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Do Grades Do Any Good? (page 2)

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Updated on Mar 12, 2009

To be sure, teachers can make a bad thing worse – for example, by grading on a curve (so that kids are set against one another, thereby adding the toxic effects of competition to what is already destructive about grades), by grading too stringently, by giving zeros, and so on. But the only real solution is to eliminate grades altogether, or to come as close to that as is practical in a given school. Of course, this presumes that our goal is for students to become more enthusiastic and proficient learners. If our goal instead was to sort kids (deciding who’s beating whom), or to induce them to do things they have no interest in doing by bribing or threatening them into compliance, then we might be more reluctant to question the use of grades.

Jerome Bruner put it this way: We want students to “experience success and failure not as reward and punishment, but as information.” That seems to me a useful foundation on which to construct any alternative system for assessing teaching and learning. It’s also a devastating indictment of grades, which are inevitably experience as rewards and punishments.

What alternative(s) does the education system have?

Kohn: Just as you don’t need tests (standardized or homegrown) to learn how well each student is doing, so you don’t need grades to communicate an evaluation back to the students and their parents. You can use narrative reports, by which I mean qualitative summaries of progress in written form, or, better yet, you can have conferences with students and/or their parents to discuss how things are going. Incidentally, many, many schools have abolished grades entirely, and these tend to be places where students are far more engaged with what they’re learning. Even some high schools have done this, and their students don’t appear to be at any disadvantage when it comes to college admission.

We all know that changing the education system is a long process. While this issue of grades plays out, what can parents and teachers do to minimize the potentially negative impact that grades have?

Kohn: Here are two concrete things teachers can do. First, even if they’re forced to give students a grade at the end of the term, they should avoid putting a number or letter on individual assignments. This helps to make grades as invisible as possible for as long as possible – and therefore minimizes the harm they do when students are thinking about them. Second, teachers can help neutralize the destructive effects of grades – and support students’ autonomy at the time same -- by allowing students to participate in deciding what grade they’ll get at the end. The extent to which some teachers are horrified, or terrified, by the prospect of relinquishing their unilateral authority to make that decision is the extent to which grades have been used all along to control kids rather than to provide useful information.

Parents, meanwhile, should minimize the significance of grades, recognizing that straight A’s are often a bad sign (in light of the research I summarized a moment ago). The questions they ask their kids ought to be about what they’re doing, not about how well the teacher thinks they’re doing. A question such as “So is there another way you could solve that problem and still get the right answer?” or “Why do you think the character in that story got so angry?” promotes learning. A question such as “Why only a B-minus?” (or a response such as “A-plus! Way to go!”) undermines learning.

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