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Mark Barnes

ASCD, International Society for Technology in Education

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Isn't it time to eliminate grades in education?

Give a student an F, she's learned nothing. Giver her an A, and what has she learned? Still nothing. Grades are subjective crutches, used by teachers because they either do not know any better, or because they are forced to give them by an archaic system.

Grades should be replaced by meaningful narrative feedback, which helps students understand what learning outcomes have or have not been mastered. Feedback also encourages learning, while grades only stifle it.

It's time for grades to be eliminated.

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Closing Statement from Mark Barnes

This conversation was a remarkable experience -- one that gave me plenty to think about and to write about in my upcoming book (ROLE Reversal, ASCD 2012). I believe that many people here seem at least open to the idea of moving beyond the subjective, punitive grading system that we use today. Some still believe that grades are the only way to evaluate learning. It appears from the discussion that, in most cases, this is because they haven't been exposed to formative assessment and self-evaluation over summative testing and grades. Grades are a measuring tool, and not a very good one. The problem is not just grading but the idea that measurements are necessary in the first place. Learning should never be measured. Rather, it should be shared, discussed and evaluated openly; these discussions should be accompanied by objective feedback that guides students to other possibilities and to reflection and self-evaluation.

Upon consideration of all comments here, I remain steadfast in my belief that education needs ongoing narrative feedback. Any other system is arrogant and a mistake.

Thanks to all who participated.

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    Jul 25 2011: I think grades are a natural and necessary mechanism. To avoid them is to deny the truth about differing abilities. I agree that narrative feedback is very important, as a grade with no justification or indication to improve has little value and can indeed do more damage than good. So the thing to do is use grades in a positive and constructive way, guiding students to improve their grades, and never fail anyone - you just tell them there's more work to be done before you can pass them :)
    • Jul 25 2011: Which results in the students striving to achieve the grade, not the knowledge.
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        Jul 25 2011: Yes, I know what you mean - it's all too common. But you do need a tool to measure progress and knowledge or else no kind of selection can take place; no-one would be able to show a prospective employer or university etc. that they had achieved a certain level. Comparing piles of feedback reports would be too time consuming, and equivalent to grading. The emphasis needs to be on learning for a real purpose. The only grade you ever really need is 'Pass', and this should mean the student knows all the material of the course and is ready for the next level, or to do a job. A 'C' or a 'D', for example, just suggests you haven't undersood it all yet, so it's no place to stop. Going on to a higher level course when you've only grasped 50% or 60% of the lower level course is silly, but that's what happens.The whole system would have to be changed for these ideas to work; the way courses are structured at the moment, and the way they are examined, deprives many students of successful outcomes and is a poor predictor of future job performance.
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          Jul 25 2011: What of, instead of pass/fail we used "gets it / needs work / not yet" and then gave students actual time to move into mastery, instead of jumping to the next topic before everyone is ready?

          What if the final "grade" at the end of the course was a list of competencies demonstrated by the student during the course?
        • Jul 25 2011: I know. It's so frustrating because there really is no good system that anyone has yet conceived. Apprenticeship-style education worked very well in the renaissance, but would that work today?

          A pass/fail system would work better, but I think it should be built around a fundamental truth: some people are stupid. Some people are bad at math, some people don't want or like to do history, and some people are great at everything. The one failure of modern education is the exact opposite of what David Wees said. Don't hold back a class because one student has a malformed head and is bad at spatial reasoning. Instead, hold back the student and move the other students into the requisite higher classes. This should start in kindergarten.

          Too much of our time is wasted learning long division the 305th time when we knew it like the back of our hand 6 years ago. A student that is ready to learn algebra should learn algebra whether he is 7 or 17.

          Some might say "but that's harsh. Kids will feel bad if they see themselves constantly failing at something." Yeah. That's the point. Yes it sounds harsh, but in reality study after study has shown that higher self esteem does absolutely nothing for one's long-term happiness, income level, family life, or crime rates. As it turns out violent criminals think very highly of themselves!

          It's always better to know the truth, no matter how harsh, then to live disillusioned. Do you know how many 20-something male friends I have that are basically failures as adults? Pretty much all of them.
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      Jul 25 2011: Ian, I'm not interested in grades or passing and failing. I'd like to see all of these terms disappear. I want my students to develop a thirst for learning that will last forever. When people get this thirst and are shown how to quench it, they will learn far more than someone who is told what to do and then given an A for following step-by-step instructions. Why do we need to define differing abilities?
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        Jul 25 2011: Hi Mark. I'm sure this approach works well in your classroom, and I expect you're an excellent and inspiring teacher. I like the concept. In fact it's how I learn, and like you say, I have a thirst for learning that is completely disconnected from grades. However, I'm learning for pleasure; I'm not at school, and I already have qualifications that I can show employers. The only point that you haven't made clear to me yet is how employers and universities/colleges can select people. Eg Oxford university is looking for students for its mathematics course, a course that requires a lot of prior learning to an advanced level. They get 2000 applications from students, all with a thirst for knowledge, claiming to be highly motivated. But there's only 400 places. How does the university know which students are really capable, and which are just enthusiastic or lying?
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          Jul 25 2011: Ian, I appreciate your specific example about Oxford's math course. Although I'm not sure my response is what Oxford or other college deans might want, what I would say is that years of detailed narrative feedback about individual activities and projects, along with lengthy narratives at the end of a school year about what was and was not mastered and other important factors about a student, would help someone make a decision much better than a test score and GPA.

          If I were the person at Oxford weeding through 2000 applications, the student with the aforementioned wealth of narrative feedback would have a much better chance of winning a spot than the student with only a meaningless number.

          The problem with numbers and letters is that they say so little. Sure, I can assign an A to a student, and it appears that she has done well. How well has she done, though? How does she compare to 1,999 others applying to Oxford who also have A's.

          My goal is that we get all teachers to use narrative feedback throughout the year, including lengthy year-end summations. Imagine the wealth of material a college admissions dean would have for legitimate evaluation of applicants. My year-end performance reviews include evaluations of student's enthusiasm or lack thereof. In fact, the performance review would be a marvelous tool for separating excellent students -- those who would get A's in the grade world, in order to indicate which one truly belongs at Oxford.

          Hope this helps, and thanks again for your thoughtful discourse.
    • Jul 25 2011: People are capable of realising different abilities exist without it being ingrained in their psyche as a consequence of years of comparisons with others. Smarter people may be more likely to be successful in life but this is not a necessary requirement for success. Grades pigeonhole students into what is statistically expected of them such that it makes it more difficult (unnecessarily so) for students with lower grades to do well.

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