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It’s time to stop assigning letter and number grades

We now have a real chance to disrupt traditional grading practices in schools, districts and even higher education.

Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash

Schools should move away from assigning letter and numeric grades during the pandemic and beyond. It’s time to eliminate both the way we grade and the grades we have assigned in the past. No student should be told that he or she is failing — particularly during or after the pandemic.

The pandemic forced school systems across the world to move to virtual platforms for teaching and learning. And ever since, students, parents and families have expressed concerns about grading.

High school seniors have worried about how virtual learning will impact their grade-point averages as they apply for college; students working full time — because their families need the additional financial support during the pandemic — or caring for ill family members have struggled to stay focused on school at all.

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Families and communities have all worried about how they will support their children’s education and development while they learn at home. Parents of children who learn in diverse ways have been especially concerned.

One Nashville parent was told that her daughter with a disability was failing all her classes as a virtual learner. She was not alone: A December report revealed that nearly one in five Nashville public school students was failing at least one class. And Nashville is not the only city reporting an alarming number of students receiving failing grades.

I believe this is wrong. How can we fail young people during a pandemic? Moreover, why are students being told they are failing during a pandemic? How can we maintain the same or a similar grading metric during times of unprecedented challenge?

Why we must reimagine our evaluation system

As educators, we have a responsibility to reimagine our habitual mindsets about how to evaluate student progress.

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Part of that reimagining must include the elimination of numeric and letter grades as we have known them in the past.

Here are some reasons I believe it is time to stop assigning such grades:

  1. Grades are too often used as weapons that can create psychological and emotional harm to young people whose experiences, cultural practices and behaviors are incompatible with their schools and educators.
  2. Grades perpetuate an unnecessary and relentless ethos of competition between and among students.
  3. Grades force educators (especially teachers) to place a number and/or letter value on developing students that fails to capture the complexity and diverse range of their learning, development, knowledge, understanding and growth. Indeed, students know and understand much more than we as educators will ever realize. Why attempt to reduce that knowledge and understanding to a numeric number?
  4. Grades send messages about worth and value that can contribute to students’ lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. Students may start to see themselves as a “B” student in math or a “D” student in history.

In some of the 16,800 school districts across the U.S., there is already talk about changing grading policies. Proposals include allowing pass-fail options and not having grades at all.

Still, educators tend to be preconditioned to assign grades — not necessarily because we believe they best reflect our assessments of student learning and development but because our grading practices are what we are used to.

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Once students are physically back in schools, they will still be working through deep and broad levels of grief and trauma. Grades, particularly for our most vulnerable students, will likely only exacerbate the anxieties and challenges that they, and their families, face. The residual effects of the pandemic will likely linger for decades.

Students know and understand much more than we as educators will ever realize. Why attempt to reduce that knowledge and understanding to a numeric number?

Ongoing feedback

Rather than continue traditional grading practices, I recommend that school leaders re-center the goal of assessment: to provide feedback that propels teaching and learning — and consequently our young people — forward.

We should build better ways for educators not only to determine how students are doing but to report those determinations. One method is ongoing feedback.

Ongoing feedback involves both written and oral feedback and conversation. It can include portfolio assessments that provide narrative feedback rather than one-dimensional grades. To make these assessments, teachers need time to provide written, narrative feedback to students, and schools need to build tools that capture the diverse ways students learn and develop.

H. Richard Milner IV
H. Richard Milner IV
Reimagining grading practices means finding time throughout the school day and year to see how students are doing and feeling, identifying areas where students need to improve and, perhaps most importantly, suggesting how educators can improve their practices to support students.

Helping students assess their own work

Reimagining grading also means helping students assess and evaluate their own work, which can be essential in an evaluation and assessment cycle. In addition, students and families need to be able to speak with educators in nonjudgmental and nonpunitive contexts and find ways to support educators and students alike.

We now have a real chance to disrupt traditional grading practices in schools, districts and even higher education. Such fundamental change can happen: I recall a time when people said colleges and universities would never stop using the SAT and GRE for admissions. Yet today, for instance, many institutions are rethinking their reliance on the SAT as the main criterion for college admissions.

So, as we live through this pandemic and beyond, let’s place a permanent moratorium on traditional grades for the sake of the humanity in P-12 schools and higher education.

H. Richard Milner IV is Cornelius Vanderbilt Distinguished Professor of Education at Vanderbilt University and president-elect of the American Educational Research Association. He is the author or editor of several books, including “Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There.” He can be reached at rich.milner@vanderbilt.edu.

This commentary is republished from The Hechinger Report, a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on education.

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