I’ve talked to quite a few people who agree that high school students focus too much on grades and too little on the actual learning — that students aim to improve their numbers, not their understanding. A good example would be the high school students who take vast numbers of college-level classes not because they care about the material, but because the classes may help their GPA or just look impressive. As an even better example, in the state of Texas, the top 10% of each graduating class (usually ranked by GPA) gets automatic admission into state universities, no questions asked. Students vying for top places add and drop classes to gain extra points and move up in rankings. Surely education shouldn’t be a competition where the person with the most points wins. School is about education and learning, not strategy — right?
Ideally. I generally agree with the anti-grade crowd. I’m more pro-learning. But what can be done?
I was talking with a friend about this on Saturday, and she suggested a rather creative solution.
Ditch grades altogether.
This isn’t to say that teachers shouldn’t grade students’ work and that students could never fail a class because there’d never be a measure of “failing.” What I mean is that students would still take tests, and teachers would still grade them, but the student’s feedback would no longer be “You got a 74. Try harder.” It would be “You need to work more on your antiderivatives.” Numeric grades would be kept hidden away in a computer somewhere.
But before I go into the details, let’s take a closer look a the problem.
The Grade Delusion
High schools (or at least the ones I’ve seen) are incredibly grade-oriented. Most students (but not all) worry about their grades, always striving to keep grades above a certain threshold so their parents don’t apply whatever punishments parents apply these days. (Some kids, and parents, don’t care at all, of course, but that’s a separate problem.) I’ve watched students get exceptionally frustrated because they received an 89.9% average in a class instead of a 90% — the difference between a B and an A.
But why should they care about that tenth of a percent? Shouldn’t they be more concerned with learning stuff?
The trouble, as I see it, is that we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that grades are indeed a measure of learning, and thus that high grades mean lots of learning. (Unless learning isn’t the actual goal of school.) That is not necessarily the case. Most high school teachers give grades for various worksheets, projects, and even for “class participation,” rather than just for test performance. The final grade is then an average containing test performance (perhaps the best measure of learning we have), various worksheets that measure learning in different amounts, projects that may just measure how well one can insert information from Google into a PowerPoint, and how much the student is willing to talk in class.
Extra credit points (like teachers who give out points for students who donate books or take their textbooks to faraway locations) often don’t reflect learning at all — more often extra credit assignments are just extra work — and I think the whole idea sucks anyway.
Life Without Grades
So suppose we decide we want to encourage learning rather than grade-mongering. The two don’t always go hand-in-hand.
Step 1 on the road to learning: Remove grades from the picture.
If grades are removed from students’ view, students should no longer feel an obsessive need to get the highest grades possible — simply because they won’t get feedback. Exam grades should still be recorded, I think, but the student should receive subjective results (“you need to work on concept x”) rather than numeric ones. Those would be saved for later.
Where does the motivation to perform go?
Grades would still be released as part of transcripts to colleges, so colleges would know how well a student has learned in particular subjects. (Without grades, there’s no longer an inclination to add worksheets and funky projects into the grading system. One might say this would encourage students to not do them altogether, but I think a bit of freedom is good for teenagers anyway.) This means that a student would be inclined to do well on tests, but not obsessively inclined to be absolutely perfect all the time.
(This does, of course, bring up the question of “why not just make grades exam-based but still public?” Easy. Because then kids will still focus on their grades rather than learning. The thrust of the point here is that we need to make students obsess about understanding everything rather than scoring every point possible by picking out the easiest classes to take. Grades, though they are secret, will become a means of seeing how successful a student is at achieving this goal. Essentially, by removing grades, we remove the desire to maximize points, allowing for students to actually understand things and choose classes they’re interested in, rather than classes that will give them the greatest GPA advantage later on.)
Report cards, then, would be different: teachers would send home notes explaining what concepts the student is good at and what the student needs to work on. Parents would punish kids if they slack off and get told they’re not understanding everything, rather than if they fail because they left their homework assignment at home accidentally.
The whole paradigm shifts. Grades go from primary importance to being a secondary measure of success. World hunger ends. Climate change stops. Birds start chirping. You get the idea.
- Will students lose motivation without direct qualitative feedback? They might. Qualitative feedback from teachers on how well the student is performing would have to be constant and detailed.
- Does this mean we have to resort to having teachers pick the valedictorian? (Oh noes!)
- Is it feasible to instill motivation to understand? This would have to be a ground-up change — start with young kids — and parents would have to evaluate qualitative report cards similarly to quantitative ones.