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What Would a School Without Grades Look Like?

written by: tstyles•edited by: Donna Cosmato•updated: 11/22/2011

When implementing a curriculum that does not rely on grades to illustrate student growth, what could parents possibly rely on to know their child is making progress?

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    I have a great bumper sticker on my car that reads, "Eliminate Grades." What indeed would a classroom look like in the absence of grades? How will we ever survive if we can't say that Johnny is a 90% and Jane is an 85%? Or that my Johnny is better than your Jane because of the numeric difference. Seemingly the world would spin out of control and slam into the sun. We would all be sizzled like sausages like the Enormous Crocodile in Roald Dahl's classic.

    Well, I have eliminated grades in my fifth grade classroom (surprisingly I've gotten away with it) and the earth is still spinning on its axis and I'm held in high regard in my parent/student community.

    Grading Eats up a Teacher's Time

    I can't help it, but every time I hear other teachers speak of the upcoming spelling test or Friday Science test I get shivers. Only a couple of years ago I had to have my collection of grades. I spent time administering pen and paper tests, scrutinizing book reports using a rubric scale, and judging the quality of a child's artwork to give him a project grade. In retrospect, I see that was all a waste of time I could have been using reading, researching, and planning exciting things for the classroom. Not to mention, the grade I put on a rubric-based project might be totally different than another person might have rated it. So in this case what really does an 85% mean? It's all a bunch of hoopla.

    Grading Puts the Focus on the Wrong Things

    I dare say let children not work for the almighty grade, but for the pursuit of their own interests and curiosities as naturally inquisitive beings. They will not disappoint in the absence of this controlling numeric force in their lives.

    What Would a School Without Grades Look Like?

    I know of a few independent schools near me that offer grade-less havens for students. These are places of learning where children can explore, investigate, write, read and grow without being rewarded, awarded, graded, cajoled, controlled and robotized to be future slaves of big business (In earlier days children were programmed for factory work).

    It's humorous to think about how happy everyone is when they can pull the folder out of the backpack and see the grades. Even when the grades are bad, parents are still happy because, as the Joker put it in Dark Knight, "It's all part of the plan." Then all of the sudden, the grades stop coming home and the plan begins to fall apart and mayhem ensues. Why? Because when we're used to something being a certain way, to think of it any other way is terrifying. It's like we as a human race are balancing on a high wire that only shakes when the status quo is violated. We don't want to fall.

    I enjoy the fall, personally, and even like to jump before I can be shaken off. If parents want to know what evidence exists of their child's growth, if not for the papers in the folder, I invite them in to see the room...the walls with their projects, their writing folders and notebooks, their reading journals, their book logs, science journals. I share my assessments (not graded tests, mind you), reading inventories, math assessments, and otherwise. After all, I never said I wasn't going to monitor progress or assess them. I simply said I wasn't going to grade them on those assessments. Heck without having to test and grade I've been able to have conversations with my students, record dozens of observations on each child, sit in a group with them, and help them develop projects, conference with them, and talk to them.

    It's well documented science that a child working for a grade will actually produce less quality work than a child doing the same project, but told they are not working for a grade. Children are less likely to take risks and think out of the box when they are working for a grade. They tend to play it safer and stick to the script. That makes sense even with the studies, doesn't it?

    As a fifth grade teacher I've actually seen firsthand how a child conditioned to judge his own progress by a number is left with nothing when the number is taken away. They sort of stand about like a deer in the headlights, wondering where to go and what to do. Some of the "smartest" children become the most lost and bewildered when being forced to genuinely produce and think in the absence of study-past-the-test formulas, which is why many Ivy League colleges interview perspective students rather than simply rely on students with top of the line grades to fill their rosters. Even at that level they know where grades are concerned, not all is what it may seem. Isn't that the truth?

    Parent, teacher or student, I'd like to know what you think.