Thursday, 2 January 2014

No Grades: coming to a school near you

Grading (particularly, the absence of letter grades) is getting a lot of press these days.  In Canada, with Surrey, Maple Ridge, Calgary, Camrose and other districts and private schools piloting no letter grades in their elementary and middle school report cards, it seems that it is just a matter of time that the question "can we do without letter grades?" will be coming your way.  Here, I compile info and thoughts to aid those like me who are pondering the question.

The Setup
The Canadian spin
Surrey schools try scrapping letter grades
Maple Ridge schools say Goodbye to A, B, and D
Calgary eliminates letter grades for students up to grade nine in an attempt to save children from failure
Ontario no-grade report card

The variations
While Maple Ridge asks for 3 face to face meetings a year--student, parent, and teacher--in their new reporting process, Calgary says: no more personalized comments and only 2 reports a year.  Ontario seems to have no grades first term, then the standard graded report cards after that.  For some the focus is on formative assessment.  For others it is to protect self-esteem.  And for others, it is part of a new structure to reduce teacher time spent on writing report cards.

For Dr. Jim Christopher, Head of Kenneth Gordon Maplewood School in North Vancouver, a private school that specializes in teaching students with learning difficulties, their no grade report is about how students are:

 faring against the goals that we have set together in their Individual Education Plans (IEPs); where they stand compared to the expectations for their age and stage on the Provincial Learning Outcomes (PLOs);  and, where they are in the continuum of learning that will help them to chart their course to further success.
Nothing to Report - Christopher's Learning to Learn Differently blog

Although there are a variety of iterations, there is no doubt that strong feelings abound when it comes to giving grades.  From: "don't coddle children" and "we have to prepare kids for the real world" to "grades poison everything they touch".  Here are some of the passionate proponents and what they are focusing on.

The Proponents
Student Motivation
Alfie Kohn is quoted abundantly in the conversation around dropping grades.  He is adamantly against rewards, and has recently tweeted that "grades poison everything they touch".  Here is his treatise on grades:

"The more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward."

Kohn passionately shares how grades negatively affect education.  In terms of motivation, he posits that a teacher can't really ever motivate a student.  A teacher can never make a student want to learn.  And the more coercion and extrinsic motivators used, the more a student will become uninterested.  The best a teacher can do is to create an environment for learning and the worst he or she can do is kill motivation.  Kohn cites "three reliable effects when students are graded":

1) Students tend to think less deeply
2) Students avoid taking risks
3) Students lose interest in the learning itself
- in Kohn's The Trouble with Rubrics

In that same essay, which can be found as chapter 7 in his book Feel-bad Education, he quotes a 2004 Educational Leadership article by Natalia Perchemlides and Carolyn Courant where a grade 6 student says, "The whole time I'm writing, I'm not thinking about what I'm saying or how I am saying it.  I'm worried about what grade the teacher will give me, even if she's handed out a rubric.".  For Kohn, rubric or otherwise, it is the evaluation that kills the learning.

Alfie Kohn has written and presented a plethora of talks, books, and articles on grades.  Here are two that really summarize the specifics of his position:

From Degrading to De-Grading - HIGH SCHOOL MAGAZINE March 1999
Kohn gives 9 reasons to "say no to grades" in this article.  He also addresses some of the common objections including: students expect grades, colleges demand them, and how will teachers get "students to show up on time, hand in their work, and otherwise do what they’re told?".

To the college objection, Kohn counters:

 One might reply that “high schools have no responsibility to serve colleges by performing the sorting function for them” – particularly if that process undermines learning (Krumboltz and Yeh, 1996, p. 325).
Kohn describes how to make the change to no grades and even includes a letter to colleges that would accompany a list of courses and special projects and letters of recommendation to admissions offices.
The Case Against Grades - EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP, November 2011
After reiterating his case, here Kohn lists 5 educational woes using the phrase: "It's not enough".

"* It’s not enough to replace letters or numbers with labels (“exceeds expectations,” “meets expectations,” and so on)."

"* It’s not enough to tell students in advance exactly what’s expected of them."

"* It’s not enough to disseminate grades more efficiently -- for example, by posting them on-line."

"* It’s not enough to add narrative reports."


"* It’s not enough to use “standards-based” grading."

In the article, he also shares stories of teachers who have made the jump to no grades: Jeff Robbins, Jim Drier, Joe Bower, and John Spencer.  And this J-group, though having varied approaches, seems to have similar results: enlightening conversations, better relationships, more student involvement, and better learning.

Kohn sees grades as part of a bigger problem though.  In a chapter (in Feel-Bad Education) called Who's Cheating Whom?, he says:

"Grades, however, are just the most common manifestation of a broader tendency on the part of schools to value product more than process, results more than discovery, achievement more than learning" - Alfie Kohn, Feel-Bad Education

Kohn calls us to re-think the hierarchy of our educational values, to turn on its head our result oriented education system, to focus on learning over achieving, and to bring students into the decision-making process.  His equating grades with rewards might seem simplistic, but he makes a great case for getting kids focused on the learning in schools, not just shooting for a grade.


Sir Ken Robinson also calls for a revolution in education.  In his 2006 TED talk, he shares:
"the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance and the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at in school wasn’t valued or was actually stigmatised and I think we can’t afford to go on that way." -

Sir Ken Robinson TED2006
I include Robinson not just because of the name, but because he looks at our current education system in such a way as to question not only the way we evaluate but also the way we choose our curriculum.  He sees our education system as the perfect incubator to create little more than college professors; the focus is the neck up.  Often we have much less interest in educating whatever is below the neck.  He's a cheerleader for the arts and calls for them to get just as much attention in schools as Math and Science does.

What does all that have to do with grades.  Well, he says that "if you are not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original."  By the time we become adults, most have lost the capacity to be creative and to take a chance.

"we stigmatise mistakes. And we are now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities." -
Sir Ken Robinson TED2006
Grading leads students to choose the safer path.  If they're graded on a rubric, students will choose an easier project or a less creative lets-just-copy-the-teacher's-example kind of answer.  If it is a test, memorization and mnemonics are the shortest route to a good grade.  The revolution Robinson is calling for in its purest form seems to depart from the idea of grading.  The sorting path (putting students into A's, B's, C's and so on) and the path to promoting creativity are not the same.

Statements of Information
Joe Bower, an educator in Red Deer Alberta, has been teaching the love of learning in middle school for nine years.  On his for the love of learning blog he shares what "no grades" really looks like.  He feels that students should experience success and failure as information, not punishment and reward.  He set up a system of feedback that focused on what he sees, suggestions and questions.  For the term grades that the Alberta School Code required him to do, he kept evidence in the form of portfolios, and had the students self assess.  Rarely would a student over-inflate his or her grade, but when that occurred, Bower would deal with it through dialoguing with the student. 

If you are looking to stop grading, his blog has a wealth of resources to do it.  First stop would be Bower's Table of Contents, where he catalogues all his de-grading blog posts.  This is a bevy of thoughts, guest blogs, data, and appeals.  His work is honest and down to earth.  He even includes a letter to opt his own children out of being graded in school.

The Empirical
"Where is the data?"
The proponents above outline many studies that support the end of using letter grades.  Here is one that is very telling.

Ruth Butler of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem did a study that to me speaks even louder to the results of grading assignments.  In her 1988 study published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology (found here), she shows how grades become "ego-involving information" by the time students enter grade four.  I don't like Kohn's simply equating grades with rewards as teachers don't 'reward' students with grades, they evaluate--the grade represents the evaluation.  But Butler shows the effects of grades by splitting 132 fifth and sixth graders into 3 groups.  Each group was given the same tasks (one convergent and another divergent) to do but either received comments, grades, or comments and grades after their initial attempt.  Twice more the tasks were attempted and the results were surprising:

On the simpler task, after being given comments, both high achieving and low achieving students improved markedly.  Students also improved when they were given grades.  When comments and grades were given, however, the students did worse at the task.

On the more difficult task, comments again led to a better result, and again particularly with low achieving students.  Grades helped the low achievers, but hindered the high achievers.  Grades and comments again hindered the high achievers yet helped the low achievers.

But when no further evaluation was expected, only comments lead to improvement.  Butler concluded:

"Narrow preoccupation with grade attainment seems to affect the quality , if not the quantity, of immediate task performance, and to undermine divergent thinking in particular."
Grades seem to beget the need for grades.  They are not as effective as comments in improving learning.  And adding comments to grades seems to be about the worst thing you can do.

The Close
I am a teacher who has given grades for all my career.  I had to grade assignments in order to grade report cards.  I have never enjoyed it but I have always felt it was part of my job.  With the compelling reasons not to give grades here, though, I am faced with the need to evaluate my own practice.  Is there a good case for giving up grades?