My Struggle With Letter Grades

Much of my teaching experience, prior to becoming a vice-principal was teaching primary students. When teaching primary students, we do not assign letter grades. Instead, we look at each prescribed learning outcome for each student on a continuum of learning: not yet within expectations, approaching expectations, meeting expectations, and exceeding expectations. I very rarely indicated a student was “exceeding expectations”, unless a child is quite far above in certain reading, writing, or math learning outcomes.

When I became a Vice-Principal, I had the opportunity to teach a variety of classes, some of which had to be given letter grades. I wasn’t all that comfortable giving letter grades, but I did it the way many teachers did at that time – gather many, many assignments, and give them each a score (I had a 1-4 levelling system – not letter grades), then add them all up at the end of the term and then average them all out, etc…  and come up with a letter grade for that subject.  This was not the worst method, but it was still not great.  That was 5 years ago. I’ve learned a great deal since then and have not taught/assessed this way this year.

This year, I am teaching 4 classes to whom I have to give letter grades as a representation of their learning at the end of each term.  I teach French to two Grade 5 classes and Health and Career Education to a Grade 5/6 class and a Grade 6 class. While these are all new subjects for me to teach, I feel it has been going well this year so far.

In the Health and Career Education classes, we’ve been discussing, working in groups, working individually, blogging, watching youtube videos, watching educational videos on learn360, and talking about what we’ve learned.  The students have been motivated and have been learning.

In the French classes, we’ve been singing, talking, watching funny french youtube videos, making posters, making booklets, and asking and answering questions.  We have been just generally enjoying ourselves along with our learning.

In addition, and possibly most importantly for many students, but especially those from inner-city schools, we have been building relationships in all four classes.  We have been getting to know one another, our learning styles, our likes, our dislikes, our hobbies, and learning to trust one another. Sometimes, I must admit, the curriculum has taken second-fiddle to relationship-building since we only see one another for 2 – 50 minute blocks each week.

We’ve had some assignments which the students have self- and peer-evaluated.  I have also evaluated some of these assignments, but not many, to be honest.  Too often, the kids would ask, “Are we being marked on this?” or “Does this count for our mark?”  I cringed each and every time I heard this question. And, I would respond, “Everything ‘counts’ – it’s all about our learning.  The process is much more important than the product.  Stop thinking so much about grades and start thinking more about your learning.” This response seemed to pacify them for the most part.  The learning and excitement continued. We also do not have homework in my classes.  We work on the work in class.  It may take longer to do things, but I feel with all the other work they have in their other subjects, the last thing I wanted was to add more work on them at home with our class as well.

My students come up to me each day while I am on supervision and ask, “Do we have HACE (Health and Career Education) today?”  They would either cheer (if I said yes) or moan (if I said no).  Same with my French classes. They love our classes.  They are motivated, they are learning, and they are having fun!

Yah, okay, now reporting time is coming and I am struggling.  This is my struggle.  I really don’t want to give these students grades for their work this term. It all seems so subjective to me.  We’ve read so much on letter grades and how letter grades actually hinder their learning, not enhance/motivate the students.  In a recent article, The Case Against Grades (http://bit.ly/tEeNRE), Alfie Kohn, asserts that,

“Collecting information doesn’t require tests, and sharing that information doesn’t require grades.  In fact, students would be a lot better off without either of these relics from a less enlightened age.”

Kohn goes on to discuss the effects grades have on students.  In fact, he states that,

“when students from elementary school to college who are led to focus on grades are compared with those who aren’t, the results support three robust conclusions:

* Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning.

* Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task.

* Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking. (Kohn, November, 2011).

Furthermore, Kohn goes on to state that,

“the more students are led to focus on how well they’re doing, the less engaged they tend to be with what they’re doing.”

In today’s age of disengaged students, we need to do more to engage our students, not further disengage them and discourage them from challenging themselves and learning to the best of their ability.

One may think that there are not any alternatives.  In fact, Kohn states that an alternative to giving letter grades is not a “utopian fantasy”. Some classes and schools are

“Replacing letter and number grades with narrative assessments or conferences — qualitative summaries of student progress offered in writing or as part of a conversation.”

Furthermore, with this new reporting practise, these schools have found that, 

“their students are often more motivated and proficient learners, thus better prepared for college, than their counterparts at traditional schools who have been preoccupied with grades.”

While I would love our current system to be like the one described in this article, that is not the case.  I will have to give letter grades to my students.  As one way to mitigate the difficulties associated with giving students letter grades, Kohn says that

“although teachers may be required to submit a final grade, there’s no requirement for them to decide unilaterally what that grade will be.  Thus, students can be invited to participate in that process either as a negotiation (such that the teacher has the final say) or by simply permitting students to grade themselves.”

What an interesting concept. I could have the students themselves grade their proficiency in the prescribed learning outcomes for the term.  I wonder how accurately they would assess themselves.  I wonder how parents would react?  I wonder how the other teachers would respond?

Do you have experience having to give grades, not wanting to, and then finding another alternative?  If so, what alternative have you used?

About Tia M. Dawson

There are many things that define who I am as a person. First of all, I am a mother of 3 wonderful children! I can not express how fortunate we are to have our children in our life! Secondly, I am an elementary educator who recently returned to the classroom after 12+ years as an elementary school administrator. Lastly, I am passionate about helping others, learning about abuse, helping others in abusive relationships, and helping others understand their worth.
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6 Responses to My Struggle With Letter Grades

  1. Arlene Geres says:

    HI, Tia; when I taught, I always conferenced with my students, and wrote my report card along with them. We would look at their work, talk about their growth, set goals for next term, and determine letter grades based on learning outcomes. This helped the students to take responsibility for their own learning, and I never had parents complain about the grade their child was given. This does take a lot of time, but I found it paid off in a big way. Good luck!

    • T. Henriksen says:

      Thanks Arlene,

      Yes, it will take time, but it will be worth it, for sure. It’s great to have the students take more ownership over their learning and their “letter grades”. It’s a bit more challenging because I only see them 100 minutes a week.

  2. Joe Bower says:

    Hi Tia,

    For many educators and parents, the problems underlying grading has been gnawing at us for some time. It’s been that annoying itch we just can’t seem to scratch.

    In 2004, I abolished grading from my classroom as much as I could (I was still mandated to place a grade on the report card, but that was the only grade my students ever received. You may be interested in reading a post about the Day I Abolished Grading: http://www.joebower.org/2010/08/day-i-abolished-grading.html

    Here is a post that details how I grade without grading: http://www.joebower.org/2010/07/grading-without-grading.html

    In Kohn’s article The Case Against Grading, you may have noticed that he mentioned a Grading Moratorium. I would like to invite you to consider joining: http://www.joebower.org/p/grading-moratorium.html

    And if you are looking for more posts on the how and why we should abolish grading, I have a number of posts here: http://www.joebower.org/p/abolishing-grading.html

    I have one last request: Would you be comfortable with me cross posting this post on my blog? I would provide the appropriate citations and links.

    Joe

    • T. Henriksen says:

      Hi Joe,

      Thanks for responding to my blog. Yes, letter grades are an ongoing source of contention for many educators. I look forward to reading your blog posts you have listed here. Thank you so much! I have not given my students any grades at all and, as you read, I am really struggling with these letter grades.

      Of course you can cross post my post on your blog.

      Tia

  3. darcymullin says:

    Tia, a teacher at our school last year did a pilot project and did not give her students letter grades until the final term. According to the Ministry, letter grades must be made available, but can be given in different formats. She made them available upon request and very few took her up on the request because the feedback on the reports was so rich. The Ministry does require a Final Letter grade, so that was the only one that she produced. It’s not perfect, but it is a start.

  4. Hello,
    I also decide grades with my students. They are often much more in-tuned and bring an incredible perspective on their own growth. I have written extensively on quitting grades on my blog as well, and write about the having to give grades on report cards
    http://mrspripp.blogspot.com/2011/06/so-you-want-to-quit-letter-grades.html
    So I had them decide their grade end then meet with me for about 5 min a kid.
    best,
    Pernille

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