Think back to when you were a student in school. Like most of us, you regularly received a grade on a test, homework assignment, participation, report card, you name it! Can you recall how it made you feel and if it helped or hindered your learning?
A major challenge for many schools and a well researched obstacle to learning is grading. A number of years ago we at the International School of Prague, took on the challenge of changing our grading and assessment practices in order to remove various ineffective or detrimental practices, such as:
- Inaccurate grade calculation methods (i.e. averaging tests, grading on a curve etc.),
- Conflating skills and behaviours which create an inaccurate representation of learning
- Using grades as a punishment or as a tool for compliance (for example “If you misbehave or hand in your homework late, I’ll lower your Math grade.”)
Over the years we have “upgraded” our practices so that grades and assessments more accurately represent actual student learning. To learn more about ISP’s assessment and grading journey, take a look at my previous blogs on the subject:
The reality is that we know from decades of research that grades are an actual impediment to learning. Educational writer, Alfie Kohn, who has for years railed against the practice of grading in schools, summarises the research into three “robust conclusions”:*
Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning. A “grading orientation” and a “learning orientation” have been shown to be inversely related and, as far as I can tell, every study that has ever investigated the impact on intrinsic motivation of receiving grades (or instructions that emphasize the importance of getting good grades) has found a negative effect.
Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task. Impress upon students that what they’re doing will count toward their grade, and their response will likely be to avoid taking any unnecessary intellectual risks. They’ll choose a shorter book, or a project on a familiar topic, in order to minimize the chance of doing poorly — not because they’re “unmotivated” but because they’re rational. They’re responding to adults who, by telling them the goal is to get a good mark, have sent the message that success matters more than learning.
Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking. They may skim books for what they’ll “need to know.” They’re less likely to wonder, say, “How can we be sure that’s true?” than to ask “Is this going to be on the test?” In one experiment, students who were told they’d be graded on how well they learned a social studies lesson had more trouble understanding the main point of the text than did students who were told that no grades would be involved. Even on a measure of rote recall, the graded group remembered fewer facts a week later (Grolnick and Ryan, 1987).
So, based on all that we know about the impact of grades, the ISP middle school has been undertaking a Gradeless Opt-in Prototype, in which interested middle school students with the their parents’ consent, can choose to learn for a full year without grades, but with meaningful assessments and feedback. At the end of this prototype, teachers, students and parents will understand more about how gradeless learning might work in the context of our school, as we inquire into the following claim: Grades do not enhance and can hinder or be detrimental to learners’ growth and well-being.
We kicked off the prototype with a parent meeting in which we discussed the research
and engaged in great conversations with about 70 parent participants. Parents raised a number of thoughtful questions which we will incorporate into our Prototype next year.
- What if my child is moving to another school in the future?
- What does “opt in” look like when it comes to assessment?
- Would a gradeless approach allow for more effective personal learning goals?
- Can teachers cope with two systems?
- How can parents help to support this new initiative?
- Is there a way to reduce the stress from grades?
- How will this impact upper school?
The parent meeting was followed by a pizza lunch with interested (and hungry!) middle school students.
I was impressed with the high level of our students’ thoughtful and perceptive questions and comments. Below are some examples:
- When you get a 7 (like an A) you can’t go further.
- If something is important for me, I will want to do it.
- Grades drive my life and tell me who I am.
- The grade is what makes me happy or sad.
- Why do you go to school? To get good grades.
- The grade is the goal
- If you always get 7s you don’t really want to do more or get greater challenges, you just strive to get that grade, but you won’t persist once you get the grade
- You don’t work as hard if it’s a formative assessment. If it’s summative, it counts.
- I get mixed up between formative and summative.
- How will it work when I move back to my own country?
- Some people are only happy with good grades. If I got a bad grade I’d want no grades.
- Grades have been very stressful for me, they make me feel bad and disappointed in myself
- I want to figure out how to push myself.
What struck me was how much their comments reflected and validated what we know from research about the negative impact of grades on student learning, and bolstered my conviction that our students will help lead the way.
The late Grant Wiggins, educational thought leader, once wrote an article entitled: The Point Of School Isn’t To Get Good At School. I think most of us would agree that ultimately, the purpose of school is to empower students to become learners for life. It therefore behoves schools to put learners at the centre, and to focus on the learning not the grades.
From an 7 October 2020 interview about ISP Gradeless initiative:
- Response to Assessment Feedback: The Effects of Grades, Praise, and Source of Information. Anastasiya A. Lipnevich ETS, Princeton, NJ Jeffrey K. Smith University of Otago, New Zealand (June 2008)
- Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation: The effects of task involving and ego-involving evaluation on interest and performance. Butler, R. (1988). British Journal of Educational Psychology, 58,1-14.