- Eliminating letter grades is an appealing idea to many educators and gaining momentum among those who advocate for standards-based grading, competency-based grading or other alternative models. Ditching traditional letter grades reduces stress levels and competition among students, levels the playing field for less advantaged students, and encourages them to explore knowledge and take ownership of their own learning, Education Week reports.
- However, many critics — including a large percentage of parents — fear that eliminating letter grades lessens accountability and personal responsibility for students and does not adequately prepare them for the reality of college or future careers. A switch to non-traditional grading methods also requires strategic planning, careful implementation and great deal of support from all stakeholders involved.
- Another approach to grading — the “no-zero” policy — advocates for making a 50% the lowest score a student can receive on an assignment. But among educators, the practice is the most controversial when a student turns in no work at all.
At a time when many states issue letter or number grades to schools, some educators are advocating the abolishment of such practices when it comes to students. Letter grades, they say, cause undue stress in students who become too competitive and miss the joy of education altogether. In fact, some school districts have redefined or abolished the practice of naming a valedictorian and salutatorian for this very reason.
Grades can sometimes stand in the way of learning, and some educators are questioning the need for grades at all. For instance, scientific inquiry and innovation can be stifled if students feel the need to stay on safe ground in order to earn a grade. And to some extent, grades are a subjective measure based on the priorities of the teacher. Some teachers, who value punctuality, may dock points for late work, even if the student performs well on tests. This approach can also cause equity issues for students who have trouble meeting deadlines because of situations at home. Other teachers value creative efforts at writing over strict adherence to form, while others take the opposite approach. Students often discover that grades are as much about learning the psychology of the teacher as it is about learning the material.
Grades, however, do provide an efficient and effective way of measuring progress in most cases and are a time-tested tradition. Despite attempts to rethink grades by converting to competency-based or standards-based models, or other more creative practices, grades still hold sway in most schools. And most college and scholarship agencies still expect a transcript in a form they can understand. For these reasons, most parent are resistant to the idea of change when it comes to grades, which poses a significant hurdle to new models for many districts.
The reality is that no one model works for all students. Highly-motived students who are pursuing college and scholarships generally work harder when grades are in place because they see a long-term benefit. Other students respond better to guidance and direction and grades simply stand between them and a love of learning. So far, no easy solutions have emerged.Traditional grading methods still miss some of the non-cognitive skills that research shows contribute to long-term success. There may come a day when student assessment tools can be as personalized as student learning experiences. But any change will require school leaders, teachers, staff members, students, and parents to adapt — a road that's not easy travel in a world consumed with letters, numbers and big data.