outcries, even though such outcries were based on only partial truths.

Unable to counter these narrow interpretations of "tests" and gain an audience in the public media for an alternative view, the educational measurement community took a different approach: they changed the name. Regardless of their form, measures of student learning would no longer be called "tests." Instead, they were labeled "assessments." With the change of name, the entire tone of the conversation changed. Assessments seemed friendlier, less harsh, and far less threatening. To further enhance the appeal, measurement experts also described "assessments" in nearly all contexts with the adjective "authentic."

Today, the same is happening with "grades." Writers portray grades as evil and corrupt, and we need to get rid of them. If teachers no longer give grades, students and parents will magically shift their attention to learning instead of the status of high grades.

Some experts suggest we should do the same as we did with tests and simply change the name. Efforts in this direction have already begun. Some advocates suggest using "marks" to convey something less stigmatizing. Others recommend "proficiency levels" or "progress indicators" to imply a fluctuating level of performance rather than a permanent achievement status.

A more difficult approach, but far more productive, would be for educators first to clarify the meaning of grades and second to radically alter their consequences.

As to their meaning, grades are really nothing more than labels attached to different levels of student performance. They identify how well students performed and answer the question students always ask: "How am I doing?" These labels can be letters, numbers, words, or symbols. They serve important formative purposes by helping students know where they are in meeting particular learning goals. When paired with individualized guidance and direction for improvement, they also help direct learning progress.

To serve this formative purpose, however, two essential consequences of grades must be changed. First, we must help students and their parents understand that grades do not reflect who you are as a learner, but where you are in your learning journey - and where is always temporary. Knowing where you are is essential to improvement. Informed judgments from teachers about the quality of students' performance can help students become more thoughtful judges of their own work. Granted, a grade, number, or symbol offers only a shorthand description of where students are, and additional information is essential to direct progress. But when accompanied by guidance on how to do better, it provides the basis for improvement.

Second, we must never use grades to sort, select, or rank students. Too often grades represent a student's relative standing among classmates. In most schools, grades provide the basis for determining class rank and selecting the class valedictorian. When used for these sorting and ranking purposes, students see grades as scarce rewards offered to a select few rather than as recognition of learning success attainable by all. Doing well does not mean learning excellently - it means outdoing your classmates. Helping others is discouraged because for one student to move up in rank, another student must move down.

Students need honest information from their teachers about the quality and adequacy of their performance in school. Parents need to know how well their children are doing and whether or not grade level or course expectations are being met. Although grades should never be the only information about learning that students and parents receive, they can be a meaningful part of that information. When combined with guidance to students and parents on how improvements can be made, grades can become a valuable tool in facilitating students' learning success. 

*More about Thomas R. Guskey can be found here. and he can be reached at [email protected] . 

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools.  Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo by gubh83 courtesy of 123rf

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