[Grades]: Some personal history

I work at Saint Ann’s School, where grades are not allowed, but I used to work at a highly structured all-boys boarding school with what I would call an uber-grading culture.

Not only were students graded in each of their classes twelve times a year, but they were also given “effort grades” on everything from their academic classes to dorm life and sports.  These two combined to place the student in one of five groups that would determine their freedoms and privileges at school – everything from required breakfast and study hall down to when they could visit town or even go home for the weekend.

The school believed firmly that this was a very explicit and fair way to control boys and get them “on track.”  After all, all they had to do was put in more effort, and the marks would surely rise.  The sad truth is lots of guys were bottom group guys, term after term, and this became a part of the language used to describe students.

Though I loved and respected my colleagues (and many of those students), I perceived a systemic lacking in the intellectual culture and treatment of young people.

* * *

I grew up with grades, and did mostly fine with them.  I’m convinced that they shut down my dreams of being a poet (more on this another time), but I found academic success anyway.  Typically, if I did my homework and paid attention in class I could earn A’s and B’s, and that didn’t even involve taking notes, studying, or even doing the English or History readings most of the time!

Steve Miranda wrote a nice post recently about complete contracts and why they’re rarely used, except in school, of course.  Complete contracts indicate precisely what must be done, so the rest is omitted.  The simple fact is grades define “good enough,” and if I could earn B’s without even reading the books, and if I would rather spend my time biking, singing, playing piano, or tinkering with speakers and electronics, than why would I ever read those books?  I got my B.  That was good enough for me.

This is the behavior I observed in the “middle group” at that boarding school, and it’s the kind of thing that drives me crazy.  My relationship to everything I listed above (and more) was very different from my relationship to most school subjects, but it was there, on my own time, guided by my own instincts, that I had grown the most.

Can school be more like that?

* * *

People are always fascinated by Saint Ann’s.  How can a school work without grades?  How do the kids go to college?  How do their parents know how their doing?  How do the kids know?  I get these questions, especially the second one, all the time, but trust me.  Kids do go to college, and it does work.  In fact, Saint Ann’s is not so different from a more typical school, despite our love of the quirky, funky, odd, and eccentric.

Saint Ann’s is not the intellectual utopia it might seem, but based on my experience, I’d say we’re getting a lot of things right on the fundamental level.

By extending great autonomy and flexibility to the faculty, the school puts faith in the intellectual capacity of its teachers and their ability to inspire action and growth in their students.  By placing arts on equal footing, the school points towards a larger view of intelligence and potential.

The school believes in the almost sacred value of children, and that grading them or using grades to derive authority would be demeaning to the potential within them.  By eschewing grades and almost any strict sense of propriety in favor of passionate intellectual pursuits, the school has made plain that earning good grades and learning are not tied well together.

I could be equally critical on the small-scale, but for the foundations of a school, I’d say this is a great place to start.

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11 responses to “[Grades]: Some personal history

  1. Paul, I’ve been reading your blog ever since I came across it this summer and your writing has really motivated to go a few steps further in being the type of teacher I want to be. In particular, grading is a major concern for me since I’m in my second year of using SBG methods and working at an IB school where rubric-style grades are often used in place of percent grades. I have some familiarity with St. Ann’s but I would really enjoy hearing more about the school’s approach and your own practice in evaluating student work. How exactly does it work for you?

    • Thanks for the comment, Matt. I’m really honored to know that I’m inspiring teachers to improve. (Certainly feedback like this inspires me as well, in beautiful feedback loop fashion.)

      Standards Based Grading (SBG) is a HUGE improvement over quiz, test, participation averaging. I’m really happy to see how much this is growing in popularity amongst teachers. Full disclosure: I tried something like this last year (though without final grades) to more explicitly communicate with my students and help them monitor their skills and abilities. I was using a 1-5 scale, and though they deliberated considerably beforehand, my school shut it down. I was frustrated, disappointed, and somewhat angry, but I think I appreciate their concerns.

      In general, the school’s approach is somewhat vague and varies from teacher to teacher. Verbal, written (and preferably face to face) communication is the most acceptable form of feedback at Saint Ann’s, though I have to say there is something lacking in this. We have nowhere near enough the face time we need to really follow through on individualized verbal feedback.

      Twice a year, we also have “checklist reports” which are somewhat controversial, but it shows that binary reporting (got it/dont got it) is preferred over linear “graded” reporting, even if its non-numerical, like a shaded bar. I could say lots more, but let me leave it at that.

      Justin Lanier now does a version of Standards Based Assessment using binary assessment. The kids keep track and so does he, then I believe they conference about it. (He works really hard at this.)

      Hope that helps. I’d be happy to answer more questions.

  2. The charter school I work at does not give out letter grades. Many of the parents view this with suspicion (even though it’s a charter school, so they chose it for their child!). There’s such a prevailing attitude of, “Well, if there isn’t a letter grade, it must not be real school.” We write narrative reports and have conferences, and things that are scoreable by number (like a spelling test, for example) get percentages. But we don’t average them up into a grade, and that’s what trips some people up. We’re such a society of labels. That’s my two cents.

    • Yep! Everyone grew up with grades, and it is well-worn within us that this is how you gauge quality. A’s are good. If you’re not even giving out grades, how can we tell what’s good?

      It’s a real paradigm shift to think about the much more challenging and real scenario of communicating with people in descriptive and effective ways. Of course when you spend time deliberating on the issue, the entire idea of standardization and systematic grading falls apart very quickly.

      We all know an A in Mr. ______’s class isn’t the same as an A in Mrs. ________’s class. And _______ School? Those grades are a joke!

      I’m really glad to hear your school is serious about giving quality feedback. Of course, grades are not inherently evil. Grades, numerical or otherwise, like every other means of communication, are analogies. They cannot stand alone, and are only held up by a larger web of interconnecting phrases, analogies, and personal meaning.

      School’s make the mistake when they leave them B. (too corny?)

  3. How DO colleges look at these kids? I understand the motivation behind it, but at some point you need to be able to prove to people outside the system that it works. How’s that work out?

    • We write page length anecdotal reports twice a year for our students. These get sent out to colleges along with a list of courses taken. It is definitely a larger time commitment to read them, but if a college is serious about ensuring the quality of their admits, then these can be a great way to know these kids on a more personal and individual level.

      The idea that having earned an A in Calc and Physics and taken honors english for ____ years makes you an amazing college student is dying, and soon to be gone. I would say the way we do reports could be improved, but it is a huge improvement over aggregate numbers like course averages and GPAs.

      In addition, I suspect Saint Ann’s has some caché attached to its name, which is a little unfortunate. I want our students to stand on their merits alone, though certainly many of our students have many merits, and the reports include that kind of thing.

  4. How do the parents react when they find out there are no grades? I know that the elementary students at my school (which is K-12) receive a 1, 2, 3, or a 4 on their progress reports and reports cards which parents do not really like since they are so used to seeing an number (percentage) or letter grade. I remember when they first switch to this and the parents complained about seeing those “rubric type scores” that related a 1 to “emerging” and a 4 to “advanced” like the state standardized tests.

    • The absence of grades is one of the defining characteristics of Saint Ann’s, so it is no surprise to parents. And yet, I have a good feeling some parents would love it if everything stayed the same at Saint Ann’s, but we added grades. Concerns pop up from time to time about standards and rigor, but quite simply, grades are not a way of ensuring these things. Not at all.

      On the flip side, I’ve heard concerns that are anecdotal reports are too flowery and romantic. There are, of course, lots of ways to give bad feedback beyond simple grading. Simply writing anecdotal reports is not good enough. It must be very thoughtfully done.

  5. Pingback: [Grades]: More recent experiences | Lost In Recursion

  6. Pingback: [Grades]: More recent experiences | Lost In Recursion

  7. Pingback: [Grades]: BS and photocopies | Lost In Recursion

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