The Purpose of Grades

I have been thinking about grades and grading for some time now. An excellent post of questions by Glenn Kenyon got me thinking as did the last #edchat on twitter about assessment. I think every one of Glenn’s questions could be an independent post.

I would like to do a series of posts on the various aspects of grades and grading. I would like to approach the subject from an optimistic viewpoint that educators actually can change the purpose and meaning of grades if they so choose. I think articulating an “ideal” scenario helps give us a vision on where to go.

Before I spout off on grades I would like to hear from you. What do you think about grades and grading? Specifically what is their purpose in schools and education? Do grades mean the same thing to teachers, students, and parents? Are they a “necessary evil?” Let me have it!

12 thoughts on “The Purpose of Grades

  1. Knaus

    Student: “Mr. Knaus, what’s my grade in your class?”

    Mr. K: “I don’t know. What do you think it is?”

    Student: “B+?”

    Mr. K: “Do you think you’ve met enough objectives to be a B+?”

    Student: “C?”

    Mr. K: “Think about it and get back to me.”

    I really am not liking grades. I post an objective everyday that we are working on. I assess each objective in some way just about everyday. Can I put a grade on my formal and informal assessments of objectives? Perhaps but that doesn’t get the students thinking.

    I’m looking forward to your series of posts. Should spark good conversation!

  2. Matt Townsley

    Theory: “Grading as it has been done traditionally promotes a culture of point accumulation, not learning. It encourages competition rather than collaboration. It often focuses on activities instead of results. It makes all assessments summative because everything students do gets a score, and every score ends up in the grade book.” – Ken O’Connor

    Reality: “Grades are not likely to disappear from schools, so it is critical that we transform our way of determining grades from the traditional culture of grading to a culture based on standards.” -Ken O’Connor

    Ken says it much better than I can, so I decided to quote him to start off the conversation. Grading isn’t needed for learning to take place.

    I’m ready for the conversation to start, Michael!

  3. Chris Ludwig

    I’ve been reading Matt Townsley and Ken O’Connor a lot lately and started a conversation at my school about how to get rid of the points system that a lot of teachers use that converts formative assessment like daily practice into a permanent summative grade, so your (and Glenn’s) questions are very timely.

    I originally had planned to completely eliminate a lot of the stuff I used to grade from the gradebook entirely, and warned my classes that we would be approaching grades differently after the holiday break. I planned to just have major learning assessments (big projects, tests, quizzes, etc) as part of student grades, sort of a college-style model.

    But then I took a look at my 3rd grade daughter’s grades, which are posted to the district’s online gradebook for parents to see. I was amazed at how much I could tell about what was going on in each teacher’s class (she has several, thanks to departmentalization). Some teachers had many grades, some had few. Some were up to date in the system, some were a month old. Some used 100 point scales, some variable points per assignment. Nearly every assignment in every class had a class average of over 80%.

    I could go on about the data available, but the point I want to make is that by seeing her grades, I have a pretty good idea as a parent of what and how teachers are trying to teach my daughter. I can now send an email to a teacher to question why my daughter’s grade was determined only by 5 worksheets for the entire semester. The grades in this case communicate not necessarily what my daughter is up to, but what the teacher is doing with the class.

    So at this point I plan to keep most of my assignments in the gradebook that parents see, but will give many of them only 1 point where before they would have worth 10 or 20. Its a compromise of sorts that still allows parents (and athletic directors, for that matter) access to what students are doing but will hopefully not reward students for just turning stuff in.

    Thanks for hosting this conversation and you can be sure I’ll stay tuned for more.

  4. profespringer

    One issue that I constantly battle with is how grading relates to promoting creativity in a project. Can you reward a student for being “creative” in a project numerically? It seems that many folks think you can’t put a number on creativity. Once you give them a grade for creativity, you have the students thinking about what the teacher will view as “creative”. This potentially prevents creative risk taking that might lead to unique ideas. My district moves more and more project-based. One of the big goals is to promote innovation and creativity. That said, we still submit grades every quarter. What would be a grading policy to promote our goals of creativity and innovation?

  5. Dan McGuire

    Grades are a theoretically objective tool to communicate progress toward something that is not commonly agreed upon or understood in the same way by very many people.

  6. PrimaryEdTech

    Well, this is certainly going to be an interesting discussion! I believe, that the only useful assessment is formative assessment by teachers during a unit of work, and indeed, diagnostic formative assessment before a unit. In our school, we are in the process of eliminating grades. This does not mean that parents and children have not been conditioned to feel a need to determine a child’s progress vis-à-vis their classmates. At least, that is their view of it, grades determine a “pecking” order in the class which children and parents and some administrators need to see. In my mind, the reality is such that, no two teachers, regardless of the amount of moderation, will assign grades which mean the same thing across the board and across all classes and units of work. We are human after all, and as a result, variation is bound to exist. One problem is, that parents and those who seek “objective” results, fail to see the degree of subjectivity involved when any grade is assigned. Therefore, our school has moved to using rubrics which clearly define what is required in any particular piece of work. Each column clearly identifies what they have done correctly and what they need to improve on. Contrary to what many may expect, the rubrics have absolutely no numerical or letter grades attached to them. One of the other benefits of having rubrics is that it gives the teacher the opportunity to clearly define, throughout the task, with the children – either individually or in small groups – the exact requirements of the task. The rubric, then becomes a roadmap for the children to help them remember and identify what they have to do to achieve the stated learning objective and success criteria. So, my feelings on grading is that the belief that they indicate an unequivocal statement of a child’s progress is deeply flawed because of the huge numbers of variables which can tend to influence the result and those who seek specific grades often do not see the variables involved. Thankfully some parents I deal with tend to be more concerned with knowing what their child can and can not do and how to help them meet challenges rather than being overly concerned with grades and where their child is in a class. Finally, we need to keep in mind the fact that context plays a huge role in the importance of grades to students and their parents. When I use the rubrics, there is no need for the grades because the student knows how they are doing and so do I because they have been formatively assessed throughout the task.

  7. concretekax

    Great start to the conversation. My initial thoughts with more to come in future posts.

    @Knaus: I agree that I do not like grades. Not only do they often not represent learning, but they waste time that could be spent on actual learning.

    @Matt: I like the quotes from Ken O’Connor. Matt’s blog has a great focus on standards-based grading BTW.

    I am going to push on the quote “Grades are not likely to disappear from schools.” Why not?

    I love the “grading is not needed for learning to take place.” Then why don’t we try to eliminate them.

    @PrimaryEdTech: Thanks for sharing the challenges of a school that is getting rid of grades. I am very interested to hear more about how this progresses.

    I reflect on my own kids “report cards” in Kindergarten and 2nd grade. They receive no grades just checks on rubrics that represent their progress over the year. What year in school does this change from rubrics to grades?

    @Chris: Thanks for sharing your personal thinking about grading. I have to say that my philosophy about grading is not truly reflected in my practice as I am struggling with sorting it out.

    @profespringer: I believe that grading is the opposite of creativity and is the best way to kill it. Creativity is encouraged by intrinsic motivation. Giving students authentic work and then sharing it, perhaps on YouTube, is the best way to encourage creativity IMHO.

    @Dan Funmy but true, especially the “theoretically objective” part of grading.

    @Russ I agree that a large part of the battle is teaching parents that we don’t need grades. Much of my best student work has been done for no grade at all.

    @Shelly (Faire Alchemist) Question: Are your formative assessments based on individual progress or based on reaching certain standards in the course?

  8. Kevin

    Mr. G wondered what the number added to the feedback. Mainly it gives a summary of the overall impression you have of the work. By using that number, you can give similar amount of feedback to all students: pointing out small problems or advanced concepts to the top students and addressing only the most fundamental flaws with the bottom students. The students all get about the same amount of support and criticism (the ratio depending mainly on your personality and philosophy on feedback), and the number provides them with an overall feeling for how well they are doing relative to where they ant to be (or ought to be).

  9. R.Monson

    It seems that everyone that has commented so far has similar ideas about grades: namely that grades are a bad idea. I have a few questions to ask.

    1. One statement that was often made was that grades were subjective. If you don’t have grades and you have to determine who passes and fails a class, don’t you become more subjective? Without grades does everyone pass every class even if there performance was low? What level of performance would constitute a low performance, and without a grading scale how do you determine which students are low performing and which are high performing?

    2. One comment talked about using a 4 column rubric instead of grades. Regardless of what you call it, wouldn’t the four columns in some way represent grades? If all of your marks were in the first column you would be doing well, if all of your marks were in the fourth column you would not be doing well. On any assignment or in any class a certain number of high marks would be needed to pass. How is this not grades?

    3. Do you think that a lack of grades in some way increases the interest level of students? If yes, which students does a lack of grades work well for, students who on a grading system get good grades, average grades, or poor grades?

    My main experience is in a diverse high school that has both a strong IB and AP program and a large population of low performing/low level students. Doing away with grades could help some students but it will also hurt others. Looking at the different levels that are attained through grades I would split up the students this way for analysis: Strong IB/AP students, normal IB/AP students, strong regular students, average regular students, and weak regular students. For the strong IB/AP students doing away with grades won’t make any difference. I have seen some amazing work from these students in a graded system and it wouldn’t get better in a non graded system. For normal IB/AP students and strong regular students I think 2 things could happen. The first is that some of the students would take to the system and excel beyond what they have accomplished before. The second is that some of them would use the lack of grades as a reason for not putting forth as much effort. IB students need As and work because they need As. Without that need some of the IB students wouldn’t feel the need to put forth the same effort. For your normal student getting rid of grades could be disastrous. Many of them would fall off and do less because they no longer have to work for a grade, they just have to pass (whatever that means). Students in this group will discover what is needed to pass and do that much. For low level students no grades might be a way to motivate them but it could also take away any power or ability that teachers have to get the students to do the work.

    Aside from whether grades are good or bad, why do you make it sound like the learning ideas that were mentioned in previous posts would only work in a non graded system? If you were a motivating teacher, why couldn’t you make a rubric, expect high level results, and then grade them? Why couldn’t you ask students to assess there work and their effort, include that assessment with their assignment, and then grade them? Why couldn’t you do projects, have a rubric that includes a creativity measure, expect projects to be creative and well done, and then grade them? Why couldn’t you give graded feedback and allow students to follow the feedback, improve their work, and improve their grade?

    If we think grading is the problem, maybe we need to question the assignments that we are giving rather than the grading itself.

  10. concretekax

    R. Monson, you have asked many good questions. I will continue the conversation in a future post and try to answer them from my perspective and hopefully other readers will join in.

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