Going “gradeless,” an increasingly popular movement to shift classrooms away from a traditional percentage-and-letter-grade system in favor of a more holistic approach to assessment—using, for example, standards-based grading, competency-based models, or portfolios— is gaining traction across the country, writes Zach Schermele for Teen Vogue.
This shift comes as a result of an overreliance by schools and districts on high-stakes grading as the key measure for gauging student progress, critics say—which ultimately puts the focus on achieving a good grade, instead of where it should be: on the messy process of learning. Other critics of the practice insist that teachers spend far too much time grading—and justifying those grades with reams of feedback—leaving them with less time for the crucial task of preparing and teaching lessons. When teachers rely too heavily on grading, research shows students, especially struggling learners, often end up unmotivated and discouraged.
Here are four reasons that teachers give for abandoning the traditional grading system:
Even High Performers Are Often Stressed and Miserable
English teacher Gina Benz transitioned to a gradeless model two years ago after several AP students she knew ended up in the hospital. “The need to keep a high GPA, get that high ACT score, and get into that certain college was taking a toll,” Benz told Schermele, adding that her own crushing workload contributed to her decision to make the shift. She began teaching in ways that encouraged her students to “test out ideas, make discoveries and embrace failure in an environment where learning is transformational, not transactional,” Benz said. Instead of “slapping a letter or number at the top of an assessment,” she provided her students with high-quality feedback, and her students began reaping benefits—greater “joy of learning and better emotional health.”
And no, said Benz, their AP test scores didn’t drop.
The Burden of Grading Crushes Innovation in Teaching
When teachers spend inordinate amounts of time grading, “we rob ourselves of the time that we need to teach. We’ve all been in a situation where grading piles up, and so we put the class on a task to make time for grading. This is wrong. And it should be the other way around,” writes teacher Andrew Miller, who is the director of personalized learning at Singapore American School. “Teaching and learning should take precedence over grading and entering grades into grade books.”
Examining the history and research of grading practice in a 2014 study, researchers Kimberly Tanner and Jeffrey Schinske draw similar conclusions. “The time and energy spent on grading has been often pinpointed as a key barrier to instructors becoming more innovative in their teaching. In some cases, the demands of grading require so much instructor attention, little time remains for reflection on the structure of a course or for aspirations of pedagogical improvement,” they find. “Underlying the less encouraging news about grades are numerous opportunities for faculty members to make assessment and evaluation more productive, better aligned with student learning, and less burdensome for faculty and students.”
Grading Can Undermine Student Engagement and Promote Superficial Learning
High school English teacher Aaron Blackwelder, inspired by researchers such as Alfie Kohn, transitioned to a gradeless classroom nine years ago. His “Aha!” moment came during a student-teacher conference in which he asked a student to evaluate an essay she had written. “There was no discussion about the strengths of the work nor mention of what could be improved,” Blackwelder, who co-founded the website Teachers Going Gradeless, told Schermele. “It was a conversation about a grade and not the learning…I realized the problem was with grades and grading.”
The impact of traditional grading on student motivation and performance is why Cleveland State University lecturer Marcus Schultz-Bergin began exploring a gradeless classroom. “Grades tend to put an end to the student caring about the assignment, whereas feedback continues a conversation,” he told Schermele. “Professors and students, by and large, hate grades and yet feel there is no other way. Most people seem to clearly recognize the problems with the current system and dream of something better, but don’t think anything else is possible.”
Portfolios and mastery-based assessments are increasingly accepted
Frustrated with his school’s A-F grading system, Scott Looney, the head of the Hawken School in Cleveland, together with 28 other independent schools, formed the Mastery Transcript Consortium in 2017 with the goal of phasing out traditional graded transcripts in favor of digital, interactive portfolios that show academic and enrichment skills, areas of growth, and samples of students’ work.
“The purpose of education is not to sort kids—it’s to grow kids,” Looney tells Edutopia. “Teachers need to coach and mentor, but with grades, teachers turn into judges. I think we can show the unique abilities of kids without stratifying them.” The group has since grown to include 157 schools, including a long list of prestigious schools like Phillips Exeter Academy and newer schools like the Khan Lab School. Major universities have signaled a willingness to accept the non-traditional academic records without any penalty to students—undermining one of the last claims to the superiority of traditional letter grades.
Meanwhile, the push to modernize student assessment nationwide is gaining steam. At least 16 state legislatures and boards of education adopted policies to encourage public schools to look beyond traditional grading systems to assess student competency.