Are Grades Utterly Useless?

One of my all-time favorite assertions about grading in schools comes from Grant Wiggins.  He writes:

“The most ubiquitous form of evaluation, grading, is so much a part of the school landscape that we easily overlook its utter uselessness as actionable feedback. Grades are here to stay, no doubt—but that doesn’t mean we should rely on them as a major source of feedback.”

I’m starting to think that Wiggins is right, y’all:  Maybe grades ARE utterly useless as a form of feedback.

Here’s why:

 In the minds of many students, learning stops as soon as a grade is given. 

For too many students, grades are end points in the never-ending rhythm of traditional schooling.  Instead of encouraging continued study, they signal that it’s time to move on to a new idea — and that old ideas can be neatly boxed up and filed away and forgotten.  Learning in a graded classroom becomes an isolated act delivered in units that have clear starting and ending points instead of a fluid process of continual exploration and connection and growth and discovery.

Grades have created a world where students have forgotten that THEY can assess their OWN growth towards important academic goals.

Caught in learning spaces where the only feedback that anyone seems to value are scores given by adults, too many of today’s students sit passively waiting for the judgment of others, stripped of the self-reflective and evaluative skills that literally define the most successful people.

The crazy part is that BEYOND schools, students assess their own progress all the time.  Need proof?  Then check out the self-reflection and evaluation being done by this boy — who is determined to learn how to start a fire without using a match.

His behaviors look familiar, don’t they?

Every day, the kids in our classrooms are polishing skills and measuring their progress without being graded. Our gymnasts are fighting through bruises to master new tumbling routines.  Our fishermen are learning which baits work in which waters.  Our gamers are experimenting with a dozen new strategies for taking on new levels in their favorite games.

But that kind of self-reflection and evaluation happens almost exclusively BEYOND school.  Once the bell rings, progress-monitoring becomes someone else’s responsibility.

Grades mask the real and tangible progress that students — particularly those who struggle — ARE making.

Instead of highlighting areas of individual strength and weakness, traditional grades bundle the sum total of a student’s academic self-worth into a tidy letter that fits neatly on a report card.  Imagine how hard it is for kids buried in Cs and Ds to maintain any kind of momentum in our schools.

Wouldn’t YOU give up if the most important feedback that you ever received told you that you were below average in everything all the time?

Assessment experts Rick Stiggins and Jan Chappius go as far as to argue that teachers have a moral imperative to rethink the role that assessment plays in either encouraging our students from moving forward.  They write:

“Thus, the essential school improvement question from an assessment point of view is this: Are we skilled enough to use classroom assessment to either (1) keep all learners from losing hope to begin with, or (2) rebuild that hope once it has been destroyed?

For Stiggins and Chappius, regular opportunities for student-involved assessment — instead of grades given exclusively by adults — can help students to see that they ARE making progress and growing as learners.  They can  begin to understand that they ARE capable and successful – a message that they may never have heard before from anyone in positions of power in traditional schools.

There’s a lot to think about, right?  What role SHOULD grades play in our schools?  CAN they be something more than utterly useless forms of feedback for students?

Perhaps more importantly, what are YOU doing to make sure that classroom assessment is helping YOUR students to maintain their own intellectual hope?


Related Radical Reads:

@shareski’s Right: My Students CAN Assess Themselves

 Another Student-Involved Assessment Experiment

My Middle Schoolers LOVE Our Unit Overview Sheets



Related categories: ,
  • juliannadauble

    grades vs feedback

    VS, as in one against the other, definitely works here.  Grades are a tool to report to families how well a student has met standards as defined by the teacher with what resources they have, when they have them.

    My report cards this year were a HUGE burden and took away from meaningful instructional planning.  Did they help parents supplement their child’s education outside of school? some may enroll in tutoring. some used the marks as a reason to reward their child.  some may have read the COMMENTS I labor over and realized that what’s happening in the classroom is hugely complicated and that their student’s learning is unique and powerful.  I hope the latter was the most common experience for parents.  The need for tutoring-that has been communicated in myriad ways already.  The need for rewards for good work-that should be happening based on work sent home with scores/feedback on it.  

    The report card itself is an exercise in tradition yet has changed so radically year to year (with VERY little explanation or training on HOW to decide upon a standards based grade) and is heroically inconsistent teacher to teacher, school to school, so I just don’t see their value. Time is precious. If we were given time to conference with parents on actual projects/assessments instead of being expected to spend untold hours figuring out how to use separate reporting tools like the ritualized report card every child would have a better teacher.  Parents would be better informed, more involved in classroom learning, and problems students were having would be caught SOONER and with better outcomes for solving them.

  • Mark Sass


    Research shows that detailed, specific, descriptive feedback without grades is the most advantageous to student learning. Students who recieved grades along with rich specific feedback did worse than students who just rec’d the feedback. Students use the grade to compare themselves to each other and ignore the feedback. Check out this report for mkore information.  This supports much of what Bill writes in his post.


  • M

    I remember having self

    I remember having self-assessments every week in 4th and 5th grade, which were then turned into the teacher who circled in pen what their thoughts were on our weekly progress so we could match our view of ourselves and work against the teacher’s. There was also plenty of room for explanation and feedback on the form from the teacher, which was always filled out, and the form had to be signed by a parent and turned back in to show that we had shown/discussed our week with our parent(s).

    These self-assessments matched up against the teacher’s thoughts didn’t continue for me in middle school in high school — this should be something that continues throughout education, as our brains develop and we learn more about ourselves and processes growing into adulthood.

    I get that there may not always be enough time. The job of a teacher is a hard one in many ways, but I think this is something we need to expect when teaching, whether it’s teaching/tutoring one-on-one (e.g. I teach private music lessons) or teaching a whole class. A teacher must always put in the extra effort — we are teachers because we want to help others.

    • Yong Ra

      Is it feasible?

      As a high school teacher, I believe that we need to get the students to learn this skill soon. Sure, a teacher providing feedback is great and apparently a whole load of people don’t like just seeing a C+ on their paper without explanation. But the fact of the matter is that as a public school teacher, I just don’t have the time. I’m already spending over 50 hours a week on work, both in school and the stuff I take home with me. Given that, it’s not likely that a teacher will be able to provide detailed feedback to each and every student. Yeah, we should be putting in the effort, but there’s only so much time you can put in before it takes a toll on everything else. I can barely get away with this since I’m a pretty fresh 20 something with enough energy to spare, but once you’ve settled down and got a family of your own, it’s not something that seems feasible.

  • AnnMaria

    Did fine without grades

    I attended a high school that had no grades. Since I was too young to realize that was bad for me, I went on to graduate from college by age 19, get a Ph.D during which I learned that a humanist education based on Carl Rogers model would never work – fortunately, it was too late for me to learn that my high school could never get me motivated or prepared for the real world. Since then, I’ve founded four companies and raised four chilldren. I do try to encourage my children to get good grades but mostly because when they don’t it represents a lack of effort on their parts. I try to focus much more on the effort than the grade itself but sometimes I forget. Thank you for the reminder.