To Grade or Not to Grade: That is the Question


This post was originally published on BAM Radio’s Ed Words site.

Let me begin with some context. I am an English department chair at a high school named by U.S. News as one of America’s Most Prominent High Schools. We have a high graduation rate and high test scores.  I offer this only as a means of context for the endless and daily conversations I am a part of concerning students and grades.  Sadly, I spend more time discussing a number with students and parents in conferences than I do discussing progress, learning style, and accomplishments.

While I have been contemplating grades and their effect on education for a while, the realization hit home this year as I listened to a student discuss an AP literature exam. Bri, one of my exceptionally gifted writers, told of her thought process during the essay section: “When I saw the prompt was on cruelty, I thought to myself, ‘What the heck. I am writing on the cruel oppression of women in Pride and Prejudice. After all I already have a 5 on the lang exam, so why not?’” Bri was willing to take a chance in her writing by experimenting with a topic that would be a stretch but did so because there was no possible threat of a bad grade affecting her future.

While the AP exam has no bearing on Bri’s grade, I started thinking about the principle behind her comment. When she felt no constraints of a grade, Bri was willing to take chances and experiment with her writing. As a teacher, this is exactly what I want my students to do because finding a voice in writing and developing personal style only comes through experimentation and practice. Yet with the emphasis on grades in education today, students play it safe in writing and stick to more formulaic strategies in order to get the good grade, have the high GPA, and get into a good college.

Grades have become a problem in education because they inhibit student learning by either putting a ceiling on student expectation or a floor marking to many students a goal of minimum competency to be obtained in order to move to the next class. Both of these present problems. Other problems also exist with grades such as teacher subjectivity, consistency between classes and departments in grading, and grade inflation in American schools and universities.

Because I work in a system where I am expected to grade, I have thought a lot about easing the constraints of grades in learning and plan to make the following changes in the fall:

Give more feedback on the process and not just a grade on a final paper or project.

Keep conversations learning focused as opposed to grade focused.

Not reveal a grade until the student has read feedback and either had a conversation with the teacher about it or written a response to the feedback.

Have students write a paragraph self-assessing their own work reflecting on both the process and the product.

Allow graded revisions to replace original grades.

The bottom line is that I don’t have all of the answers, but I know I have to change. I cannot wait until I have it all figured out to make some changes. This year may be messy as I move into uncharted territories, but I am moving forward on this. Please withhold grading me on the changes I am making but feel free to offer any feedback along the way.

For what it’s worth, Bri made a 5 (the highest possible score) on her AP exam.

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