No, It Is Not the “The End of Grades”

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by Ken O’Connor, author of The Standards-Based Grading Quick-Reference Guide.

Sue Brookhart says that “in a perfect world, there would be no grades –at least, not as we know them now (i.e., traditional A-F grades based on averaging).”1 I agree with her, but I disagree with a recent blog post by Mike Crowley on “Maelstrom” (a website that explores the digital landscape) that we are – or should be – at “the end of grades.”2

I know we need to move away from traditional hodgepodge grading where everything but the kitchen sink is included, and the resulting grades say little or nothing about student achievement. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to be clear that the primary purpose of grades is to communicate about student achievement and only achievement.

I also know that there are exemplary elementary, middle, and high schools and colleges without grades, but the simple reality is that, for the foreseeable future, where certification of achievement is required (e.g., diplomas and degrees), and where data is needed at transition points in the education system (e.g., college admission), grades are mostly inescapable.

Furthermore, I know grades can meet standards of effectiveness (accuracy, consistency, meaningfulness, and support of learning) if schools use standards-based grading (SBG). Standards-based grading meets these standards because it requires that grades be based on:

  • Clear content standards/learning targets, not assessment methods
  • Clearly described levels of proficiency, not points and percentages
  • Achievement on summative assessments separated from behaviors
  • Multiple opportunities with more recent evidence emphasized not averaging
  • Summative assessment not practice or homework

Crowley makes eleven criticisms to support his wish for the end of grades, but these criticisms apply to traditional grading, not to standards-based grading (SBG). In the big picture, we are probably not very apart, as my reaction to nine of his eleven criticisms is in effect “yes, but,” and I only say a strong no to two of his concerns. I also think part of the problem is his use of the word “grading” to mean both what I call “scoring” (symbols on individual pieces of student assessment evidence), and what I call “grading” (symbols that are summaries of scores on report cards).

“Grades are judgments.”

Yes, but in SBG, they provide accurate information about students’ strengths and areas for improvement, and this is essential information for students to be able to grow and progress.

“Grades turn education into a competition.”

No, SBG removes competition between students and provides focus for students individually to be able to answer the learning questions – Where am I going? Where am I now? What do I need to do to close the gap or get better?3

“Grades are at the core of the measurement movement.” 

I’m not entirely sure what this means, but a critical competency of teachers is that they must be assessment-literate in order to know where their students are in their learning, and they must be able to communicate this to students, parents, and others who have a right to know about a student’s achievement.

“Grades are toxic.”

No, SBG virtually eliminates game playing and grade grubbing because it emphasizes grades for standards, not subjects.

“Grades are what we know.” 

Yes, but SBG is not what parents know so it changes the conversation to an emphasis on words about strengths and weaknesses, not single symbols per subject that have little meaning.

“Grades are the organising core of education.”

Yes, but grades are only part of a coherent communication system. Grades are summaries, so a standards-based grading and reporting communication system also consists of a wide range of ongoing oral and written communication that includes increasing student involvement in the communication process culminating in fully student-led conferences.

“Grades terminate the learning process.”

Yes, they can, but when SBG is done well:

  • Students get multiple opportunities to show their learning
  • Grades are determined primarily by the more recent evidence
  • On formative assessments, students receive descriptive feedback on their learning without scores, so grades are and are seen to be part of an ongoing learning process

“Grades only apply to things that are measurable.”

Yes, this is accurate but Crowley says nothing on this about measurement.

Grades are perturbing.

Yes, traditional grades are perturbing, but Crowley seems to believe that because traditional grades are perturbing, we should not try to make them more accurate, consistent and meaningful. That would not be ethical. Furthermore, I’m not an opponent of the movement to question the value and purpose of grades; I’ve been doing that since I wrote my first article on grading in 1995.

“Grades are not essential throughout education.” 

Yes, that is true, but as I noted above, they are inescapable in most schools for the foreseeable future.

“Grades damage culture.”  

Yes, they can damage culture, but when teachers involve students in the process, give lots of descriptive feedback, and deemphasize grades as they do in SBG, a learning culture can be created. If you don’t believe that, join either or both of these Twitter chats:

  • Culture of Learning (#COLchat) on alternate Mondays at 8:00 p.m. EST
  • Standards-Based Learning (#sblchat) on alternate Wednesdays at 9:00 p.m. EST

You’ll see the passionate testimony of teachers who have created a culture of learning in their classrooms and schools while still providing grades. I would also recommend joining the Standards-Based Learning and Grading Facebook group.

There Is a Lot Wrong with Traditional Grading

On that, Crowley and I agree, but Crowley doesn’t make a convincing argument for “the end of grades.” Most of the teachers who support “Teachers Going Gradeless” (Facebook group and #TTOG) have to determine grades at the end of each term, quarter, or semester.

This being the case, it is our professional and ethical responsibility to make grades accurate, consistent, meaningful, and supportive of learning. When implemented with fidelity, SBG meets those standards, and meets most of Crowley’s criticisms of “grading.”

Order your copy of The Standards-Based Grading Quick-Reference Guide HERE.

1 Brookhart, S. Grading. Pearson Merrill, Upper Saddle River, NJ. 2009. 2
2 Accessed January 21st, 2018
Chappuis, J.  Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning. 2nd Ed. Pearson. Boston. 2015. 10
Thanks to Becca Lindahl of the Heartland AEA 11 in Johnston, IA for editing suggestions that significantly improved this blog.