To Grade or Not to Grade? by Tom King

Part of the series: Global Issues in Education by Guest Author, Tom King

To grade or not to grade? That is the question, but what is the answer?
How did you feel the first time you had a grade attached to you? You know…a letter C, maybe with a + or a -. Or maybe a number, like 82 or 69?
Suppose you had a good grade way back when; did you deserve it? Or, how about a bad grade in 3rd grade? Was your performance really that bad? Well, the teacher must have thought so. How did it affect your view of yourself? Were you the better or the worse because of it?
No Child Left Behind, that wonderful mantra, is still leaving far too many behind…attaching their accumulated standardized test scores to their teachers and their schools, assigning extra homework to the errant teachers and closing those bad, bad schools. But how do these test scores help the individual student from being left behind? They advance or retreat one child at a time.
So, what’s really wrong with a grade or a standardized test score? The pundits and experts call them objective scores, as they are thought to be free from subjectivity and less prone to error. OK. So someone who really believes this, please tell me what a D- is, or what’s a 72? Is there a teacher or an objective test out there with the wisdom of Solomon who can defend the complete objectivity of the grade or the test score? Anyone? Anyone? I thought not.
So, how do we assure that students possess the needed skills and competencies to succeed? How do we know if they can do quality work? How about we look at their work? Why not put each student, with help from their teachers, parents and mentors, in charge of designing, creating and collecting their best, summative projects, papers, videos, presentations, collaborations, apprenticeships (maybe), designs, solutions, poems, pictures, dreams, improved work,….well you get it: a Personal Portfolio of the Emerging Learner. Authentic assessment, if you will.
Why, with help, most students could create an assessment rubric too, so they can learn to judge the quality of their own work. Of course, they want reviews and input and suggestions from their teachers, fellow students, parents, mentors, Skype-buddies…you name it. In time they may need less help and have far more confidence in their skills.
Wouldn’t that be far more meaningful than a number or a grade? Sure, students and teachers could keep a checklist of skills possessed, works in progress or improvements still needed. But, most of us in this profession can look at a student’s chosen, best work and immediately tell what they know and what they don’t know. Even better, with a little help, so can they.
Think of the time and energy saved from all the irrelevant, meaningless measuring we now do. And no one really, truly knows what it means for each learner. Or, finding something effective to remediate it.
It’s time to make some fundamental changes in our educational system. How about replacing grading and testing with Personal Portfolios of Excellence and Progress? When they leave their classes next spring, they can only take their fond memories of their good teachers along with them. How about giving them the gift that keeps on giving: Learning how to learn.
Take a look at the changes we tried at our Saturn School of Tomorrow some years ago. We need more ideas like this one. Real reform. Not a race to the top of something that won’t be there next year.

Tom King is a retired math teacher, the founder of the Saturn School of Tomorrow, adjunct professor for 35 years +, husband, father, grampa, friend, tennis and golf partner, coffee buddy, reader, photographer, poet, and a marveling lifelong learner. He blogs at Tom King’s Blog of De-Fog and tweets by the handle, @profTK. Read his previous contributions to Teacher Reboot Camp.

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