Are Traditional Grading Systems Being Replaced?

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Are Traditional Grading Systems Being Replaced?

Why traditional grading systems are being reevaluated and the new form of student assessment some schools are implementing instead.

Grades have been the benchmark and dominant indicator of student achievement for ages. The five-letter grading system has been the most utilized across the U.S., but it’s clear that not all educators believe it’s an appropriate scale for measuring academic outcomes. There have been many alternative grading systems employed, especially in higher education, with the goal of providing a better perspective on student achievement. Still, there has been no definitive consensus on which grading system is most reflective of student learning, or if a one-size-fits-all method would even succeed across all ages and courses of study. Recently, some schools have been taking a new approach by renouncing grades entirely. Could this possibly be the answer? Read on to learn more about the arguments against traditional grading systems and the initial outcomes seen when a no grade strategy is put into practice.

The Case For Alternative Grading Systems

The letter grading system has remained prominent for a few reasons:

  • Many would argue that letter grades are motivating, they encourage students to learn subject matter in order to achieve a high score, and they drive competition to perform better than their peers

  • They translate across academic levels and grades, as most use this grading system especially within the same district

  • Letter grades are easy to assess and track throughout the duration of the course

At the same time, many critics of the system believe letter grading does not provide an accurate picture of a student’s learning and academic potential, citing the following reasons:

  • Letter grading systems can skew student motivation, as it tends to lead them to do whatever is necessary for the sole purpose of attaining a certain score rather than striving to learn and understand the actual subject matter

  • Cutoffs are largely arbitrary, as a single point difference on a 100-point scale is essentially irrelevant, yet it can place a student in an entirely different letter grade

  • They inherently promote competition as students are likely to compare their grade to those of their peers instead of aiming to compete with themselves

  • A letter grade may signify what percentage of the material was successfully learned, but it does not illustrate what they learned, strides they made, or virtually anything else about the student

The pitfalls of the letter grading system aren’t new discoveries. Numerous academic institutions have shunned this traditional process in favor of other methods to provide a better picture of student learning and potential. Some of the most popular alternative systems include pass/fail and rank-based grading, both of which intend to remove many of the negative characteristics of letter grades. For example, one major purpose of the pass/fail system is to eliminate the competitiveness associated with letter grades. If students achieve the expected level of learning, they are rewarded with the same grade as their peers who did the same. However, this method does tend to lower student motivation, as “just getting by” can become the ultimate goal. The rank-based, or curved, grading system makes a single point difference less arbitrary, although it sharply increases peer competition as all scores are on a comparative scale. Still, there hasn’t been one sure-fire method that is translatable across all grades and subjects while simultaneously addressing all issues, such as motivation, with current systems. Now, some educators are questioning whether a grading system is necessary at all.

Are Grades Even Necessary?

A new form of assessment has increasingly taken hold in schools across the nation, and grades aren’t part of the equation. Instead, many educators are advocating for narrative reports. The goal of this type of in-depth, feedback-focused report is to shift the focus from quantity to quality, emphasizing student potential, development, and achievement of learning objectives. This shift has become evident in many states and its popularity continues to grow. In New Hampshire, Sanborn High School measures student achievement through real-world projects and proficiency in specific life skills. The University of Michigan offers Competency-Based Education, deemphasizing student grade point average. Elementary schools in Fairfax County, Virginia eschewed a grading system and moved to narrative evaluation in 2012.

The changes haven’t necessarily been easy, with concerns that the new narrative reports aren’t as straightforward. Parents and students had a perceived understanding of what each letter grade meant, whereas discerning academic standing and subject mastery isn’t always as clear with these new forms of assessment. Also, when applying to colleges that traditionally base acceptance on grades, it’s not clear how the narrative report will translate.

On the flip side, those in favor of more narrative evaluations have noted a transformed atmosphere within schools, encouraging greater creativity, engagement in conversation, and personal development. Students and educators feel they are better prepared for the real world and have a greater understanding of where they need to focus, among other things. In a recent Mindshift article, one student expressed her amazement with an alternative method, explaining that she suddenly understood that she was learning how to learn versus just learning content. Clearly, this form of education has produced interesting results and continues to call for greater consideration as its popularity grows.

Quantitative grades in schools has been the standard for a very long time. As with any system that has been left virtually unchanged, it’s important to periodically assess performance and determine if amendments should be made. There have been many noticeable benefits associated with the removal of grades in the school system but, at this point, more research must be performed to determine just how significant the benefits of this method are. If the results do speak in favor of the gradeless system, the next step will be to establish the extent to which this method will be incorporated. In any case, proving substantial benefits would mean that learning could become a drastically different process in the years to come.


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