Grades are gross: a new mantra for a new year

My school is spending this year looking at grading and assessment practices. While we’re drawing from many sources, our central text is Grading for Equity by Joe Feldmen. Some of you are probably familiar with Feldmen’s work, but I am reading it for the first time. As a school librarian, I don’t carry a gradebook (for which I am eternally grateful). I do, however, contribute to the assessment design for most of our research projects in grades 9-12, and this book is making me wish I didn’t have to do that either! Grading is gross! According to Feldman, it incentivizes compliance, decreases intrinsic motivation to learn, challenges the ability for students to trust their teachers, and the list goes on. Not to mention the fact that it was born from an early twentieth-century model for education that focused on obedience, punctuality, attention, and silence as habits people would need when they entered an industrialized workforce. YUCK.

Like I said, as a school librarian I am mostly free of worrying about this. Freeing myself of the power dynamic that comes with carrying a grade book was one of the best things that happened when I moved from the classroom to the library. I never liked the endless back-and-forth over one point here and one point there when students wanted to challenge a grade. I never liked the conversation that started with a student saying “Why did you give me this grade?” and me responding with “I didn’t give you the grade, it’s the grade you earned.” Ha! Yeah, right. I totally ‘gave’ that grade. There is a great quote in the Feldman book that sums up how I’m feeling about this topic at the moment. 

“[A grade is] an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgment by a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an undefined level of mastery of an unknown proportion of an indefinite material.” Dressel (1983), Grades: One more tilt at the windmill

Isn’t that great? If true, however, then it seems like most “traditional” schools are in real trouble. How do we step away from points and grades when our school culture is so deeply entrenched in this way of doing things? How would students (and parents) respond to Feldman’s ideas?

As I was writing this, our dance teacher came in to discuss her upcoming modern dance research project. We do this each year and I love it. She has about twenty-five 9th-graders in Dance I. They will work in groups to learn about Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, José Limòn, and Katherine Dunham. During the two weeks they work on this project, I am able to work with them on source selection, note taking, citations, slide design, image usage rights, presentation skills, and more. It’s a good project and they enjoy it.

The more we discussed the project, the more I realized that I get a totally different reaction from students when I teach/review these skills in their dance class versus when I teach the same skills to students in freshman biology or English. I mentioned this to our dance teacher and we started to wonder, what’s the difference? Why do the students seem to latch on to the skills and ease into the practice of them in dance, whereas in other content areas they seem a little more tentative, perhaps too concerned they are “doing it wrong”? I suggested that in dance class they may just be more relaxed. That would certainly impact their ability to learn. Then she said, “Maybe it’s because I tell them on the first day that they don’t need to worry about their grade. If they show up and dance, they’re getting an A.”

Ding-ding-ding! That’s it. That has to be it, right? If they don’t have to worry about a grade, they can authentically engage with the subject matter just for the sake of learning. What a concept. Feldman argues that traditional grading “stifles risk-taking and trust” and “demotivates and disempowers students”. Does that mean, then, that students in our Dance I are more motivated, empowered, trusting, and willing to take risks simply because they aren’t concerned about earning a certain grade? That seems to be what my experience with this modern dance research project demonstrates. 

So now I’m really motivated to think about this for our other research projects. How can we adjust the way we assess, for example, our Junior Research Project (a big, multi-step, year-long project) to deemphasize grades and increase motivation and risk-taking? Can we do it within the system we have now? If we deemphasize grades, does that mean some students just won’t do the work because they won’t see the value in it (grades=value in a traditional system, after all)? Will the teachers go for it? What about the parents?

I have a LOT to think about. I’m grateful that my school is taking this full year to learn and discuss this work together. I, for one, am already seeing things differently and it’s only the second day of school. For now, I’m going to think more about Dance I, intrinsic motivation, risk-taking, and trust.

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