It Is Time to Ditch Letter Grades
Earlier this week I was in Las Vegas working with a cohort of teachers who are a part of a writing research project that their district and I have partnered on. (The teachers in this cohort are all using Being a Writer). I always learn so much from these teachers’ work and Monday, our last meeting of this year, was no different. The meeting was on writing assessment—always a hot topic at the end of the year. We spent our time looking at student work and scoring it using our writing rubrics.
As we concluded our discussion, the topic of grading came up. It seems like whenever I talk about assessment this happens. Grading always seems to lurk over assessment conversations. So this week I have been doing some thinking about grades—especially in the dawning age of the Common Core State Standards. It seems to me that we need to seriously rethink the way we report student progress. It is time to ditch letter grades.
I know many districts have done this ditching. Good for them. But many, most, lots have not.
As a parent, if my daughter comes home with a B, what do I know about her? B does not tell me where she struggles, where she is creative, how she connects ideas in her reading. B does not tell me how she finds it hard to justify her opinions in her writing or that she loves poetry. B does not tell me what kind of friend she is or whether or not she can contribute her thinking to a small group. B does not tell me if she can play nicely with others.
But letter grades are powerful labels. How many of you were defined in school as A students? I know I was labeled a C student and subsequently lived up to that every opportunity I got. When you look at a report card, it is the grade that lingers—not the comments. It creates an identity for the student both in his or her mind and in that of the teacher’s. How many times have I heard a teacher tell me when talked after we leave their room, “That was one of my A students”? What does that mean really?
I remember sitting at my desk as a young teacher with a calculator, poring over the scores in my grade book. I added up all of the homework and got a percentage. I added quizzes and other scored artifacts and came up with a grade. For me this act was about adding and dividing. It was not about reflection. Once I had a grade, I moved on to the next student. What did those grades really tell me?
The common core, in its best self, is asking for more. It is asking for us to know our students as thinkers, readers, writers, and mathematicians. This kind of assessment requires a different tool. One that paints real pictures of who our students are. It simply is not enough to say they get an A.