Grades are the core of traditional American education. Many tasks that students, teachers, and administrators complete have something to do with earning, assigning, or monitoring grades. Report cards, progress reports, grade point averages, high school rankings, mandatory tutoring, parent conferences, and failure reports are just a few areas that are a direct reflection of the country’s fascination with categorizing children’s learning into A, B, C, D, and F.

When I discuss Single Seed School, I lead with the fact that our students won’t receive letter or numerical grades. Most times, I’m met with shock and confusion because people don’t understand how school can exist without grades. Other times, I hear loud sighs of relief because I want to combat the dependence on numbers that mean very little.

Proponents of grades in schools suggest that without these numbers, there can be no accountability or measurement of learning. Nothing is further from the truth than that though. Having a “no grades” policy is not equivalent to a “free for all” learning environment.

On the contrary, I enforce a no grades policy in my school because I want:

  • better accountability for students and teachers,
  • accurate progress monitoring for parents, and
  • transparency in the learning process for all.

A grading scale is too inefficient to accomplish these goals. When I’m asked to explain why I left grades behind, I offer two main reasons.

Grades are arbitrary.

An A doesn’t mean the same thing in most places–not even within the same school. Yes, many educators have tried to control this variable by using rubrics, but it still doesn’t standardize what the grade means.

Consider the quality of a school to illustrate this. In high-performing schools, the standards tend to be elevated, which can (not always) make it harder to achieve the A. In low-performing schools, the work that it takes to achieve an A might equate to a C elsewhere. This gap in expectations is often felt by students transferring between schools or even across states.

confused young boy

Photo in the public domain

Students realize they performed at A level in one place but that skills don’t translate as cleanly in new schools. This is partially the reason Common Core exists—to provide some level of consistency among K-12 educational institutions. Being a “straight A” student loses meaning if a simple relocation dramatically affects the child’s academic standing.

Varied Passing Standards

Another important aspect of subjective grades is what the passing standard is for the assignment. Most Americans believe that 70% is the standard by which all grades are awarded. However, that’s not always true, especially not on state exams. In fact, the passing standard on any given assignment depends on more variables than we have time to discuss.

One example of varied passing standards was the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). At one point, when I taught eighth grade English, the passing standard for the 8th TAKS Reading exam was 73% and 44% for the 8th TAKS Social Studies. 8th Math and Science TAKS exam passing standards were less than 70%, but when parents received those scores, many assumed that 70% had been the minimum standard.

We could get into grading curves, but what do those truly show us about student learning if we’re just going to add some points at the end and make an 85% equal to a 100%? If we can curve that, what’s the actual difference between a student finishing the year with a 69.4% versus a 70.2%? How much learning is in that 0.8 that requires the child to retake the entire course?

Grades are limiting.

Yes, we need to have snapshots of students’ learning and their current progress in the classroom. There are better ways to do it. Report cards are often based on about 15-20 assignments. Are we to believe that they tell us about students’ comprehensive learning? No.

Alternative assessment methods like portfolios, competency-based learning, and project-based instruction offer us a more holistic view of student development. We know that some learning is not easily measured by multiple-choice questions, fill-in-the-blanks, and essays. Yet, the traditional approach to education seems staunch in maintaining those norms.

little girl working in school

Photo in the public domain

The future will not fit into five categories, so we need to stop teaching and assessing students in that way. Our children need an assessment tool that allows for some ambiguity and progression. Why must progress restart every fall when we can make K-12 a seamless transition of mastery as they age?

Wouldn’t parents prefer to receive a comprehensive proficiency report that identifies exact skills and their children’s current levels? As it stands, parents need a conference to find out what the 69% included in math. We should send home reports that thoroughly explain what’s happening with their child for eight hours a day.

Students learn early that good grades open doors. In theory, this is a wonderful concept. In actuality, it’s a hindrance to the learning process. As students age, they tend to become less interested in learning and more focused on grade point average. So much so, that large percentages of students find themselves cheating and plagiarizing just to get the A.

When grades take over, students ask their teachers, “Can you just tell me what you want me to write in the essay because I need this grade?” It’s discouraging to know that children’s thirst for knowledge dies because of grade point average.

Changing Paradigms

I replaced the traditional grading system with competency-based education, which tracks a clear set of skills for students. Children demonstrate their mastery in a variety of ways. At Single Seed, the students determine what they will produce as evidence.

The future requires dynamic thinking, which means students must be able to solve complex problems, use critical thought, and channel creativity (World Economic Forum, 2016). Designing competencies that focus on these and other essential skills yield learners with the capacity to produce high quality work in an uncertain market.

Our reality is changing faster than we can anticipate, and our classrooms should reflect the openness and divergent thinking that the future will require.