Are Grades Diverting Focus From Real Learning?

Grades sometimes feel like a necessary evil. They are a shorthand measure of how a student is performing in school, but too often the pressure to earn good grades becomes the sole focus for students and parents. Grades are supposed to be a recognition of the learning process a student went through, not the product a student strives for exclusively. But disentangling those things is a challenge, made more difficult by the real consequences of good grades for kids’ futures.

Educator Ashley Lamb-Sinclair experimented with not giving grades for the first six weeks of the school year at the high-achieving high school where she works. She was amazed at the intrinsic motivation students had to persist on a task until they improved when the pressure of a grade wasn’t present. She writes that she had incredible communications with parents about their children’s learning during those six weeks and that the gradeless period went smoothly. That is, until she had to start grading again. As soon as a 100-point scale was present parents and students forgot all the value they had seen in the learning process and focused only on points.

Lamb-Sinclair’s article in The Atlantic is a meditation on how educators, parents and students together can shift the classroom dynamic away from focusing on the product — the grade — and towards a realization of all that went into achieving it. Lamb-Sinclair can relate to the quest for achievements, but also reflects on the true value of something like National Board Certification.

Many professionals, including teachers, seek achievements to prove their value just as students do. Receiving National Board certification is often considered the gold standard in achievement for teachers. I have rarely encountered a National Board-certified teacher who was not a quality educator, and principals are consistently impressed when they learn I have the accolade. The value of the certification, though, comes from the process of earning it, not the framed certificate on the wall. Becoming National Board-certified is intensive and challenging. The extrinsic motivation of higher pay, more opportunities, and elevated status might have initially led me to seek National Board certification, but my dedication to improving as a professional guided me through the sometimes grueling process. I remember watching a video of myself teaching, stopping it minute-by-minute, and recording what was going on in the classroom in that instance. In the day-to-day whirlwind of managing student behavior, lesson plans, and grades, I don’t have the luxury of such reflection and analysis.

When my students spent three days on a single thesis statement, they practiced similar intensive reflection to when I was working toward becoming National Board-certified. And for both my students and for me, such opportunities are rare. So while parents might see a 96 percent in the gradebook and feel comforted by such a number, many don’t actually know the work that led to it. The problem lies when the product itself is elevated above the process, and questions of improving revolve around getting an A and not mastering skills.

What Happens When Teachers Stop Giving Grades?

The intrinsic love of learning supplants the drive for high marks in the long run. Ours is the type of school that when I input grades into our electronic gradebook system, it is usually a matter of minutes before students knock on my classroom door and parents send me emails questioning single points and marks.

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