The case for eliminating letter grades, according to a school with too many straight-A students

Mary Lawlor has taught sixth-grade English for more than 20 years. For almost all of that time, she hated giving grades.

The high-achievers always freaked out, lining up at her door in tears because they wanted higher marks. “It bred all these perfectionists [who] were not resilient and just focused on a number,” she said. The slackers retreated to the playground, continuing not to care whether they learned much or not.

So when Rowland Hall, a small private school in Salt Lake City, Utah where Lawlor teaches, decided to scrap the traditional A-F grading scale in a few middle school grades, and replace it with a reporting system based on what the school thought kids and their parents should know about their students’ learning, she was thrilled.

“Grades were not tied to learning targets,” Lawlor said. “They discouraged risk-taking.”

The process of abandoning the A-F system proved to be harder than expected. It challenged everything the administrators, teachers, parents, and students thought they knew about education. What were grades for? What was school for? What did kids need to know and how were teachers meant to impart that? How should schools communicate to parents not just whether their kid would get an A or B, but whether their kid was actually learning?

“We underestimated the way the A to F grading paradigm influences our beliefs about what school is, and should be,” said Annie Barton, Rowland Hall’s middle school academic dean.

The challenge of eliminating traditional grades goes beyond Rowland Hall, and speaks to a larger debate about the future of education. Some US schools and districts (mostly elementary schools that worry less about the impact on college admissions) are experimenting with ditching grades in favor of various other reports of academic mastery, sometimes coupled with separate assessments of behavior or character traits (grit, citizenship, empathy). As dramatic changes in technology and automation reshape the workforce, many educators feel schools should reflect these changes. Critics of traditional grades say the A-F system is not enough; it lacks the sophisticated assessments needed to track students’ progress and achievements.

“A few letters is a terribly inefficient way to characterize a mind,” said Bror Saxberg, former chief learning officer at Kaplan, and now vice president of learning science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. “Think of how much DNA is required to characterize a human being.”

Tom Guskey, a professor at the University of Kentucky who studies grading systems and advises schools and school districts on them, said that while the US has made progress in reforming curriculum (what is taught), teaching (how it’s taught), and assessment (how you measure what is taught), grading reform has lagged. The US is “more bound by tradition than any other developed country in the world,” he said. American schools “continue these practices simply because ‘we’ve always done it that way.'” What’s more, computer grading programs have been developed to match what has always been done rather than “best practice” based on modern research.

What’s the point of grades?

Imagine a kid who turns in every homework assignment, participates in class but bombs the tests. Now imagine the student who aces the test, but spends class goofing off and texting friends and finds homework annoying. Both get a grade of 85%, or a “B.” What does that number tell you about what that kid knows, how he or she behaves, or what’s needed to improve?

Guskey writes that there are many problems with traditional grading systems, including the fact that they combine way too many factors into one, including students’ achievement, attitude, responsibility, effort, and behavior.

 Grades appear to be objective and precise, but in fact can be subjective. “If someone proposed combining measures of height, weight, diet, and exercise into a single number or mark to represent a person’s physical condition, we would consider it laughable,” he wrote. “How could the combination of such diverse measures yield anything meaningful?”

There are other problems. Grades appear to be objective and precise, but in fact can be subjective. And they can pit students against each other, stoking competitiveness between children who are motivated by a compulsion to win, rather than a desire to learn.

Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of Originals, echoes this concern in explaining why grading on a curve (where students are graded relative to their peers’ performance) is problematic. He writes:

The more important argument against grade curves is that they create an atmosphere that’s toxic by pitting students against one another. At best, it creates a hypercompetitive culture, and at worst, it sends students the message that the world is a zero-sum game: Your success means my failure.

When he created a system that did not limit the number of As that could be achieved (the curve), and incentivized students to work together by allowing them to collaborate on questions, student performance improved.

And while grades may motivate high-achieving students to get higher marks, there is little evidence that they prompt kids at the lower end of the performance spectrum to try harder. “It’s very important to keep hope alive,” one teacher said in an article about grading reform. “Once kids give up, you’ve lost them.”

The case for old-fashioned grades

While the idea of eliminating letter grades has caught on with some progressive educators, the jury is out on its benefits.

Alex J. Bowers, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, was part of a group (with Guskey) that looked at 100 years of research on grading. The researchers found that 25% of the variation in grades teachers give to students had to do with academic knowledge, or roughly what is measured by standardized tests. The remaining 75% came from something else. He thinks that 75% is all the other stuff that matters in learning: social and emotional intelligence, a willingness to participate, and simply turning up.

 It turns out that the things grades may measure are the things that employers value. “Grades are multidimensional,” he said. “They represent both academic knowledge and all those other things—showing up on time, being an active person in the institution of school.”

He calls it the “school success factor.” (Daniel Willingham, a professor at the University of Virginia calls it “conatative knowledge,” or being engaged participation in the process of school.) And it turns out the things grades may measure are things employers value—being on time, getting things done, managing time well. In this sense, grades are doing what they are meant to do, measuring many aspects of student success.

He points to research showing that grades are very predictive of staying in school. Since dropping out predicts various other poor life outcomes, from employment and health to happiness, grades clearly measure something important, Bowers believes.

“We want them to know stuff, so we have test scores,” Bowers said. “We also want them to be engaged citizens, and we went them to be successful in their careers, and grades help us understand that.”

Standards-based grading

Rowland Hall built its system around its own mission (it calls the system “mission-based grading”). Other districts that shun traditional grading, like Ontario, Canada, and Issaquah, Washington, among others, use standards-based grading, which reports mastery of individual academic concepts, such as learning fractions. Student behavior is reported separately. This chart compares traditional versus standards-based grading, courtesy of a Colorado-based high school math teacher who moved her class to standards-based grading:

Standards-based grading
Patricia Scriffiny

A grading system “must not allow students to mask their level of understanding with their attendance, their level of effort, or other peripheral issues,” the teacher wrote.

Research on standards-based grading has been mixed. Some say it helps kids learn what is important, and better communicates to parents how students are learning. Critiques include teachers complaining that it’s too much work, or that omitting behavior from grades lessens student motivation.

Standards-based systems are also often hard to implement, says Guskey, because they require changing more than just grades, which many schools don’t do. Curriculum, instruction, and assessment also need to change, so kids and teachers know what the expectations are and how the system works.

These new systems may need refining, but that doesn’t mean the alternative is better. Esther Care, an education expert at the Brookings Institution, calls the A-F grading system “nonsense.” “Grades are mere proxies for what we value. What we actually value is our children being prepared for the future,” she said. “We need to find ways in educational assessment to convey information about the degree to which they are ready to venture out and to deal constructively with the huge challenges posed by our 21st century.”

Rowland Hall’s experiment

When Annie Barton joined Rowland Hall in 2013, she was charged with following the academic progress of her students. She quickly realized grades offered little help in this task. An A student in math could be conscientious and diligent, or a math whiz who mastered concepts quickly with little planning or effort.

At the same time, Barton and others knew that the neuroscience of adolescence—when brains are effectively rewiring themselves—offered a window of opportunity to help shape many of the things that lead to student success: discipline, emotional self-control, and collaboration. Academics were just a piece of what preteen and teen kids needed to learn.

 One frequent complaint from parents: “There are too many words; where are the numbers?” The system she and fellow administrators built, which will be used in all three middle school grades this fall, aimed to measure three things: academic mastery (how well a student understands the content and skills of the class), productivity (tenacity, efficacy, resourcefulness, and work completion), and contributions to the community (empathy, interest in learning, inclusion, equity, and respect.). For each category, there were four possible marks: exceeding expectations, meeting them, approaching them, or unsatisfactory.

Plenty of problems arose. Should homework be measured for mastery of a subject, or productivity, or both? How do you track improvement? Sixth-graders interviewed at the end of their first year in the system found it too hard to improve, so pluses were added to “meeting” and “approaching.” One of the most frequent complaints from parents, Barton said, is “there are too many words; where are the numbers?”

“Straight As use to be commonplace,” said Barton. “Now we have yet to see a student earning straight ‘E’s (for exceeding).” Some parents of those straight-A students complained that the evaluations were more subjective than traditional grades, less rigorous, and less preparatory for the demands of high school.

Some students also balked. They saw kids on TV getting grades; they wanted something to complain about too. There are no grades in the lower school, so kids wanted to “move up” to getting grades. “They want to fit in with the rest of the world,” Barton says.

Better students, better teachers

Still, the benefits teachers have observed so far outweigh the drawbacks. Rowland Hall will not disclose student results in terms of standardized test performance, but they say they have seen no signifiant changes (Wendell Thomas, director of curriculum and instruction, said they see flaws in those tests anyways).

According to Thomas, teachers report that classroom discipline has improved, and students are more interested in their own learning. When he asked his 13-year-old son, a student at the school, what he thought, he responded: “I think it helps me understand better what I need to do to improve.”

“Compared to what grades normally do, which is negative and not positive, that’s good enough for me,” Thomas said.

Lawlor thinks the system is helping kids become better learners: “They work a lot harder, they know how to ask about where they are struggling, and there’s so much more delight.”

It has also made her a better teacher, she explained, in that she has to articulate to her students more carefully what they need to do to improve and progress. Grades masked that, as students just figured out what they had to do to get two more points to get from the A- to the A.

“It puts academic mastery where it should be,” said Barton. “On an even playing field with being a collaborative person, bringing organization and bringing energy to the class, and never losing your stuff.”

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