Education, K-12

SXSWedu – Throwing Out Grades

I am attending SXSWedu in Austin, TX this week.  You can see the posts that I’ve published so far to summarize my learning here and here.

Our K-5 school is about to embark on an interesting journey.  We are working on “throwing out the grades.”  Instead of averages in each subject, parents will be receiving feedback each nine weeks on how their child has done in each standard that was covered during that period.  Our plan is to slowly roll this out, starting with Kinder and 1st next year and adding two grade levels each successive year. Our goal is to have the entire school using this system in three years.

We are still working on the details, so I was excited to see some of the pioneers in this area would be presenting at SXSWedu.  Mark Barnes and Peter Bencivenga presented. Unfortunately, the third presenter, Starr Sackstein, was unable to attend due to a severe case of the flu.  Mark and Peter did a great job despite missing a teammate!

If you have ever had a student ask you, “Do we need to know this for a test?” or “What do I need to do so I can earn an A?”  then you might understand the reasons for changing our current system.  In the traditional system, students aren’t learning for the sake of knowledge; they are looking for ways to beat the system – to find ways the shortest way to an A.  Another problem is that an average on a report card doesn’t effectively tell the story of that student. Does a B mean that she didn’t know it at first but has completely mastered it now?  Or does it mean she kind of knew and still kind of knows it?  Also, students tend to see that grade as the culmination of their learning and move on, rather than reflecting and revising and digging deeper to achieve more understanding.  They often choose courses based on what has the most potential to increase their class rank rather than on what they actually want to learn.

Mark and Peter spoke about how “throwing out the grades” can actually increase engagement and learning among students.  The feedback that is given to students is actually much more frequent, and gives multiple iteration opportunities to the students so they can improve their work.  Because the students are more focused on the projects they are doing than on the grades they can obtain, they voluntarily work harder to learn more for their own benefit.  Self-reflection is a key component.

One argument that you may hear against this philosophy is that students will have a difficult time getting into colleges if there is no rank and no GPA.  The presenters, however, have seen a shift in college admissions that reflects their own recognition of the need for change.  They emphasized that there is a need for “bottom-up” reform, saying that even reluctant colleges will eventually need to change their process once they see that K-12 schools are making this change.

Communication with parents is vital, and you may find yourself with the difficult job of changing mindsets.  One quote that made a lasting impression on the attendees was what to say in conversations with parents who oppose throwing out the grades.

“Your child is more than a number and a letter.”

What parent can disagree with that?

Hacking Assessment by Starr Sackstein
Hacking Assessment by Starr Sackstein



1 thought on “SXSWedu – Throwing Out Grades”

  1. I love how all your writing puts the child first which surely is what school should be about. Too often has tests/assessment are used in terms of data collection as opposed to a really vital learning opportunity. Grades just ramp up the stakes which high stake assessment leaving little or no room for pupil improvement.

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