Most successful organizations are careful to align key practices with the mission.
How do grades support our mission? If the goal of college is to open minds, facilitate change, explore new ideas and help students discover how to change their minds, then which bit of that is fostered by grades?
The arguments in support of grades are familiar, but perhaps their time has passed.
–Grades enforce standards. They might, but standards of what? If a grade signified how many times you had changed your mind during the semester, they might be more useful. The flip side of standards is that grades are a form of punishment: you FAIL. But grades are not a necessary evil: being a teacher does not mean you also have to be the enforcer.
–Grades help graduate schools or employers determine which students are most capable, know the most or worked hardest in college. Ick. If I wanted to be in the sorting business, I could work at the M&M factory. Sorting has indeed been an important part of school—we allow Ivy Leagues schools to sort the potential candidates for President of the United States, for example. (No other schools comes close to the 12 US Presidents who went to either Yale or Harvard. Only George W. Bush went to both!) Now that we’ve had a Black President, I’m waiting for the community college President.
–Grades reward the best work. Maybe, but they also punish innovation, experimentation, creativity, and mostly failure, which is where we all learn the most. In Teaching Naked I often suggest that grades need to be aligned with the learning goals, assignments, games and even discussion activities, but what if we just used the learning outcomes directly and measured what you had learned?
Even if grades are not bad, are they good? Do they HELP students learn and change?
But the best reason to eliminate grades comes from the amazing assessment guru Martin Sweidel, (really our Assoc Dean for Administration at the Meadows School at SMU ). If we eliminated grades, then building a culture of meaningful assessment would be easy.
–Our confusion about assessment would vanish: assessment is about what students are learning. We confuse that with grades, which is often only a way to sort students according to which work we like the best.
–We would have to articulate the real standards, and these could align with our mission.
–We could drastically reassess work-load. One of the main complains about assessment is that we don’t have the time, because we are too busy grading. Imagine what could happen if we had that time to focus on learning and assessment of that learning?!?
Without grades, we would be free to align our time, activities, and classrooms around our mission: creating situations that demonstrate and give students permission to change their minds.
Without grades, we would need to rethink everything else we do. In one step, we would be free to think about what we want to accomplish.
Apparently we have Yale to thank for “grades” (descriptive and first recorded in 1785). There were lots of systems through the 19th century, including a 100 point scale used at Harvard in 1877, and a letter system shortly thereafter, but the descriptive (excellent, good, fair etc.), the letter (A-E) and the numerical (95-100 = A) were combined and adopted at Mount Holyoke in 1897. But like the SAT, these systems of sorting were designed to replace other systems of sorting, that focused on class, race or religion. Eliot, C. W. (1923). Harvard Memories. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. I appreciate that the SAT was a part of admissions reform with the goal of making college admissions more of a meritocracy, but maybe the days of sorting can be left behind?
Eliminating grades does not mean we eliminate standards or assessment. It might, in fact, increase both of those things, because we could align our teaching with our goals and not arbitrary need for grades at the end of each class.
We need reform in higher education. At the very least we need to see some bio-diversity—lots of different institutions trying different things. We can’t all survive with the same model anymore. At least SOME of us need to try eliminating grades. Who is with me? To the barricades!
“When we consider the practically universal use in all educational institutions of a system of marks, whether numbers or letters, to indicate scholastic attainment of the pupils or students in these institutions, and when we remember how very great stress is laid by teachers and pupils alike upon these marks as real measures or indicators of attainment, we can but be astonished at the blind faith that has been felt in the reliability of the marking system. School administrators have been using with confidence an absolutely uncalibrated instrument.”
Finkelstein, I. E. (1913). The marking system in theory and practice. Educational Psychology Monographs 10.