Long the gold standard in reporting academic achievement in education of all levels, summative assessments in the form of letter grades have come under attack as standards-based grading systems become more popular (Reynolds, 2015).
Report-card day is an important rite of passage in American culture (and perhaps worldwide). However is this rite of passage serving our students? Michael Thomsen, in his article The Case Against Grades (2013), says no. Thomsen states: “The…fear of negative outcomes has been repeatedly shown to be a major impediment to learning.”, and that “willingness to take on challenging tasks diminishes when grades are involved, but without grades, students left on their own tend to seek out more challenging problems.” (pg. 1). Thomsen concedes that eliminating letter grades would be a ‘massive shock’ to our educational system, and concedes that eliminating grades and moving to a narrative-based assessment system will not save our educational system, however he finds it an ideal first step in motivating students and teachers to learn and teach.
However, Bernard Bull, in his article 5 COMMON REASONS FOR THE IMPORTANCE OF LETTER GRADES, finds several common reasons why letter grades should continue. He notes that the same argument of motivation, with Bull finding teachers feeling that grades motivate students, clearly an ideological difference. However he made what may be an important observation, also made by Thomsen: our educational system is ensconced in the letter-grade system, and that we should take note of this to ensure that our students are prepared for higher education. He noted that many teachers find that the system works sufficiently, saying: “There are many great schools and classrooms that use letter grades. However, the most engaging classes are just that…engaging, regardless of grades or no grades.“
Grades supposedly motivate students. But, which students? Can we place all students, higher-performing, lower-performing, Sped, ELL and others into the same category? Will students who are not on the college track be motivated by letter grades? Thomsen would argue no. Will letter grades motivate the top-performers? Bull would argue yes, but may concede that insufficient learning is taking place in the pursuit of the top grade.
I hold report-card grading to be an important rite of passage that should not be discounted. I cannot agree fully with Thomsen that students will seek out challenges on their own – we may expect this from the top ⅓ in a given classroom, but are we providing the needed structure via grades for the middle ⅓ and some to much of the bottom ⅓?
Are we again basing our ideas and theories on the white, upper class east coast schools where achievement tends to run high?
Are we trying to find a problem for a solution in wanting to eliminate letter grades? I propose that we move past this argument and focusing on creating engaging classrooms every day, every moment, so that kids will not be the least bit surprised as to what grade they get on their report card, or perhaps even care.
Reynolds, B. (2015). The Pros & Cons of Report Cards & Letter Grades. Retrieved from http://education.seattlepi.com/pros-cons-report-cards-letter-grades-3633.html
Thomsen, M. (2013). The Case Against Grades. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/05/the_case_against_grades_they_lower_self_esteem_discourage_creativity_and.2.html
Bernard, B. (2015). 5 COMMON REASONS FOR THE IMPORTANCE OF LETTER GRADES. Retrieved from http://etale.org/main/2013/04/10/5-common-reasons-for-the-importance-of-letter-grades/