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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: Rediculous. If the entirity of your argument is that grades are subjective to the teacher's feelings, you're wrong. In science, laws and theories are developed upon structures of objective observation, of diligent and tireless testing, and of strict mathematics. Those mathematics are developed upon the rigidity and consistancy of the numerical system. Such a system is understood through language, the structure of which consists of vocabulary, vocabulary consisting of: a) the rules of spelling, the basis of sound translated upon paper, and b) definition, the understanding that such sounds have meaning; and grammar, which is the framework that gives words complexity, depth, and context.

    Where is the subjectivity in any of these subjects? If your mysterious female student didn't study and didn't know the material, she deserves to know she didn't do her work. If she did study, if she grasps the material, that student deserves to know she's on the right track. The grading system works well in this respect. And it works well in the case of a child having studied and still failed. This should be the first sign that additional work is needed, a sign that the child should not quit, but approach the teacher for "meaningful feedback," as is their right, and that the teacher should provide feedback and resources, as is their job. Knowledge is a personal pursuit. If it's to be obtained, their must be a personal drive behind it. Those who chase the grades don't understand the meaning behind the knowledge. They are inconsiquential--they don't matter. Those who strive towards that understanding and seek to better it are the ones who should, and do, benefit the most from it.

    Your approach would lead us into an undefinable, unmeasurable state of learning--would likely be more subjective. If anything, the grading system should be even more strictly adhered to so as to not devalue the A, nor "equalize" the F, as is the case with the "No Child" act.
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      Jul 25 2011: Jarret, I'm not sure who the "mysterious female" you speak of is, so I can't address that. I don't understand your diatribe about "laws and theories" etc. You write like someone who likes to debate, but your points are so poorly presented that it's difficult to debate with you.

      I wonder what experience, if any, you have to back up any of whatever it is you're trying to say.

      Incidentally, if I had only written that your comment deserves a C, what would you think?
      • Jul 27 2011: Since I gave points and examples about the objectivity already present within school and stated that an objective law requires objective systems of learning, and since you asked your question and replied with no such example of your own, I'd think you were a troll for trying to bate me with a "C". If you have a logical reason for wanting to change it, please explain.
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          Jul 27 2011: I agree with what you are saying Jarret, but I also believe Mark is correct in that children do need more meaningful feedback than they are currently given. However, to achieve what Mark is asking for would require more time and resources than most teachers are currently equipped to handle. Simply put, we need more teachers and smaller class sizes if they were to personally monitor each of their students and focus on the specific areas the students are struggling with. Unfortunately, with the public education system as underfunded as it is and the current economic climate we are weathering, I don't see any way this will improve.
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          Jul 27 2011: Petros, you are right that we need more teachers. In order to be most effective, especially using narrative feedback; smaller class sizes are necessary. However, we can't continue with a flawed system just because we have classes of 25-30. With practice, teachers can learn to be just as effective with narrative feedback as they can be giving grades, even in large classes. Like anything, it's a skill that has to be mastered.

          Thanks for chiming in on this.
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      Jul 25 2011: Jarret. You said "In science, laws and theories are developed upon structures of objective observation, of diligent and tireless testing, and of strict mathematics". That is absolutely true, but these theories are continuously being examined and studied for clarity and potential imperfections. Over time flaws have been found in every theory ever created; possibly without any exception. As far as my understanding goes our current structure, or formula you may say of education has remained relatively unchanged since the around 17th century. This system of academic measurement is far beyond outdated. It's measurement is purely linear and based on qualities that are no longer needed. Our current system of grading is squandering our students creative and cognitive capacities. Now tell me how that is objectively and mathematically sound.

      However I do believe Mark might be wrong by saying that all grades need to be removed entirely from our schools, but what I do believe is what we have in our schools right now has absolutely no place in our society. This system must be entirely removed and replace with a system that gives a much broader, and in depth measure of a students abilities. One that has a much larger and accurate scale, whcih has room for improvement for the student and the system ifself.
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        Jul 25 2011: Jesse, thanks for bringing clarity to the subject. You're absolutely right about the system being flawed; I write about this extensively in my book. With plenty of loud voices, like the ones sharing their thoughts here, we may just make a remarkable change.

        Thanks for your insight.
      • Jul 27 2011: I actually wanted to go into what you said about science but I ran out of room. Your right, and as such discoveries are made, schools should update there knowledge of them accordingly. That doesn't mean, however, that there was not any rigorous testing that went into these new theories; likely, it's the opposite, as "proven" theories can be much harder to change. As we define the laws, so do we refine the tools used to measure them, refined not by how we feel aboout them, but by the logical procession of wants to needs. It is still objectivity that rules.

        Now I've seen the people in here going on about how the system is flawed. I think it is straightforward and simple. Perhaps you could elaborate upon some of the systems weaker points for me.
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          Jul 27 2011: The related talk in this page does a much better job than I think I can ever do at summarizing the system's weaknesses. I highly suggest you watch it as well as other talks by the speaker if you wish to learn more.
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      Jul 25 2011: Hi. You seem to have misunderstood Marks argument, and thrown in some comments about a few other arguments that we've not been privy to. ;) However, entwined in the twists and turns of your C grade effort (just kidding) was a valid point, I think, about the exactness of science/math, and therefore the possibility of meaningful grades that do objectively represent ability, and then feedback can be added afterwards.
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        Jul 25 2011: Ian, I would certainly be willing to add narrative feedback to grades (in fact, I am still bound by my district to give a final report card grade to my students). I simply don't see the need for the grade.

        As much as I appreciate your interpretation of Jarret's argument, my experience tells me that grades are not in the least bit objective. Grades in most schools come from an accumulation of points, awarded to individual activities, projects and tests. The problem is the arbitrary nature of these numbers. For example, if I assign a written response to a novel we've read, I may decide that the response is worth 100 points. Upon reading the essay, I may feel that it merits a score of 80/100, based on some subjective rubric. I can almost guarantee that if I give the same essay and rubric to another teacher, the score will deviate by as much as 10 percent. So, who is right? More importantly, how do these numbers help the student understand his writing abilities.

        Later the same student gets a 70/100 on a test. Of course, the test questions may not have been a fair assessment of his knowledge either, and if a different teacher created the test, he may have scored higher. Now, he has 150/200 for a grade of C. Although there is math involved, it is definitely not objective.

        However, if I provide specific details about what writing skills are mastered and which need work, and allow the student to return to the essay and change it, in order to demonstrate mastery, then we've done something truly remarkable.

        Thanks again for your part in this amazing debate. You have much to offer.
        • Jul 27 2011: Essays on novels are opinions based upon opinions. I've never understood how someone could get a lower grade than 100% on an essay based upon what they took from any reading (other than bad mechanics). That's something elseI'd like to know. Are you an english teacher?
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          Jul 27 2011: @ Jarret - Don't know about Mark, but I am! And my students can tell you that I am willing to listen to just about any well-reasoned (and/or entertaining!) argument they can dream up.
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          Jul 27 2011: Sure, no system is completely objective or fair. That's life. The grades my English teacher gave me always seemed to represent the work I'd put in, and it was nice to have my effort acknowledged. At other times, such as my F for french, the grade did indeed make me dislike the subject. Thankfully, I'm now quite good at french and enjoy it again, but some good feedback at the time would have helped a lot. So I see benefit in both tools, depending on how they're used. You see, unfair feedback notes could also cripple my motivation as much as a bad grade.
          Here's my next question, should you desire one ;) You've mentioned several times that you tell a student when they've mastered something. How do you decide they've mastered it? The label of 'Mastery' sounds like an A grade to me.
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        Jul 27 2011: Yes, I am an English/language arts teacher (17 years in grades 7, 8 and 10). I used to score essays, using points, percentages and grades and, yes, some students received less than 100 percent. The problem wasn't the score. The bigger issue was that my students rarely got a chance to demonstrate mastery learning. They received their score, based on a rubric or some other formula I created, and then we moved to the next activity. In the long run, most students were hurt by the grade and didn't learn much.

        I have changed my classroom into a Results Only Learning Environment, where project-based learning, collaboration and student autonomy create mastery. So, to stick with the essay example, when my students write, we focus on various mini lessons on the fundamentals of writing. (Jarret is right; it's difficult to evaluate opinion.) With narrative feedback, I can explain which learning outcomes were mastered and which were not. Then, I ask students to return to the activity and make changes or additions, based on my feedback and their review of a prior lesson.

        This way, they can know they've learned, and they are never punished by a low score or percentage.

        Thanks Jarret and Sushan for keeping the debate going.
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        Jul 27 2011: Ian, the mastery question is a wonderful question, and a tricky one, too. You are right in that it can sound like an A. Typically, students never reach mastery until they've made numerous changes and additions to something. So, though this is a subtle distinction, my feeling is that mastery is reached through trial and error. In the grade world, students typically get one grade, then move on to something else.

        Plus, mastery for one student may be different from that of another. In other words, differentiating instruction is easier with narrative feedback, I believe.

        Hope this helps.
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          Jul 28 2011: Thanks. I'd certainly like to see all this in action, especially with some of the most difficult students I've encountered. Actually, the really troubled students are troubled for reasons exterior to the education system (in part anyway), so it wouldn't be fair to test your system on them - fascinating to try it though. I can see how it would motivate most students. I'll take a look at your on-line material. At the moment I'm only working with individuals anyway, but I could improve the feedback I give them. Do you think there are any drawbacks to your system? Even great sytems have small weaknesses in my experience. Have you had any difficulties with it at all?
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        Jul 28 2011: Hmm., another good question, Ian. I'd say the biggest drawback is that more people aren't using results-only learning. It reminds me of when online grading systems were first introduced. Not many teachers were interested in giving up their old hard-copy grade books.

        When I tell colleagues about results-only learning, they are more than skeptical. "What do you mean you don't grade?" they ask incredulously. "No rules and consequences? How do you control your classes?" "How do you assess if you don't give unit tests?" Most think I'm crazy; some even think I'm a bad teacher.

        Today, no one uses a hard-copy grade book; the mere thought of it would seem outlandish. As long as I continue to tout results-only learning, I know it will one day be as trendy as the online grade system.

        So, the simple answer to your question about weaknesses is that the ROLE is so new that it scares people. I have to deal with the naysayers. Sometimes it gets tiresome, but I forge ahead.
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          Jul 28 2011: it's like writing on stones was harder, so they had to value what they write to be written on stones, I think that was a tough job

          then moving to paper books, writing becomes easier, they don't have to bother about the value of what to write that much........

          soon no need to use resources to manufacture paper no longer (the case of digital books)
          most importantly to creating a cheaper devices for digital books......... we say this era is about technology but we can't create another device!

          we can utilize the resource to something more efficient
          time has changed we can't stick to old traditional books

          I don't care what people think, give them some time they will value what they have later
          & consider better services offered due to costs reduction (for producers of paper books)

          grading system, people don't know what it's like to just attend courses or know it by experience, people have see a raw model so they keep him as a bench mark to match their performance with
          the human being has a wonderful feature, coping, but they prefer what they know
          so systems must be more informative
          enlighten people to the better
          or ...I like this one, give them the option for some time
          you can chose a paper book (with extra costs) or a digital one (with a title environment friendly)

          Friends & colleagues tell stories how different, experiencing getting training in certain corporations or business is
          they add + my assumption about "coping", this gives education, in current structure, less importance in this era

          some might argue, issues about education & medicine (they criticize how would doctors and/or scientists do trial & error on humans!)
          well, that what was happening for ages, but given current experiences, facilities & information their chance to do mistakes has reduced to minimum or zero

          now, what if students were with grades of A, A+
          what difference will it make!
          still they are following what they have been told only
          chances to come up with newer ideas is something different
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          Jul 28 2011: I haven't heard the term Results Only Learning before, Mark, but much of what you say is being taught in teacher training and done in many schools. The movement is away from lectures, multiple choice, worksheets, etc. and into multiple modalities, student-driven instruction, leveraging technology (and I am with you, I love having my students bring in whatever new gadgets they've got - if every student owned an iPhone, our equipment budget would drop dramatically), etc.

          When you say that you have no discipline issues in the ROLE classroom, sounds like you mean what are traditionally perceived as discipline issues - staying in your seat, no talking, basically, all those behaviors that are intrinsic to kids and make you wonder who is setting who up for failure!

          The language of mutual respect is powerful.
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          Jul 29 2011: You certainly are forging ahead. I read your website and listened to the Symposium preview. Good luck with that tomorrow and well done for what you've already achieved! Keep repeating the same positive message and it'll get through eventually. It sounds like you're classroom is quite noisy; I'd be taking advantage of the 'work anywhere' policy as I like peace and quiet, but I guess others like the interaction. Out of interest, what proportion of students give themselves an A for their report card? Are there many who give themselves average grades, and how do you feel about that - not the grade (I know how you feel about those by now) but the students perception of themselves? Should they be confident about an A, or a little self-critical too?
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          Jul 30 2011: @Mark, I'd like to reiterate Ian's question from before. As a classroom educator, what specific trouble-shooting, issues, adjustments have you as a teacher had to make in the pricess of implementing ROLE? I know that I have systems in place that work in my classroom, but also that none of them are perfect. What evolutions have you made in your understanding of ROLE?
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        Jul 28 2011: Yes, Sushan, you are right about discipline issues. These trivial things trouble many traditional teachers, because they haven't yet let go of control.

        Glad to hear ROLE strategies are being used in teacher training where your from. Where is that? I'd like to hear more.
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          Jul 29 2011: I can't agree more about the discipline issues piece. My first year or so of teaching made me realize really quickly that is was generally not the kid, but ME. I'm not syaing that there are never any problems in terms of student behavior, but if I keep my students' needs in mind as I'm designing, there are many less. And, yes, most of us have a need to not be needlessly bored!

          I live and work in New Mexico (hardly known as a bastion of educational success or reform but we're trying!)
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        Jul 29 2011: Ian, I appreciate the sentiments. Although I do have more A's in my class, you'd be amazed at how many assign lower report card grades to themselves.

        I've had as many as 34% give themselves lower grades from one quarter to the next. Some are very self-critical.
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          Jul 29 2011: Yes, but I think it's ok so long as they're acknowledging room for improvement, which they now recognise, rather than feeling failure. However, if the grades get lower from one quarter to the next, I'd say there's something to be addressed. Interestingly, if you abolished grades, this indicator of the students perception would be lost. Could it be that self-grading is better than no grades?
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        Jul 30 2011: No, Ian, I don't think perception of learning would be lost without the grades. I would always have students self-evaluate, based on two-way narrative feedback. I would still have performance review at the end of a grading period. The verbal and written feedback would always indicate the learning.

        Honestly, I believe a lot of students grade themselves down, because there is so much integrity in the system. I had one student, typically an A-B student in other classes, grade herself from an A to a D in one marking period, because she struggled on a major research project. She told me she gave herself the D because she hadn't met the guidelines. She knew this without the grade. Best of all, she wanted to return to the project and demonstrate mastery, even though the grading period was over.

        That's the power of he ROLE.
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          Jul 30 2011: I agree. I wouldn't bother with the self-grading either, but self-evaluation is a powerful mechanism when done with integrity. I have no more questions at the moment, but will continue to watch this space :) Thanks a lot.
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        Jul 30 2011: Sushan, the most challenging part of the ROLE has been to remain steadfast in its philosophies when being pushed by students and colleagues. The rare occasion when students say, "Why can't you just give me a grade like my other teachers?" presents a challenge that must be faced.

        It's important to constantly reflect on each day and think about what must be done to get around issues like this one.

        Sometimes colleagues question results-only learning. Some say that when I don't grade their students, it breaks down the system. Again, it's critical to continue fighting the fight.

        Finally, I'm always building year-long projects. I feel that my projects can always improve. I want to create more choices for students and encourage them to demonstrate learning outcomes in their own ways. It's a lot of work, so I'm reminding myself why I do it.
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          Aug 1 2011: Thanks, Mark - I really appreciate the "in the trenches" feedback. I know that I have had several conversations that sound like what you quoted above with my students as well. That up-front honesty and clarity with them pays off big time for all concerned in my (much less than yours) experience. Is there a place I can go to see some o0f the projects that you have created in years past? I am interested to see the structure of your planning and how you use mini-lessons. Too bad our offices are so far apart! Thanks for opening this one up!
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        Aug 2 2011: Sushan, hopefully, you'll read my blog, www.resultsonlylearning.com. I'll update throughout the year with specifics on the ROLE system.

        Thanks for contributing.
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      Aug 2 2011: Helena tu estas afirmando algo que no siempre es posible demostrar. El daƱo no es irreversible si el gradio o calificacion es merecido. No debemos temer por una calificacion. Lo que debemos temer es no estudiar o no saber estudiar cuando un mal maestro o profesor toma la clase.

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