Dear Parents: I want to stop grading your children

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My friend, Joy Kirr, replied to this blog post, in which she suggested a parent letter about grades, so I decided to write one. Feel free to share it with parents at your school.

Dear Parents:

Grades hurt your children, and I never want to grade them again. Grades are harmful in every imaginable way, and they are inhibiting your child’s learning. You may not realize this, because you have only encountered one education system, and it has always been built on measuring success with numbers, percentages and letters.

The research

There is a large body of research that illustrates how grades fail learners. Rather than quote all of it here, I’ll recommend just a few of the best sources — all easy to find online or in bookstores:

  • Thomas Guskey (multiple sources)
  • John Hattie (Visible Learning)
  • Alfie Kohn (multiple sources)
  • Daniel Pink: Drive the Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us
  • Dylan Wiliam (multiple sources)
  • Mark Barnes: Role Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student-Centered Classroom

Why are grades bad?

What the educators and researchers I mentioned all suggest is that students are conditioned to believe that numbers and letters are the sole indicator of success. When handing out assignments, teachers constantly hear, “What’s this worth?” Furthermore, in virtually all cases, these one-size-fits-all measurements are subjective, because the teacher creates the activities and the tests. Where one teacher might score your child’s work an A, another teacher might score the same work a C. So, you see, this arbitrary letter says nothing about learning.

Worst of all, though, is that instead of learning for learning’s sake, students strive to get a particular grade — typically the one their parents’ want. If you demand A’s, they will likely do whatever it takes to get A’s. If you’re satisfied with C’s, they will decrease their effort.

What this system breeds is children who learn to manipulate a system in order to earn a number or a letter, when what we should have is independent learners, eager to acquire knowledge and to become critical thinkers and problem-solvers. Do we really want to measure these important qualities?

How to evaluate without grades?

The beauty of this question is that the answer is so simple. Teachers and students must evaluate learning together, using an ongoing dialogue. Teachers must provide both written and verbal narrative feedback about what students have accomplished and what may still need to be learned. This dialogue, accompanied by follow-up activities and further study can lead to mastery learning.

So, what goes on the report card?

Until school administrators nationwide realize that any sort of grading is inherently problematic, final report card grades should be decided by both the teacher and the student, in a conversation about what was learned in a marking period. If coached properly, students will understand that self-evaluation is one of life’s most important skills. In the end, your child’s opinion of her work is more important than anyone else’s.

So, please support me in changing how we evaluate learning. I want to eliminate grades, as much as our system will allow. I will provide ongoing narrative feedback for your children and for you. Most important, I promise, my students, your children will become amazing independent learners, who never again ask, “What’s this assignment worth?”

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Mark Barnes is the Founder of Times 10 Publications, which produces the popular Hack Learning Series, The uNseries, and other books from some of education's most reputable teachers and leaders. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and Hack Learning. Connect with @markbarnes19 on Twitter.

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