Grades Should Be Invisible
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
Virtual teaching comes with a number of new challenges. I keep finding myself pushing back due dates and slowing things down. It’s also made me start thinking about grades in general and what they represent.
The unfortunate harsh reality is that grades are currency. If you get straight A’s, you’ll receive money from colleges and scholarships. On the other hand, low grades might prevent a child from graduating or getting into college, which will lead to lower earnings over their lifetime. Grades can function as positive reinforcement or lead to apathy and a lack of confidence.
There are many hard questions concerning grades. Do they mean that a student knows the information? That they can demonstrate a skill? Should a grade demonstrate that a student read the text or that they can keep up with the assigned work in the course? Should a grade reflect effort or ability? What gets a grade and what doesn’t get a grade? How often should we grade assignments? How can a child and their parents get a good understanding of a child’s academic or intellectual progress? What would happen if we stopped grading altogether, or only assigned a grade at the end of a term or quarter? Remember report cards, when our parents only had three opportunities to get upset before the final grade? What’s the real impact of constantly updating grades online? Should we assign an F or a zero for a missing assignment? Should we use points or weighted categories? Does the math truly reflect the overall effort and ability of the whole student? When does a student pass and when do they fail? Does a grade clearly communicate a student’s ability to read, write, listen, and speak?
At the end of every school year, I allow my students to provide me with anonymous feedback. One year a student wrote that they appreciated how I never talked about grades or made them a focus of the course. I became a teacher to talk about literature, not to talk about grades and due dates and rubrics and expectations.
If enough students fail to complete an assignment or turn in notes on a novel, I reevaluate my pace. I always ask students if I’m giving them enough time to complete an assignment. I never put a grade on an assignment – they can find them online later. I don’t want my students to compare grades or get so upset that they don’t read my comments and feedback.
When you consider how much assessment a student experiences (quizzes, essays, tests, classwork, homework, notes, state tests, PSATs, SATs, SAT Subject Tests, APs), you have to ask yourself - how much time does that take away from learning? If they’re always proving to us what they know, when do they actually get an education?
When I think of words like wisdom, enlightenment, epiphany, recognition, awareness, and understanding, I don’t think of grades. But I do think they’re necessary and create a sense of fairness. I like them only when they are invisible. For the curious student, they’re there as an afterthought. When students look back on their experiences in school, they should remember a meaningful project or a great conversation, not a grade.
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