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Opinion: Alternatives to K-12’s Failing Letter-Grade System

Some educators are growing skeptical of letter grades as distracting, stressful and motivators of cheating and sabotage. A better system for cultivating young minds might focus on unique skills and mastery of concepts.

Recently I wrote about why letter grades are a bad idea. Here I’m going to continue that discussion and talk about solutions.

For many years, educators have known the letter-grade system promotes unnecessary, unhealthy and destructive student behavior, and actually distracts students from learning and applying what they learn. In 2011, progressive education advocate Alfie Kohn wrote an excellent article, “The Case Against Grades,” that is well worth the short read. He wrote, “remarkable conclusions that emerge from the best theory, practice, and research on the subject: 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.” He concludes:

“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.”

Spend a few minutes researching the arguments for getting rid of letter grades. They’re extremely persuasive that giving and using letter grades is a bad idea, and more schools and educators are questioning the practice lately.

I don’t want to give credence to any thought that without grades students wouldn’t work hard, wouldn’t be motivated and wouldn’t learn anything. We are all learning machines, and we can’t help but be interested in the world around us and how everything works! The popularity of museums, TED talks and nonfiction books proves that. It takes a lot of work to turn our children’s inquisitive and joyful nature and their love of learning into a painful and unpleasant experience.

One of my main objections to letter grades is about the competition it generates, which is destructive on many levels. The insanity of the letter grade and the bell curve system forces students to “know” more (read: do better on tests) than other students and keep information to themselves. That’s destructive. The system forces a level of conformity and destroys creativity as well, but that’s a topic for another day. Imagine a baseball team member saying to others, “I don’t want you to bat, throw or catch as well as I do, so I am not going to help you improve your weak areas.” Successful team members work on their areas of weakness and do so with the full support and help of their teammates. Every player serves, bats, catches and throws, and for a team to win they all have to work together to improve their areas of weakness.

Cooperation is what makes a business, and learning itself, successful, but our outdated model discourages helping classmates “because they might get a better grade.” Many students lose sight of exciting goals for their own education and replace them only with the meaningless goal of getting good grades. I will never forget a call from one of my former students, now in college. He was almost in tears, as was I, when he recounted asking a teacher a question after a lecture and being told not to worry about it because it wasn’t going to be on the test! The student actually transferred to another college after that experience!

While that attitude might sound innocent, it leads to embarrassing behaviors you might not have heard of. Look up “academic sabotage” and you may be shocked about the forms it takes. What is academic sabotage? The Academic Integrity Tutorials page on the Northern Illinois University website says sabotage “involves disrupting or destroying another person’s work so that the other person cannot complete an academic activity successfully.” It gives the following examples:

  • Destroying another person’s work (including documents, design, data, artwork, etc.)
  • Not contributing to a collaborative effort adequately when required to do so
  • Withholding information when it should be shared with others in a collaborative project
  • Revealing confidential data about another person’s project or procedures to others
  • Disturbing the setup or calibration of equipment arranged by another person
  • Colluding with others to falsely accuse others of academic dishonesty
  • Installing viruses, spyware or other damaging software on another person’s computer
  • Stealing another person’s property, such as computers, experimental setups, data or designs, to prevent that person from completing his or her academic activities
  • Destroying books and materials in the library, laboratory or similar places to prevent other students from completing their work successfully

Presumably, sabotage must occur often for it to be placed on this site. Berkeley City College’s website says “[a]cademic dishonesty or academic misconduct is any type of cheating that occurs in relation to a formal academic exercise,” describing sabotage as “acting to prevent others from completing their work. This includes cutting pages out of library books or willfully disrupting the experiments of others.” Rutgers also prohibits academic sabotage “deliberately impeding the academic progress of others.” One motivation for academic sabotage — the better grade!

And do students cheat a lot? Yes. Check out research and statistics on high school and college cheating at the International Center for Academic Integrity website and you’ll find out that “more than 60 percent of university students freely admit to cheating in some form,” and at the high school level, “64 percent of students admitted to cheating on a test, 58 percent admitted to plagiarism and 95 percent said they participated in some form of cheating, whether it was on a test, plagiarism or copying homework.”

Are there answers? Yes. For some, an initial step could be standards-based grading (SBG). Although it can mean many different things, “A Beginner’s Guide to Standards-Based Grading” by Kate Owens, on the American Mathematical Society blog, explains one version well:

“The goal of SBG is to shift the focus of grades from a weighted average of scores earned on various assignments to a measure of mastery of individual learning targets related to the content of the course. Instead of informing a student of their grade on a particular assignment, a standards-based grade aims to reflect that student’s level of understanding of key concepts or standards. Additionally, students are invited to improve their course standing by demonstrating growth in their skills or understanding as they see fit.”

But as Alfie Kohn points out in his article, they are still grades, and they “do nothing to address the fundamental problems with grading.” I only support standards-based grading if it’s the start of a journey to abandon any form of letter grades.

There is a growing movement of folks who take it much further. Every time I research the subject, I find more individuals and groups talking about this problem and taking action in this area. I just came across Teachers Going Gradeless, an international group focused on professional development, and almost every day I find a new group moving in this direction. The unhappiness with letter grades and efforts to move away from them is growing, and there’s a range of alternatives to using them. Re-read Alfie Kohn’s article. Colleges have always had to review non-traditional records of student achievement.

My school joined the Mastery Transcript Consortium shortly after it began. It is a growing network of public and private schools introducing a digital high school transcript that presents an opportunity for each and every student — from all backgrounds, locations and types of school — to have their unique strengths, abilities, interests and histories fostered, understood and celebrated. Just a few years old, it now has over 400 schools and districts within its ranks, and over 160 colleges committed to admitting students who submit mastery transcripts.

What’s the point here? We don’t need grades for any purpose. Using grades is harmful and destructive in many ways. There are useful and helpful alternatives. It’s simple — just say no!
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.