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



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