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Why We Give Grades An F. Minus.

We do a lot of things differently at Highlands Micro School, and there is a reason why we have made intentional departures from conventional wisdom.  In this blog post we will talk about how our values and commitment to learning contradict traditional student grading, and what we do instead.

We do not assign grades. Not 1-5.  Not A-F.  And beginning this year, student progress reports will not include information on where a child is performing “relative to grade level.”

Why?  Because the moment we cause a child to focus on HOW they are doing instead of WHAT they are doing, the costs of a grading system outweigh its proposed benefits.

Grades have stood the test of time, so they must be valuable, right?  

Proponents of a traditional grading system believe that grades allow for uniformity between teachers and continuity of teaching between grades and schools.  For example, an A student in one classroom can be treated as an A student in the next one, and that A represents a similar level of achievement between classrooms.  Proponents also believe that grades motivate students to achieve and are indications of “rigor.”

At best, these beliefs are poorly corroborated by social science.  At worst, they have the opposite intended effect.

Grades create an illusion of uniformity, and that illusion has eased or worried the minds of many well-intentioned parents.  Because there is no standard A grade, an A to one teacher may be a B to another.  Does an A mean a student received 90% or higher on their work?  If so, how was the work product evaluated to draw such a conclusion?  Does the teacher use a bell curve? While assessments can be great tools to evaluate learner performance, most assessments of authentic work rely a great deal on subjectivity, and normed assessments like standardized tests are understood to be best at assessing a learners test-taking ability, not their true understanding of academic content.

Grades do motivate many students, but not to learn.  Studies show that when a student understands their work will be graded, they will focus more on how they are doing than what they are doing.  The learning itself becomes the cost of this rational, adaptive behavior, rather than the outcome.  Measurable maladaptations such as cheating, exhibition of anxiety and competitive behaviors are well documented with a learners focus on grades.  In addition, lower rates of content and skill retention, creativity and risk taking are present alongside grades.  If a tool used by schools reduces the very outcomes it claims to increase, it deserves to be questioned.

A great school is an adventure in ideas, not a test.  

Imagine a teacher has asked you to find a problem in the physical world and engineer a solution.  You’ve been told your grade is dependent on your ability to solve the problem completely.  Now, answer the following questions:

  1. What constraints have you put on your problem selection process?  Are you considering complex problems with many nuances?  
  2. Are you picking a problem that is interesting to you personally?
  3. Will you go with a solution that is a safe bet, or deepen your thinking to come up with new ideas?

What if the task your teacher had given you was the same, but it wasn’t going to be graded?  How would you answer those questions now?  Research suggests you would take greater risks if you knew you would not be penalized for trying something new.

If not grades, then what? 

The alternative to grades is direct feedback.  A teacher can respond to a child’s work either verbally or through writing, to discuss what skills were present and what areas could be developed.

At Micro, teachers conference with learners on a daily basis, assessing progress, guiding self-reflection and providing actionable feedback.  In this way, a learner’s work is always approached as an evolutionary process, rather than a static representation of their total body of knowledge.

Our narrative progress reports speak specifically to each learner and their journey without drawing comparison to other learners or grade-based norms.  By focusing on spotlights of learner growth, next steps, and how individual learners are being supported in the learning environment, our children are able to maintain their focus on the learning itself, not the evaluation process.

Self-assessment is a critical, lifelong skill. 

You know who is really good at providing feedback about achievement?  The achiever!  Learners, even the youngest with guidance, are great judges oftheir own progress toward goals they value.  If you ask an eight year old learner to reflect on the quality of their work, with an understanding that they have the authority to determine their own outcome, they will usually bring up the same things the teacher would have.  They can accurately evaluate their own effort, employment of skills (cognitive, behavioral and academic) relevant to quality work, and find weak spots where they need more time or support.

Our young learners are more than arbitrary numbers or letters.  Their works are an evolution; always changing, improving and deepening.  At Highlands Micro School, we have chosen to implement evaluation and progress reporting systems that serve our learners and their families, while supporting the educational philosophies that set us apart.

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