Saying ‘Good Bye’ to Grades

Harold Kwalwasser, December 11, 2015

[From School Administrator, December 2015, co-authored with Barbara Nemko]

It is time to say “good bye” to students’ grades. We really should forget about all those A’s and F’s, just as we should discard the idea of 5th grade. That’s because “grade,” however we use the word, comes from the era of mass-produced education. It reflects an inflexibility about how we assess students and a rigidity about how and why we expose them to new material. None of it helps students learn.

Grades were the product of their times, which were distinguished by two things. First, instruction generally meant one teacher, teaching one way, from one textbook, standing at the front of the class. Second, we did not feel troubled if some children left high school with a weak mastery of even basic math and reading skills. Before 1980, they still could have a good life, earning decent wages in factories that did not require much numeracy or literacy.

Obviously, the latter has changed. Every child needs a real education. The good news is we have alternative ways to instruct children, and when we adopt those methods properly, our old grading system just gets in the way.

Ignoring Reality

What underlies the problem is that until recently, schools have not come to grips with the idea that we have the technology to provide an individualized education for children. Some students are going to be ready for 5th-grade math when they are 10, but many others will be ahead or behind. We traditionally ignored that reality because we did not have the instructional means to address it. Now we do — and we should.

Here’s how it might work. Think of the curriculum for reading, English language arts and math as a line starting in kindergarten and ending in senior year of high school. A child in kindergarten or 1st grade begins learning math and grows to understand a set of concepts. Then the student takes an assessment to confirm understanding, and only when there is mastery does she or he move on to the next, more complex set of ideas.

What governs that movement is not a curriculum that says the concept should be taught in October of 5th grade. Rather, it is governed by when the student is prepared to handle it. In other words, 10-year-olds may occupy the same classroom, but they are not likely all on the same page. It may look like a traditional 5th grade because same-age pupils fill the seats, but what happens in that classroom bears no relation to what 5th grade used to be.

Three-Part Model

If this is our model, we need to add only three ingredients.

No. 1, a commitment to throw away all static textbooks and adopt only interactive, digital instructional materials, preferably those that can adapt to a student’s current level of learning. This is the core of President Obama’s Future Ready program for 21st-century instruction now being promoted around the country.

No. 2, a requirement that students demonstrate genuine mastery of material. There can be no dumbing down expectations for those who take longer to master the concept.

No. 3, a need to radically change what school looks like. Over time, schools will figure the problem out, but contemplating this bit of the unknown undoubtedly scares the budget-shy, despite the fact digital instructional materials are less costly and a lightweight alternative to heavy textbooks.

Worthwhile Risk

Whatever educators’ qualms, some important goals here justify the risk. One is that the end of learning something is not defined by the calendar, but by when the student understands the subject. It is a goal so obvious it’s hard to believe we haven’t acknowledged it. The second is the end of social promotion of weak students — replaced by a system focusing on each student and demanding the school provide real learning.

We know how to fill out this narrative because we have the right technology at hand. All we need is the will to get out of the rut we’re in.

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