Ask Why – Grades

It’s hard to imagine school without letter grades and grade point averages in the forefront. So it’s surprising to learn that standardized grading practices are relatively new. Grades just don’t tell the whole story for every student.

It wasn’t until the late 18th century, in fact, when Ezra Stiles, Yale’s president, tried to divide learners into four ranks or grades: Best; Second Best; Less Good; and Worse. Over time, colleges began to convert those percentages into letter grades, and those letter grades into an evaluation on a four-point scale. This “quantification” provided the illusion of an objective way to compare learner performance. Just as we need many different gauges, windows, and mirrors to drive, education needs a  dashboard approach to assessment to provide multiple ways of monitoring and improving student outcomes.

“There was a time when the explicit purpose of the education system was to rank and sort kids. To decide who we were going to invest in and who we weren’t. And in that system, ranking and sorting kids through grades made sense. We’re moving into a different space where we want to recognize that every child has unique potential.”

Grades are often seen as motivation or an incentive for student achievement, but they can depress or decrease motivation as well as distract students from learning. Standardized testing works in a similarly detrimental way.

Is that what we still want today?

Ask Why: Grades is the final piece in a four-part series, co-produced by ATTN and 180 Studio, that is designed to invite us to reflect on the assumptions we make about the thing we call “school.” When we pause to ask why, we can learn from students and educators who are advancing new and different visions.


Tweet it: “Students are demanding that we see them as whole people, and that we don’t narrow who they are to a sheet of paper and reducible to letter grades.” #RethinkAssessment #FutureforLearning

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