TED Conversations

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.


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 28 2011: If you want to embrace the idea of failed students, you'd better keep your penitentiary system well funded and don't complain about crime rates and other social problems caused by illiteracy and despondency. Let's keep education as a right, not a privilege. Let's give alternatives to academic success, such as practical apprenticeships, so no-one has to fail. Some will fail whatever we do, but I think we should take responsibily to minimise it. Your social evolution sounds like elitism; I think we could evolve in a better, more inclusive direction, although it's not easy.
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      Jul 28 2011: Jake, I do agree that the grading system, in its essence, is necessary in education. But I think what we're looking for here are different mechanisms of evalution where students, particularly those who often "fail", can be most helped. It has been clearly shown that the current grading system often discourages students, when they should be inspired to do better. And as Ian has suggested, I think it's time that we made education a right for everyone, a system of nurturing students into responsible individuals. Also, I do not think "some MUST fail." But even if it is so, we must fight it to make another's life better, and naturally, our lives more meaningful.
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        Jul 28 2011: I think one of the things I most like about what Mark seems to be saying is that his evaluations are product-based and students are given a great deal of responsibility, support, feedback, and opportunities to implement that feedback successfully.

        To me, that means that the student is being held to a high standard and being given the tools to reach that standard.

        I dislike the idea of "failing" students; at the same time, I think we do kids and ourselves a disservice by praising work that is a) not truly praiseworthy and b) not truly work. A flaw with the grading system A-F is not just the F, but the easy A. It is not individualized.

        And Ian, I'm with you - a solid education should be a right for all human beings.
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      Jul 28 2011: Jake, you sound like you work for Arne Duncan or Michelle Rhee. I'm sure you favor standardized testing, pop quizzes and homework too. You certainly don't sound like a teacher, which is good. Learning should never have consequences; this is the current problem and one of the many reasons we continue to churn out high school dropouts, graduates who all-to-often don't go to college and more and more unemployed people.

      The current system that you love so much does not inspire learning. In my nearly 20 years as a classroom teacher, I've had hundreds of students come to my class, labeled as "F students." That is, they failed time and again from first grade onward. So, the grade system has failed them. Meanwhile, I've seen many "A students" put in cursory efforts at best and often turn into cheaters, just to maintain the grade.

      The attitude that some students must fail while others succeed is a pervasive one that needs to disappear. Why must we have failures? In a Results Only Learning Environment, all students succeed. Even you must believe that this a good thing.
      • Jul 28 2011: Mark
        I do generally agree with you and Jake I don't believe education is a privilege. Mark, somewhere in here there is a place for saying you don't measure up to some sort of standard. People do fail, in lots of things. The everyone is a winner thing is lost on me. But I do agree with you on changing the system. I like some of the portfolio idea of Michael MCC below. Yes, I think the F as failure is a stigma. Frankly the only people I ever failed were those that cheated on tests. But gosh Mark, people do mess up and that does bring consequences.

        Jake, sorry, education is the basis for our equality as citizens, not equality in abilities. Yes I cannot throw a football well now. (I used to do ok). We do have differing abilities and capacities, but gosh, some people we have labeled as "diminshed capacity" have done some incredible things.

        There is no such thing as social evolution. There are only the barriers that others construct to defend their own status.
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          Jul 28 2011: Michael, I don't think I said, "Everyone is a winner," but I certainly think in schools everyone can be successful. There will be losers in life in the job place and in competition. School can help all students avoid this, though.
      • Jul 28 2011: Mark, I was directly commenting on the phrase "Why must we have failures?" I want students to be successful too believe me. Unless there is some fundamental change about how we view education/preparation for vocation/discovery we may never get there. Keep talking Mark.
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          Jul 28 2011: Thanks for the clarification and for keeping this debate stimulating. I think we're all changing things right now.
    • Jul 28 2011: Jake,

      I agree that students need to be evaluated for many reasons. It is to their benefit so they can track themselves and help understand their learning, but also it helps others get a good picture of the students so they can determine if they want to give those students opportunities.

      The problem is the current grade system is not effective and it doesn't always (maybe hardly ever) reflect a student's knowledge and ability. Many students have figured out the system and the others who haven't are set up for failure because they are in a failed system. We should try and establish a new system, one that paints a more accurate portrait of a student's learning.

      How can we eliminate poverty, ghettos, crime if education is a privlege for the privleged? And the others who don't figure out the system are being conditioned for menial jobs in a society they probably don't feel warm enough about to try to make a change in.

      I suggest that teachers/school districts adopt a combination of grades and a portfolio-type system. Who knows what doors technology can open to these sorts of things. I realize that there would be complications with such a system, but there are a range of intelligences so measuring learning by only one means is a disservice to the student. I think we should blend traditional with a new system; one that measures students spectrum of learning, as opposed to only counting on one system that many students don't get and don't want to take part in. We shouldn't encourage the creation of a privleged class, but we should acknowledge diverse learners and try to promote them all.

      I think an evaluation system of that sort would benefit the typical high-performing students, encourage the apathetic ones to be more involved, both of which would be a benefit to our communities.

      I have trouble understanding your views. You want to help the poor and underprivileged, but you don't seem to take into account that the present system doesn't accommodate them.
      • Jul 28 2011: Some nice ideas Michael. Can you describe how the portfolio system would work a bit more?
      • Jul 30 2011: I work in a school system that requires 6 process and 6 product grades each quarter. They are weighted 30/70 %, respectively. In my projects oriented classroom, process grads are often the "are you actively working, and if not, what are you thinking, so I can put something in the grade book" grades. There is a lot of verbal feedback at this stage. The other grades are the "show me what you know" grades. Let's say that the project is a poem written using metaphors. Did you use metaphors? No? Let's go back and fix that so we can all see the brilliance of you in your I Am poem.

        One year I had Bobby, who loved to make paper airplanes, spitballs, and rubber band rockets. Nice guy. Bass guitarist. didn't care about the Puritans. When we read The Crucible, he slept through it with his eyes open. After the test (he scored a 69), I mentioned that with just one more correct answer, he would have had a C. He denied that he was a C student. As the year progressed, he tried on the role of a C, a B, even an A student. By the end of the year he was a solid A/B student in most of his classes. The following year, he remained an A/B student. Would I have been able to help him change his perception of himself without that old, icky multiple choice test? Probably not.

        I see the need for changing how we grade students. In my Senior course, I like the projects and the do overs. In my Junior course, I like starting them off with the old icky M/C tests mixed with projects. For the last couple of years, students have the option on most Product grades of do-overs. If you fail the M/C test, try it again, or show me in another way what you know, so long as you are showing me that you have mastered these Core Goals. Starting the Juniors off in this way gives them a blended assessment experience and I get a bit more insight into who does well at test taking (since the educational system loves standardized tests) and who does well with other types of assessment.

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