The hegemonic grading system in schools is an enemy to students appreciating that “knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward” (John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University). The system generates laborers — not learners. As a teacher, I am trying to explore alternatives to a grading system that belongs to “Descartes’ dream of the mathematization of the world” (Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology).
St. John’s College (Santa Fe, NM and Annapolis, MD) dares to challenge the grading system. Here are relevant excerpts from the student handbooks on grading.
Santa Fe Student Handbook
St. John’s College recognizes that grades often do not give a complete picture of student achievement. Emphasis on grades may also encourage thoughtless competitiveness among students, suggest an unexamined sense of success or failure, or imply wrongly that the teacher is in control of the student’s learning. Therefore, the primary assessment of student achievement is made in the don rag and in less formal communication between tutor and student during the course of the semester.
Nevertheless, in conformity with the common practice of American colleges and universities, the college requires a tutor to award letter grades to students at the end of each semester. Each tutor decides what elements are to be taken into consideration, and in what proportion, in assigning grades.
Other colleges, graduate and professional schools, grantors of scholarships, and employers expect to see the grade records of undergraduates and graduates. Students are not routinely informed of their grades and are not encouraged to be concerned about them. However, a student has the right to see his or her grades at any time convenient to the registrar. The assistant dean also welcomes the opportunity to talk with students about their grade records.
A student who believes a tutor has given an undeserved grade should speak with the tutor about it. In unusual cases the matter may be discussed with the dean, who may then consult the tutor. The tutor always has the right and the obligation to make the final decision.
Annapolis Student Handbook
St. John’s College tries to minimize the pernicious effect that the publication of grades can have on a community of learning. The college does require all tutors to award letter grades to their students at the end of each semester (A=Excellent, B=Good, C=Satisfactory, D=Passing, F=Failure, with pluses and minuses, and I=Incomplete) and authorizes them to decide what elements they will take into consideration and in what proportion. It also requires them to record these grades in the Office of the Registrar. But the college does this primarily because other colleges, graduate and professional schools, granters of scholarships, and employers insist on seeing the grade records of its students and graduates.
Students at the college are consequently not routinely informed of their grades. Indeed they are usually discouraged from having much concern about them. They are urged instead to talk to their tutors about their work, both informally and in don rags. Grades have some usefulness within the college, but in a limited way, and most often as a basis for conversation. Important information about the significance of grades is contained below under “Requirements for Graduation.” A student who thinks that his or her work has been judged unfairly by a tutor should speak to the tutor about this concern. Should the result of such a conversation prove unsatisfactory, the student should speak to the Assistant Dean or Dean. The tutor has the final word on the grade, though in rare cases the Assistant Dean or Dean may amplify the given grade with a letter of explanation.
Here are some essays that are worth reading:
The Atlantic: Why Grades Are Not Paramount to Achievement. The intrinsic love of learning supplants the drive for high marks in the long run.
The Atlantic: Letter Grades Deserve An “F”. The adoption of the Common Core could usher in a new era of standards-based grading.
The Atlantic: When the Value of High School Is Exaggerated. It turns out that students who take AP classes don’t actually get better college grades.
The Atlantic: Why Online Gradebooks Are Changing Education. How software better connects parents with what’s happening in their children’s classrooms – but it can also lead to heightened surveillance and less risk-taking.