Are Grades Utterly Useless?

One of my all-time favorite assertions about grading in schools comes from Grant Wiggins.  He writes:

“The most ubiquitous form of evaluation, grading, is so much a part of the school landscape that we easily overlook its utter uselessness as actionable feedback. Grades are here to stay, no doubt—but that doesn’t mean we should rely on them as a major source of feedback.”

I’m starting to think that Wiggins is right, y’all:  Maybe grades ARE utterly useless as a form of feedback.

Here’s why:

 In the minds of many students, learning stops as soon as a grade is given. 

For too many students, grades are end points in the never-ending rhythm of traditional schooling.  Instead of encouraging continued study, they signal that it’s time to move on to a new idea — and that old ideas can be neatly boxed up and filed away and forgotten.  Learning in a graded classroom becomes an isolated act delivered in units that have clear starting and ending points instead of a fluid process of continual exploration and connection and growth and discovery.

Grades have created a world where students have forgotten that THEY can assess their OWN growth towards important academic goals.

Caught in learning spaces where the only feedback that anyone seems to value are scores given by adults, too many of today’s students sit passively waiting for the judgment of others, stripped of the self-reflective and evaluative skills that literally define the most successful people.

The crazy part is that BEYOND schools, students assess their own progress all the time.  Need proof?  Then check out the self-reflection and evaluation being done by this boy — who is determined to learn how to start a fire without using a match.

His behaviors look familiar, don’t they?

Every day, the kids in our classrooms are polishing skills and measuring their progress without being graded. Our gymnasts are fighting through bruises to master new tumbling routines.  Our fishermen are learning which baits work in which waters.  Our gamers are experimenting with a dozen new strategies for taking on new levels in their favorite games.

But that kind of self-reflection and evaluation happens almost exclusively BEYOND school.  Once the bell rings, progress-monitoring becomes someone else’s responsibility.

Grades mask the real and tangible progress that students — particularly those who struggle — ARE making.

Instead of highlighting areas of individual strength and weakness, traditional grades bundle the sum total of a student’s academic self-worth into a tidy letter that fits neatly on a report card.  Imagine how hard it is for kids buried in Cs and Ds to maintain any kind of momentum in our schools.

Wouldn’t YOU give up if the most important feedback that you ever received told you that you were below average in everything all the time?

Assessment experts Rick Stiggins and Jan Chappius go as far as to argue that teachers have a moral imperative to rethink the role that assessment plays in either encouraging our students from moving forward.  They write:

“Thus, the essential school improvement question from an assessment point of view is this: Are we skilled enough to use classroom assessment to either (1) keep all learners from losing hope to begin with, or (2) rebuild that hope once it has been destroyed?

For Stiggins and Chappius, regular opportunities for student-involved assessment — instead of grades given exclusively by adults — can help students to see that they ARE making progress and growing as learners.  They can  begin to understand that they ARE capable and successful – a message that they may never have heard before from anyone in positions of power in traditional schools.

There’s a lot to think about, right?  What role SHOULD grades play in our schools?  CAN they be something more than utterly useless forms of feedback for students?

Perhaps more importantly, what are YOU doing to make sure that classroom assessment is helping YOUR students to maintain their own intellectual hope?


Related Radical Reads:

@shareski’s Right: My Students CAN Assess Themselves

 Another Student-Involved Assessment Experiment

My Middle Schoolers LOVE Our Unit Overview Sheets



15 thoughts on “Are Grades Utterly Useless?

  1. LarryWirth (@LarryWirth)

    In September, I was energized to implement standards based grading in my high school physics classroom. Alone at my school, and standing on the shoulders of giants like Dan Fullerton (@aplusphysics) and Frank Noschese (@fnoschese) and leveraging much of their work, I jumped in 100%. No credit would be give for anything except assessments that referenced specific standards, and students would receive a 1-4 for each standard, with opportunities for deeper learning and reassessment. I was forced to convert into a percentage grade for report card purposes.

    The result? Perhaps 10% of students bought into it. Otherwise, it was parent and student revolt – convinced that it was all black magic and they were somehow getting cheated out of their “real” grade. Students whose response to not getting credit for homework was to not do it and say “if you graded it we would do it”.

    This convinced me that, at least with my particular population of students, the “number” is all that matters. How they got there is meaningless to most, what they learned is mostly unimportant, and even the idea of reassessing is considered a punishment not worth the trouble, even if it possibly means an improvement in their ultimate numeric grade.

    Not sure what I’ll do next year – I’m very discouraged. Perhaps I didn’t explain as well as I could, but I honestly felt students would jump at the chance to reassess to improve their grade. They didn’t, if it meant going back to something that for all intents and purposes, was in the rear-view mirror.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Larry,

      I’ve wrestled with that reality too — and agree that for parents and students, grades are often the end all and be all.

      The challenge, then, is to slowly but surely chip away at their perceptions about what grades could/should be. While it can’t happen all at once, I really do believe that we can make self-assessment and feedback a more important part of the work we do with kids whether or not we can ever get rid of grades.

      That’s what I’m trying, anyway — grades still happen in my room, but there are regular opportunities for self-assessment too. My hope is that parents will see the value in those as more of them happen..

      Glad to hear that I’m not alone, though!


  2. James Rolle

    What does an ’87’ mean? Nothing. It is a summative number that carries with it no explanation, no foundation. If you look at any teacher’s grading policy, that 87 could have been arrived at in 5 or 10 different ways, so an 87 for my child may mean something quite different from an 87 for your child. On top of that, it really does not tell us either how smart a child is nor how well she understands the material.

    We have fooled ourselves into thinking that grades mean something that they in fact do not. The only thing they do do is rank students, compare them to (or against) each other. That and, as pointed out here, completely demotivate students from learning. (Read what Alfie Kohn has written about it.)

    There are schools that do not grade; instead teachers write substantive comments. And yes, these students get into the same colleges. Portfolios and projects are another way to demonstrate learning.

    Grades are a shortcut that take a terrible toll on a child’s natural curiosity and yen to learn.

  3. Richard Donnelly (@travelgeordie)

    Since removing grades in humanities lessons and implementing project based learning the curiosity and quality of students work has increased dramatically. Years 7 and 8 in a school in the uk. I’m looking at ways to reduce grade giving at gcse level too.

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  6. Michael

    I’m sure sure how you think that we can be sure that students are learning the material if you don’t test them. This allows for reevaluation if need be or moving on with confidence. How would our post secondary institutions know who are worthy students (doctors, lawyers, scientist etc.), the jocks that make the football team?
    I think grades are are necessary tool to determine whether or not someone is getting the lessons.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Michael asked:

      How would our post secondary institutions know who are worthy students (doctors, lawyers, scientist etc.), the jocks that make the football team?

      – – – – – –

      One of the things that I wrestle with, Michael, is the role that post secondary institutions should play in the decisions that we make about what is/isn’t right for today’s schools.

      To be perfectly honest, I’m tired of the “we need to prepare our kids for college” line of thinking that drives so much of what we do in K12 education. I’m not preparing kids for college. I’m preparing them for life — and all too often, those aren’t the same things.

      My vote would be to make changes in the way that we give feedback and let colleges figure out how to react to those changes. There are other ways to judge the competence of a kid than just letter grades.


  7. Patrick Larkin

    Hey Bill,

    Great questions on grading which I have been asking myself a lot more since my kids have moved to middle and high school. My son is just completing his freshman year of high school and has been on high honors throughout the year. Unfortunately, he is focused solely on what he needs to do to get the A and not much more. For some classes that means putting in a lot of effort and for others…not so much.

    I am more worried about what he is learning than just his grade. I would not even mind a C if I could see that he was being forced to challenge himself and think deeply. I see little passion for what he is learning about, so while the good grades are certainly a bonus, the grades certainly don’t mean a heck of a lot.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Patrick wrote:

      I see little passion for what he is learning about, so while the good grades are certainly a bonus, the grades certainly don’t mean a heck of a lot.

      – – – – – – –

      Holy cow, Pal — this says it all. Passion for learning IS being crushed in our quest for grades, and that’s a heartbreaker. When school becomes nothing more than a hunt for grades — instead of a hunt for meaning and purpose, we’re failing.

      Thanks for sharing…You’ve got me thinking….

  8. jpiette

    I imagine even teachers agree that grades are an impediment to learning and take up an enormous amount of time that could be spent elsewhere, but it’s all done for one sole purpose: evaluation for external review. How do you evaluate students without a grade so that outside observers (i.e. those not involved with the process) can understand the level of that student’s understanding? The only way I know how to avoid that problems is through interviewing, and some places can do that successfully. For example, Wharton is not allowed to share the grades of their MBA students, a rule that they vote in favor of every year. However, the companies that would normally care to know end up evaluating these students using interviews. This generally works, but it still isn’t ideal, as interview processes are often incredibly arbitrary, and candidates can get through without the skills needed for the job. Plus, this isn’t a scalable option at big corporations or colleges/universities, who have to consider tens of thousands of applications.

    Again, I don’t think you’ll have many people disagree with you, but it is a data point that, if you got rid of it. would hurt the ability of institutions and companies to evaluate potential candidates.

    (Note: I’m also assuming that parents wouldn’t care what their children’s grades are, which may not be fair.)

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  10. Adele

    Thank you so much for this post. I only see value in assessment that results in feedback and more opportunity to improve. I never give my students their final grades. I wish they didn’t have to see them on a report card, but I am forced to do so. This comment really gets to the core of my beliefs: Wouldn’t YOU give up if the most important feedback that you ever received told you that you were below average in everything all the time?
    Some students will do their best work, and that best work is not at standard. But isn’t the fact that they did their best, made improvements based on feedback from peers/teacher, good enough?

  11. Frances Barnes

    I think students should be more involved in their own grades and discussion about their learning. My concern lies with university entrance requirements. How else can we determine who is allowed into a program and who isn’t? I don’t think the “smartest” student will necessarily make the best doctor, dentist, or lawyer, but it does factor into the equation. If there are no grades how do we decide?

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