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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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  • Aug 4 2011: There are many students to whom an A or an F will never mean anything, but the point of using a grade system is not only in order to give feedback. If grades were removed entirely, objectivity would disappear. The main idea behind grades is to create an objective assesment for a student's work. A grade with no commentary is of no use, but we should head towards a system where teachers understand the grading system well and the abilities of people from different environments can be compared somewhar objectively, while narrative feedback should be included to enhance a student's future performance.
    In my geography calss our substitute teacher gave us back our homework without a grade, saying that if a grade is included the students just look at the grade and don't bother reading the comments. The feedback he wrote was helpful, but I remained puzzled, not knowing if I got a 9.5 and needed to improve to get a 10, or if I got a 5.5 and needed an extra half mark to pass.
    Giving grades can create positive and negative feedbacks from the students. In my first philosophy essay I got a 9, and encouraged by my success I eventually went to uni to study philosophy among other things. Many of my friends had similar experiences.
    Your assumption that a student learns nothing from a grade is true for a number of cases, but your first error was to generalize this assumption. Secondly, you can't accuse grades of being subjective, they'll always be more objective than words. Most importantly, you fail to realize that grades have multiple purposes, not just to asses a student's individual performance.
    I agree with your premise that narrative feedback is better as a perfomance improver, but that doesn;t imply grades need to be eliminated.
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      Aug 4 2011: What right does a teacher have to "give" you a 5.5 or a 9.5?

      Let's put your assertion about grades being objective to this test:

      You work for 100 hours on a project with multiple parts and many learning outcomes. You turn in your work, and I say it's a B. This means "good," right?

      Or, I can say, "It is clear that you have put in many hours on this project. You have correctly integrated at least 5 web-based tools, as instructed. Your narrative demonstrates understanding of the conflict of three stories and how they were resolved, and you successfully connected them to three other stories. My only problem with your project is that your narrative and your web-based tools indicate little understanding of point of view, which was one of the learnng outcomes. Please return to the project and add either an audio or video tool that answers the question on point of view."

      So, which is more objective, the B or my specific, detailed feedback?
      • Aug 4 2011: Good points. I think he was alluding to the danger of nepotism and favoritism making it's way back into the classroom.
      • Aug 4 2011: Ummm...if the 'B' is derived from a predetermined scoring criteria then it is by definition objective, whereas your personal analysis of the work is by definition subjective.

        Ignoring that, can you provide an example of how the ROLE system would be employed when teaching MATH, SCIENCE, or HISTORY, as opposed to interpretive literature?

        And, just curious, in what order would list math, science, history and literature in terms of importance to a student's education?
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          Aug 5 2011: Seth, you make good points and ask an interesting question. I don't think I can prioritize subjects. I do believe that reading is the most important thing anyone can do to acquire the necessary skills for all subjects. Having said that, it's up to the learner to decide what is most important to him or her.

          The ROLE works the same way in all subjects. Students learn in a collaborative setting, completing projects, in which they choose many of the methods for demonstrating mastery of learning outcomes. Grades, in all cases, are replaced or augmented with detailed narrative feedback.

          I'm not sure what dictionary you're using, but there is no definition I can think of that makes a letter an objective method for evaluating performance.

          Thanks for keeping the debate going.

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