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Are grades the problem, or is it our approach?

3 min read


Few topics seem to strike a chord with educators like grading practices and, specifically, the practice of not giving grades. That was true this week as educators posed provocative questions to middle-school history teacher Hadley Ferguson after reading her blog post “Ungraded students.” Here’s a brief question-and-answer session based on that conversation, covering topics including parent buy-in and the relationship between grades and competition.

Q. Great concept, but are we underestimating the importance of competition? Grades on a test/assignment in school are equivalent to stages/scores in video games. Kids don’t learn or excel at gaming for the camaraderie, they are driven by the ability to compete, to win, to lose. Is it really the system of grades we should change, or is it our approach?

A. My experience is that the strong students enjoy the competition of grades, because they succeed at it. For the mid-range and struggling students, who have often given up all hope of “winning” at this competition, grades often hold back their learning. The risk of failing even more if they take a chance often keeps them from experimenting.

Q. What was the overall reaction by the parents to this? In your opinion, was it successful?

A. [W]e had a meeting with the parents at the beginning of the year and explained the rationale for not grading the students. Once they heard what was said and had a chance to ask questions, they were very supportive. They just needed to know that ungraded didn’t mean that the students weren’t getting feedback, but that the kind of feedback was going to be very different from a single grade.

Q. I agree that this is a great concept and that it may work well at the middle school level; however, I wonder how well this will work at the high school level when GPAs play a role in acceptance to colleges and universities.

A. Middle school does make it easier, especially when talking to the parents, but I also think that portfolio-based transcripts are the direction in which high schools should be going. It would be possible to clearly communicate a student’s strengths in a portfolio. I wonder if the day will come when colleges will simply look at a student’s digital footprint and make their decisions based on what they find: blogs, websites, Twitter feed, etc.

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Melissa Greenwood is SmartBrief’s senior education editor, with responsibility for the content in a variety of SmartBrief’s education e-news briefs. She also manages content for SmartBlog on Education and related social media channels.