To Grade or Not to Grade?

By |2018-03-26T10:13:48-07:00May 9th, 2011|

As I mentioned last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Lucy School to see a private arts integration elementary program in action.  It was a fantastic trip which reignited my passion to dream about what the future of public education could look like.  Not to say that everything at the Lucy School could be accomplished in public schools – but much of what they do could be adapted for the reality of public education.  One thing that I saw there, though, that I’ve been struggling with a lot lately is their grading policy.

Essentially, they don’t have one.

What this means is that instead of providing letter grades to students, the teacher write narratives of student progress throughout the quarter, strengths and weaknesses and scores from their most recent running records or BCR’s (brief constructed responses – which is what Maryland uses on their statewide assessments).  The Lucy School believes letter grades are meaningless – they don’t show parents, teachers, and students anything but a single letter as the sum total of the work that a student has achieved.

I find this rather interesting, exciting, and somewhat naive all at the same time.

While I agree that slapping a letter grade onto an entire subject as what a student “earned” is pretty meaningless, I also believe that many students (and many parents, for that matter) have an innate need to know how they are achieving compared to a 100% total.  I know that, for me, that percentage and letter grade were an important way to provide me with internal motivation using an external motivator.  I strived and competed against myself to see if I could push my own abilities beyond the grade I had previously received.

Also, I know that when I worked for something, I always wanted it to be the best – and a letter grade helped me to visualize that pinnacle.  Now, I’m not saying that’s healthy – it’s probably far from it – but I am saying that’s a reality for a lot of students out there.

The part about grading that I’ve always struggled with is in the parents’ perceptions of what that letter grade means.

It’s one thing if a student uses a letter grade as motivation to do better.  It’s a totally different story if a parent is using a letter grade to compare their child and his/her performance against another child.  Many parents take this motivator and distort it into some sort of trophy race, as if their child is “better” for having received an “A”.  I can also tell you from experience that the “A” doesn’t mean that you learned to content better than anyone else and can apply it beyond that class.

Instead, it usually means that you’re just better at studying, memorizing, and manipulation on paper than everyone else.  So when parents use a grade as a sort of tally system for how well their children are doing compared to everyone else (a sort of sick “keeping up with the Jones'” mentality), the grades again become meaningless.

So using a narrative seems like a very concrete way of putting all of this into perspective.

The teachers get to know their students and their abilities on a very deep level, can extrapolate the essence of what a child needs to work on and what they do well, and provides an opportunity to give parents information on how their child is progressing without making it into a game “against” anyone else except their own child.  I personally love the idea of writing narratives each quarter.  Except….

When you have 30 children in a class, writing a narrative of 1-2 pages becomes quite difficult for teachers given current time restraints.  Also, there are no summative means to define how a student is progressing in a content area.  Narratives can be very subjective, given their personal nature.  Not to mention that our whole public school system is based on a standard grading scale by which students, schools and even teachers are measured.

So while the reality of using narratives seems far off, the premise of getting to know our learners, communicating better with parents, and providing a learning environment that challenges our students internally, rather than through external motivators are certainly realistic goals.  While I’m not sure that doing away with grades completely is the answer, there is certainly room for other methods within this debate.

Join in on this conversation….what do you think about our current grading policy?  I can’t wait to hear what your ideas are!

Nothing is off the table – from schedules, to providing breaks, to delivery of content – everything should be flexible when it comes to changing education.  Can minimalism work in schools?


  1. kim May 12, 2011 at 9:06 pm - Reply

    My kids go to Baltimore County/Maryland public school and they do BCR’s all the time. Their teachers incorporate them into the rest of the worksheet and then they convert them into letter grades. It is my understanding that you cannot place letter grades on BCR’s. For example 2/3 converted to a letter grade = 66% or a D! Clearly 2/3 meets with much success, especially according to Baltimore County standards. Why are they doing this? We asked that question and they simply say they are going by the County rules. Why would a teacher of all people, be happy to give her student a “D” when clearly a 2/3 is not a “D” much less a good reflection of the students progress or ability? This is negative anyway you look at it, especially for the student and their motivation to do better. Essentially on a (3) point “BCR” students can receive a 100% or an A, 66% or a D, or 33% or an E! “A” “D” or “E” Hmnnnnnnn??? There is something wrong with that picture. This has caused many problems for our family and my daughters pertaining to their grades this year. I would like to know what the rules are and I would like the teachers to follow them. Please help!

    • admin May 13, 2011 at 6:24 am - Reply

      Kim – thanks for filling us in on what’s happening in your school. Isn’t it crazy how policies, procedures, etc vary between districts and even between schools? I teach in Maryland as well, and we also use BCR’s all the time. They are “graded” in the sense that whatever score is on the BCR (1,2 or 3) is put in the gradebook. However, we have been told that there should be MANY other assessments in the gradebook to give a more well-rounded and clear picture of what that child is achieving. The BCR grades therefore should “count”, but at 3 points a piece, in the grand scheme of things they don’t affect a child’s grade that much. Unfortunately, there is not a clear and steadfast rule for schools on how to account for BCR’s or for any other grade for that matter. It really is up to the school/district discretion. I completely understand your (justified) frustration: if a “2” on a BCR scores as “proficient” on the State Assessment, why is it a D in letter grade format? Again, if grades are there to provide a picture of learning, clearly this is not it. Fortunately, Maryland is changing the assessments and BCR’s may become less and less prominent as “writing workshop” again begins to come back. We’re destroying our children’s love of writing through these 3-sentence responses. Thanks for such a great point to ponder!

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