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Making Grades Count

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

I would be so much happier if I didn't have to grade.

I don't mean reading and providing feedback on student work—that's important. No, I mean that often heart-wrenching task of sticking a number or a letter on a piece of work and, by extension, on a student.

I don't have problems providing students with feedback. But grades themselves are so misunderstood, taken so very seriously, and, in some ways, so misleading, that I often would prefer not to have to assign them at all.

I'm constantly thinking about this dilemma, something a colleague of mine refers to as the coach/judge problem: we spend a lot of time as our students' coaches, until the day they have to perform. Then, suddenly, we become the judges. How many other situations put one person in these two positions with regard to another? Mix in the current high-stakes testing culture, anxious helicopter parents, a recession that makes competition for college spots and scholarships all the more fierce, and it becomes downright stressful just to decide whether a paper gets an 84 or an 85.

An article this week by Jay Mathews, education columnist for The Washington Post, got me thinking yet again. In it, he cites New Jersey science teacher Peter Hibbard, who wrote to Mathews about some of the frustrations of his job and how he feels they might be solved if we could be a bit more creative about how we organize and run our schools. He doesn't zero in on the grading conundrum, specifically, but many of the principles behind his ideas highlight the importance of eschewing the easy label-the-widget approach to dealing with students, which is what grading for the sake of having quantifiable results really is.

Another article came my way this week: an item in Inside Higher Ed asks educators to consider what might happen if we decided to get rid of grades altogether and examines the notion that it is universities that drive the need for grades.


It's been done, interestingly enough. Not just in the postsecondary and graduate schools named in the article, but at some high schools willing to rethink what student evaluation really means. Schools like Saint Ann's School in New York have been doing it for decades, lauded by antigrading crusader Alfie Kohn. It intrigues me. I'd love to study what it is they do to overturn our culture's compulsion, inculcated through long practice, to attach numbers to student performance. And even if we don't attach numbers, we still slot students into levels of achievement, or rank them, or do something else that reduces their abilities to a statistic.

In the meantime, my school system and many others demand that we comply with that compulsion. So how to create a happy medium?

A good place to start might be in an AP® class, if you're lucky to have students who are taking the course not only for its attractiveness on their transcript but for the actual enriched learning opportunity it offers. If students are motivated to work toward improvement (even if, ultimately, the reward for improvement is a higher grade), I've found they better accept what in my system is called "formative" feedback, which I usually give in the form of focused narrative comments on this skill or that.

Of course, I can't give feedback on everything students write, or even on every part of what they submit to me. I'm selective, sometimes focusing on introductions, sometimes on quotation integration, sometimes on...oh, take your pick. There's so much. This isn't new. Managing the grading load often requires that teachers be selective in this way.

We rest assured that it's pedagogically sound: when students ask why I'm not commenting on something, I use my "piano teacher" analogy. Does the piano teacher sit by your side every time you practice piano between lessons and comment on everything? Of course not. Feedback from one lesson to the next is the piano teacher's job; practicing to implement the feedback is the student's, not just when she is going to be evaluated, but on her own, because she knows it will help her improve, so that when she takes the piano exam or performs to an audience, she'll be successful in the eyes of those evaluating her.

Another strategy I use in AP® classes is teaching students to score student samples and then use those samples to self-score their own work, emulating the benchmark system used by the AP® Reading. This isn't done for grades, and again, I don't always read these pieces. My students keep an ongoing folder through the year, which they periodically review to see how their writing has changed over the course of the year.

OK, I'm getting offtrack here about the whole no grading thing. But that's because I'm still quite stumped by the fact that, despite all this formative feedback, I still can't quite answer the question about how to do away with grades and still give students the number or letter our system requires.

I'm genuinely curious—anyone have any tips for me?

®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.