Grades Fail Students

High school students, vying to get into college, know that the application process is a game with its own set of rules:  Get good grades, get enough tutoring to ace the ACT or SAT, and make sure you have lots of assistance in writing the “perfect” essay.

To get to this point, school often ends up as a sea of courses and grades that tend to measure the things that don’t end up counting in life.  Grades reflect students’ ability to comply, memorize, and regurgitate material for a test.

Where does actual learning fit in? How do grades express any meaningful feedback on what a student knows or still needs to learn? In fact, grades often inhibit creativity and risk taking. Studies have shown that valedictorians may earn the highest grades, but they are much less likely to be the movers and shakers in our society.  And the specter of receiving a “life or death” grade often prevents students from asking deep and meaningful questions. Instead, students tend to ask, “Do I need to know this for the test?” “Will this count towards my grade?” “Is this how you want me to do this?” Studies have also shown that grades are often subjective, influenced by how a teacher feels about a student or how compliant a student is.

Working for the grade is not the same as working to learn or to achieve mastery of skills. Among many skills our students need for life, it is widely accepted that one of the most important skills is learning how to learn. This is the purpose of going to school. And yet, how often do we help our students to become self-reflective, identifying for themselves how they learn, and recognizing when they have mastered a skill or need more work in a particular area?

While there is a place for appraisal and a final assessment, evaluations and grades usually revolve around a piece of work, an assignment or a test based on some criteria, and often compared to others’ work. This does not promote learning or present meaningful feedback.

On the other hand, if we want our students to focus on learning, to take risks, and to feel safe to explore and create, then we need to shift our focus to ongoing assessments and mastery learning. The best and most valuable assessments happen when there is a conversation between the teacher and students. This is often called conferring. Feedback is given to the student, and together they reflect on the work and the learning. Sometimes conferring can happen between students, too, fostering critical thinking and listening skills as students help and support one another. Over time, students become more aware of their learning strengths, and how they learn best, and as they see evidence of their own growth, the shift to mastery squarely places the focus on learning.

Digital portfolios are key to this process. With the arc of a student’s growth visible and accessible in one spot, portfolios document artifacts, facilitate targeted feedback, highlight the learning process, demonstrate progress over time, emphasizes formative, ongoing assessment, and celebrate a student’s learning.  Hillel Day School is using student-driven portfolio tools such as SeeSaw in K-4, and will continue to phase them in to grades 5 – 8 over the next few years.

The reality that grades are a detriment to deep learning is encouraging real change across the United States. Vermont and Maine have recently passed laws mandating that schools abolish grades and move to mastery-based learning. Other states are considering similar moves.  10 school districts in Illinois, including Chicago, are testing this approach. And more than 40 schools in New York City have adopted this approach.

In another exciting move, a consortium of over 120 prestigious private high schools across the country have joined together to form the Mastery Transcript Consortium, which in lieu of grades, and standardization of content,  calls for “demonstrated mastery of skills, knowledge and habits of mind by presenting evidence that is then assessed against an institutionally specific standard.”  The schools are in the process of creating a common transcript format that can be read by college admissions officers in less than two minutes. It is the hope of the consortium that the colleges that most aggressively recruit their students will place the interests of students before grades and standardization, thereby improving the college admissions process.

It is a positive move forward to see schools across our country moving away from grades that fail our students towards rubrics that provide meaningful feedback on the learning. Hillel is proud to be among the schools implementing these changes to enhance our children’s learning experiences, and to better prepare them for the world they will inherit.


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