The Holy Grade: School Leadership is a Dangerous Business

“Those who implement changes in assessment, grading, professional practices and policies risk not only confrontation, but also unpopularity, social isolation, public humiliation, and ultimately, even their livelihoods.”

I really like this statement from Douglas Reeves. Describing, in grim detail, what may befall the leader who chooses to implement change to one of the most fundamental, traditional aspects of our schools, it serves as a stern warning. We like to share this line with parents at presentations about how we transformed our assessment and grading system at our school. It’s an interesting statement of intent.  The visual response from bemused parents seems to enquire, knowing all that, why would a school proceed with such change?

Sitting with a group of newly hired teachers a few years ago, we asked them to explain what a B grade was. Eight highly-talented individuals came up with eight wildly divergent interpretations of  a system of measuring learning that is widely regarded as the Holy Grail of grading, the mechanism for college admission, the means of controlling student behaviour, and the preferred method of offering assurance to parents that meaningful learning is taking place. Or so the age-old story has gone, unchallenged for generations. The truth, in reality, is much closer to that described by Grant Wiggins:

“Perhaps the most counterproductive aspect of schooling as we know it is the conventional system of letter grades. The problem with grades is not the use of symbols, but the absence of any DEFENSIBLE plan for coming up with the symbol… most grades reflect what is easy to count and average into a final grade.”

The changes we made at our school were somewhat radical, but perhaps not truly innovative when one considers what learning is really about (common sense is hardly innovative, though it is often sadly lacking in many schools). In adopting a 1-7 criterion-referenced grading scale, we consigned 100 levels of what is essentially guesswork and point averaging to history. The innovation is to be found in a school being prepared to throw out the entire grading system and start again, especially for those teachers who were required to alter a deeply ingrained practice and set of beliefs. The shift from the averaged number of points as gradebook “evidence” to professional judgment based upon ongoing feedback is seismic. The real power of a criterion-referenced system is not only that students have a clear understanding of their achievement, but that their feedback also shows them how to attain the next level of achievement. Among the other things implemented – we stopped:

  • Averaging grades – grades should represent current level of achievement and students should not be penalized for mistakes along the way.
  • Using grading as a punishment – removing points for late work obfuscates the achievement level and should be reported in other ways.
  • Grading homework – homework is practice towards achievement; students should learn from mistakes, not be penalized by them.
  • Regarding everything as summative – meaningful learning happens with more formative feedback and fewer summative assessments.
  • Confusing behaviour with achievement – grades should be about achievement, behaviour should be reported separately.

These are changes that people like Reeves, Ken O’Connor and Rick Wormeli have long advocated for. A critical part of the change management plan of introducing such essentially dramatic changes is the communication with parents. It is not difficult to convince informed parents that the value of traditional homework is fundamentally shallow, or that learning is a journey, not a series of regular judgments that place both students and teachers on a never-ending treadmill of meaningless point collection. But parents tend to be rightly concerned about college admissions and the validity of transcripts (“how will doing the right thing be regarded by colleges?”). Not surprisingly, these concerns dissipate when we speak about learning for life and provide real-life examples that are not new. How many parents, for instance, would:

  • have passed their driving test using a traditional grading system that averaged the first halting lessons against the final demonstration of competence?
  • choose to have serious surgery from a surgeon who could proudly claim to have completed 200 worksheets perfectly on the procedure?
  • want to entrust the safety of their family to a pilot who had never encountered failure in a flight simulator prior to taking to the turbulent skies?

It is this critical issue – the institutional rejection of the vital centrality of mistakes as a part of the learning process that most of us encountered at school – that parents recoil at and identify with. This is a recognition articulated by Gabriel Rshaid:

“Mistakes were not allowed: Mistakes were stigmatized in the learning process. It is widely known and well accepted that trial and error and learning from one’s own mistakes is a secure path for learning and acquiring proficiency… Despite this, schools have instituted an implicitly repressive environment that progressively stifles students’ creativity, curiosity, and spontaneity for fear of being ridiculed.”

I assume that what I refer to as the 4am Conscience Call is common to all walks of life and people. When I awake at 4am with a school preoccupation on my mind, with that wide-awake disturbance often comes a realisation that something needs to be urgently changed if I am to enjoy a good night’s sleep ever again. While that is overstating it, many of you can relate, I am sure … this is how it can feel at 4am. The killer moral dilemma question that decimates sleep, that has us glancing at the time every 15 minutes throughout the interminable night, is the one we fight hard to avoid: is this change bad for me or good for students? Once we ask ourselves this question, I think the answer becomes obvious.

Implementing difficult change in schools is not such a dangerous business; ignoring the obligation to do so is the real hazard.