Surgeons Don’t Need Grades

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photo credit: bitzcelt via photopin cc
photo credit: bitzcelt via photopin cc

This post on the 7 reasons teachers should stop grading their students sparked lots of debate around social networks. 

Once schools stop grading, colleges will be forced to evaluate applicants, based on the whole student, not just on numbers.

Most people who comment like the idea of eliminating numbers, percentages and letters. They see the obvious advantages to using narrative feedback, rather than measurements. Some people use systems like SE2R, creating ongoing conversations about learning with their students.

The skeptics offer a variety of arguments and examples as to why they prefer traditional grades. Here are a few of their points, along with my responses.

The traditional grades debate

Argument: Parents need to see that their children are learning, and they only know how to do this with grades.

Response: When parents read detailed narrative feedback about what has been learned, they appreciate this much more than numbers and letters. They have to see a system of feedback, in order to know it exists as a possible alternative to grades.

Argument: Grades lead to Grade Point Averages, which help students get into colleges. Without GPAs, colleges lose a major asset for judging applicants.

Response: This archaic model of the college tail wagging the K-12 dog has to stop. Many colleges are already eliminating SAT scores for admission and some no longer value GPAs. Once schools stop grading, colleges will be forced to evaluate applicants, based on the whole student, not just on numbers.

Argument: The best skilled people, like surgeons, only become the best by the competition created by grades. Would you want someone operating on you who didn’t get A’s?

Response: The notion that competition in the classroom creates the best learners is an unsubstantiated myth made by educators who don’t know any other way to teach. People become the best at what they do, because of determination. They decide to be the best, and they work harder than anyone else. If you doubt this, read Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. Michael Jordan didn’t need grades to be the best basketball player in the world. Itzhak Perlman didn’t need grades to become the best violinist.

Argument: Most schools still mandate end-of-marking-period report cards. If teachers don’t grade activities, projects and tests along the way, they won’t be able to provide a report card grade.

Response: Teachers rely too heavily on the “But my principal says. . .” excuse to validate bad practice. As long as classroom teachers continue grading, schools will continue sending report cards to parents. It’s a tired cycle that educators continue to replicate, because that’s the way we’ve always done it. The classroom teacher has the ultimate say about what happens in the room. Throw out numbers and letters. Provide meaningful narrative feedback. Use tests only to assess learning, never as a punitive measure. Then, until report cards disappear (and they will, one day), allow your students to decide on the final grade with you. It’s a beautiful conversation that every teacher will love.

There are a host of arguments not addressed here. (Feel free to make your case in the comment section.)

So, what’s the best argument against traditional grades? Imagine that they never existed. How do you think we would assess learning?

The simple answer: it would have to be a conversation.

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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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