If Grades don’t Advance Learning, Why Do We Give Them?

Warning: I’m more than a little grouchy today.  

It’s probably because I spent close to four hours hunched over a stack of student work in the back of a dirty McDonalds grading papers yesterday.  It was a total grind — marking errors, leaving comments and looking for patterns in the mistakes made by close to 100 middle schoolers so that I can plan my next instructional steps is a heck of a lot harder than most people realize.  And that all has to happen BEFORE I transcribe student marks into a paper version of my gradebook and then entering scores into our district’s online gradebook program.

All of that time was essentially wasted, however, the minute that I turned the assignment back to my students.  The simple truth is that my kids weren’t all that interested in the comments that I’d written on their papers.  Some quickly filed their papers in their binders and moved on.  Others dropped their tasks into the recycling bin like too much intellectual detritus and wasted energy after asking the question that makes every teacher cringe:  “Do we have to keep this?”

Sound familiar?

Chances are that it does. Grading practices — think writing letter grades or simple percentages on student papers as an indicator of mastery — are almost universally recognized and repeated in American schools.  And while our traditional grading practices might feel comfortable to parents and policymakers, they are stifiling progress.  Isn’t it hypocritical to preach about the importance of innovation in education while simultaneously clinging to a system which is almost as archaic as it is useless.

What’s even more frustrating is that feedback and assessment experts have been pointing out the flaws in our grading practices for a long, long time.

Need proof?  Consider these quotes from three of the biggest feedback and assessment experts in the business:

Dylan Wiliam:  “When students receive both scores and comments, the first thing they look at is their score, and the second thing they look at is…someone else’s score.  Being compared with others triggers a concern for preserving well-being at the expense of growth” (p. 34 of this Ed Leadership issue).

Grant Wiggins:  “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”  (p. 15 of this Ed Leadership issue).

Alfie Kohn: “Most of the criticisms of grading you’ll hear today were laid out forcefully and eloquently anywhere from four to eight decades ago (Crooks, 1933; De Zouche, 1945; Kirschenbaum, Simon, & Napier, 1971; Linder, 1940; Marshall, 1968), and these early essays make for eye-opening reading.  They remind us just how long it’s been clear there’s something wrong with what we’re doing as well as just how little progress we’ve made in acting on that realization” (in this blog entry).

This all begs the obvious question:  If I know full well that grades are ineffective, then why do I keep giving them?

My answers to that question leave me more than a little ashamed, y’all.  I’m giving grades because there are times when my students don’t seem to respond to anything else.  “Is this going to be graded?” is often the first question asked when I introduce a new assignment in my classroom — and my answer can be a hinge-point for students, determining the amount of effort that they plan to invest in the task at hand.

And I’m giving grades because some part of me is convinced that I am being judged by the number of tasks that I score each quarter.  The narrative that I write in my own mind is that people — parents, principals, policymakers — see classes with dozens of individual grades as more rigorous and see teachers who are scoring machines as more professional and determined.  After all, we ARE data-driven organizations, right?  How can you make effective decisions without a heaping cheeseload of scores to sift through?

Finally, I’m giving grades because I’ve learned over the years that families can be consumed by averages.  I’ve seen the panic that sets in at the end of every quarter when the kids in my classroom realize that their letter grades aren’t where they want them to be.  Bs are inherently dissatisfying, Cs are a real disappointment and Ds are a complete disaster.  Giving more grades means giving students more chances to raise their scores — and giving students more chances to raise their scores feels like the right thing to do when averages are a priority for both parents and students.

Did you see what was missing in my rationale for grading papers?  

I spent four hours last night grading papers because my kids wouldn’t have invested in the task unless they knew it was going to be scored.  I spent four hours last night because I am worried about the perceptions of my peers and principals.  Now, I can wear my paper grading grind like a badge of professional honor.  And I spent four hours grading papers last night because I wanted to get a few more grades in the gradebook in order to help my kids maintain their averages.

But I didn’t spend four hours grading papers last night because I’m convinced that it will make a meaningful difference in what my students know and can do.  In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the four hours that I spent grading papers last night will have almost NO impact on the learning of my students at all.

Stew in that for a minute, would you?

And then explain to me why we are still giving students grades.

#sheeshchat

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Related Radical Reads:

Learning about Grading from the Baljeetles

Are Grades Utterly Useless?

Feedback Should be More Work for the Recipient

 

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