To grade or not to grade?

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.


6 thoughts on “To grade or not to grade?

  1. What St. John’s College is doing is pretty brave. It is basically common knowledge that anyone who has a genuine love for learning does not need to be prodded onward by a grade for each assignment, but few institutions have the audacity to put that belief to work.

    • Matthew: How do you think a secondary school teacher like myself can implement a grading practice similar to St. John’s? For this coming academic year, I am going to only give one grade per quarter for “Oral Communication” with a mid-quarter qualitative report. Grading each seminar implies that learning is a performance, and that is contrary to my belief that learning is a process. What options are there for entries in the reading journal or written essays? I look forward to hearing the thoughts from a student who cares about learning for its own sake.

  2. I believe that as long as the teacher has an accurate perception of his students, then he should give the students the liberty of not having grades for each assignment. I categorize that as a liberty because I personally have never been anxious about my literature grades because I pay more attention to comments by the teacher in the margin than a number grade. I think that when people do not have grades for each assignment, it actually lessens stress rather than piles it on. As long as the student is trying to learn something and the grader sees that, then it matters not whether they excel in written essays or reading journals. They have learned, and you have seen it in their writing. So, I think that it would be bold but rewarding if you switched your grading system to imitate that of St. John’s College. I would expect that for the first few months, you would get plenty of complaints from frustrated parents of your students, but when they later realize that the system fosters a love for learning, then the feedback will be positive, as it has been for St. John’s college.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. I am excited to hear that you will be implementing similar grading techniques. I have read the above comments, and gather what you wish to do. Although I’m sure there is fleshing-out to be done. So one grade per quarter that represents the students “oral communication.” How do you plan on assessing that? Have you talked to other teachers or the administration about this choice? How will you deal with complaints, if there are any (I expect there will be, at least at first)?

    • Regarding oral communication, I will continue to use the categories in the rubric that my colleague and I created to evaluate the student’s work. Those categories are quality of contributions, frequency of participation, impact on seminar, and decorum. To stave off complaints, I will communicate what I am doing and why to parents. Preventive communication is always preferable to reactive communication.

  4. Thank you for posting this. How did you know that this very question has been on my mind? I am very grateful for the experience at St. John’s, which has given me encouragement to try a number of new things in class this year. Thanks also for posting the articles.

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