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.”

Douglas Reeves describes in grim detail what may befall the educator who chooses to implement change to one of the most fundamental, traditional aspects of our schools. It serves as a stern warning.

Sitting with a group of newly hired teachers several 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 about grades, 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 at the time, but perhaps not truly innovative when one considers what learning is really about. In adopting a 1-7 criterion-referenced grading scale, we consigned 100 levels of what is essentially guesswork and point averaging to history. The shift from the averaged number of points as gradebook “evidence” to professional judgment based upon ongoing feedback was seismic. The real power of a criterion-referenced system is not only that students have a clearer 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 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?
  • Chose to have serious surgery by 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.”

Having taken the first major steps in our journey in recent years, it is clear that we have more work to do and that several major questions still need to be addressed. For example:

  • Since there is almost no research to support the learning value of homework, why do we still engage in this practice?
  • We have learned that putting a number on a piece of work is the end of meaningful feedback, so how can we fix this problem?
  • Ongoing feedback is of greater value than summative judgment, so why do we still have teachers spend countless hours writing report cards?

Who dares tackle these issues? An increasing number of schools are and the changes are being led by the real educational leaders – classroom teachers. Implementing difficult change in schools is not such a dangerous business; ignoring the obligation to do so is the real hazard.

Reeves, Douglas, editor. Ahead of the Curve: The Power of Assessment to Transform Teaching and Learning. Solution Tree, 2007.
Wiggins, Grant. Quoted in How to Grade For Learning. O’Connor, Ken. Corwin, 2009.
Rshaid, Gabriel. Learning for the Future: Rethinking Schools for the 21st Century. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.