At HEROES, we don’t grade student work. It’s a rather difficult concept to get parents to buy into. Typically, one of the first questions that prospective parents ask is, “Will they earn credit for this course?” or “If you don’t have tests and quizzes, how will the class be graded?” I have to stifle back a sigh each time these questions are asked. I’m not frustrated with the parent. I”m frustrated by society and the very idea that grades are the only way to represent, and validate, student learning. My students don’t “earn grades.” They also don’t “lose points” for incorrect answers. I do, however, keep track of whether or not students are completing their work. I keep track of how they’re doing in class. I keep parents informed about student progress. Most importantly, I keep the student informed. I communicate with my students and their parents regularly to ensure that each student is fully comprehending the material. I write student evaluations to assess student learning.
When a new student enrolls at my Academy, I am making a commitment to that student. I’m promising that each student, in each class, will end the class knowing, and understanding, all of the material -- not 90% -- not 80% -- not 70%, but all of it. This is, of course, dependent upon the student completing class assignments and regularly attending class. If the student completes assignments and attends class on time on a regular basis, I will spend whatever time is necessary with that child to ensure that the student fully understands the material.
I wholeheartedly believe that assigning grades in my classes would drastically change the learning outcomes, and not for the better. Once we start assigning grades, the student(and parent) goal moves away from learning. As a teacher, I understand that my objectives for each lesson are different than the students’ objectives. The student wants to accomplish a given task. I want the students to leave each lesson with certain new knowledge and skills. By taking away grades, the focus is on learning -- not on a numerical representation of student achievement.
This can, at times, be confusing(and even concerning) to a new student. When a new student starts, they often ask me how long it will take me to grade their homework, how many tests or quizzes they will have, or how the class is graded. Even students as young as 7 or 8 years old are seemingly obsessed with grades. I tell them, “Well, we don’t give grades here. Do you know why we might not give out grades?” They almost always take a moment to think. A silent pause. It’s a new concept -- the idea that one can learn without grades -- as if grades signify learning, or are almost a mandatory part of the learning process. Occasionally, a student comes up with an answer. Typically, this answer is somewhere along the lines of, “So we don’t feel bad if we don’t do well?” or “So that other kids don’t feel bad if they don’t do as well?” It almost breaks my heart to hear this. Grades don’t signify learning. They especially don’t affect the learning process. In fact, even earning 100s on every assignment doesn’t mean that the student learned anything.
What does a 100%, or an “A,” mean on a writing assignment? To the student, this means that his/her assignment was perfect. To a parent, it usually signifies the same thing. It means that the student met all the learning objectives and that there is no room for improvement. There’s always room for improvement. I write thousands of words per day. There’s always room for improvement. When I publish a blog, I’m fully aware that it’s not perfect. It never will be. I want my students to learn that learning is a lifelong journey. You’re never done learning.
“Writing needs to be revised and edited. Then revised and edited again -- over and over again to make it perfect, but it will never really be perfect because writing is never perfect.”
On the last day of class, one of my students told me that the most important thing that she learned this year was, “Writing needs to be revised and edited. Then revised and edited again. Over and over again to make it perfect, but it will never really be perfect because writing is never perfect.” She didn’t say this out of frustration. She’s very happy with this discovery. She now revises and edits personal writing assignments. She brings them to class. She wants to show me. She’s proud. She should be. She’s learned that she’s never going to be done learning or growing as a writer. There’s a purpose to the writing process -- a process that she now appreciates as she looks back on some of the transformations her writing has made. She no longer accepts that good grades mean perfection. She doesn’t strive for perfection. She strives for improvement.
I realize that most of you must be thinking, “But in math class, answers are correct or incorrect. It is that black-and-white.” Yes, I suppose that math questions do have a “right” or “wrong” answer. 2 + 2 = 4. Always. However, if a student answers “6,” should we merely deduct points and move forward? What if they answer all four of the addition problems on a final exam incorrectly? Should we accept that the student “only answered four questions incorrectly” and move on, knowing that the student can’t add? We should assess student learning to insure that students fully comprehend all of the material. When I administer a placement test, I don’t just look at how many answers the student answered correctly. I look to see WHY the student answered a question incorrectly. Often, I’ve seen students copy the answer incorrectly onto scrap paper. Indeed, we should work on avoiding careless mistakes. However, am I really going to hold a child back knowing that the student knew HOW to do the problem, but simply did the wrong problem?
We place such emphasis on grades, yet, the grading process often interferes with the actual learning process. Students focus on memorizing information for exams, rather than retaining information for the long term. Schools already put so much pressure on grades, do we really need to emphasize that at home? Rather than asking what grade your child earned on a test, why not spend some time talking with your child about the curriculum. Ask your child to teach you the things that he/she is learning in school. Learning is about progress. It’s not about grades. It’s not about report cards. It’s not even about tests or quizzes. Learning is about acquiring new information, skills, and insights. A student who constantly earns 100s in school may not actually be learning. The student may have already known the *new* information and skills. In fact, gifted students may spend years of their grade-school education sitting in a classroom and learn *nothing* new. Thus, the straight A’s that he/she is earning don’t signify learning at all! They just tell us that our children are professionals when it comes to “playing the game called school.