The “No Grade” Paradox

The idea of “going gradeless” is still new to most teachers, and still not attractive to many. But it is growing in popularity quite rapidly, and an increasing number of teachers now agree that a no-grade approach to teaching and learning is something like an ideal.

However, many teachers also consider it one of the hardest hurdles to overcome in the process of changing education. So baked into the system is the concept of grades, that overturning it seems almost impossible. It is therefore held up as some sort of holy grail, the last outpost of traditional education that we will deal with when everything else has been fixed, and then we will have a truly perfect system.

And while this makes sense, I actually think it is entirely backwards… The fact that grading is so deeply ingrained in the education system makes it the hardest thing to change but also the most important thing to change.

I suggest that, in fact, most of the things we care about changing in education will not be changed until we overturn the obsession with grades—that, therefore, tackling the problem of grades actually needs to be the first thing we do.

Grades stand in as the benchmark for effectiveness in all areas of education. Grades are how we determine the worth of our students, the quality of our schools and the competency of our teachers. Every theory or approach that is placed under the microscope is viewed through the lens of grades. If an approach doesn’t increase grades, then it is considered ineffective and is thus discredited. If an approach is found to give students an edge in their exam results, it quickly becomes the new standard.

But in far too many cases, grades do not measure what we should care about. And using them as the yardstick for effectiveness often pulls our pedagogy away from the truly important goals. When research concludes that a method is effective because it increased exam results by x percent, I immediately question the validity of that study. The problem is, that’s the vast majority of research in education.

The word attainment has long been a synonym for grades. If you get a high score in your exams, then you learned well. But this does not ask the question of what you learned or how valuable that learning is likely to be. In fact, these questions are systemically ignored, so that the grades have become the goal. We teach in order to raise test scores, then we test to see how effective the teaching was. And once you’re trapped in this cycle, it can be very difficult to see anything outside of it. But the truth is, most of the things that really matter are outside of that particular cycle.

Exam results tend to show, at best, knowledge attainment. I say “at best” because in fact, even that is not a full description of what these exams measure.

Using exams to measure attainment is a bit like measuring someone’s net worth by looking at their bank account today. I can see how much money you have in your account, and so I know what you’re worth. Seems legit… But what I can’t see from that raw figure is the fact that you took a loan out yesterday, which you’ll have to pay back tomorrow, so what’s in your account is only temporary, and your true worth, once the loan is repaid, is in fact much lower. This is directly analogous to what happens around exam time. Intensive cramming sessions and late night bouts of revision inflate exam results, but much of what is crammed will be forgotten within days of the exam.

Promoting exam results as the most important measure of student attainment promotes any methods that will increase these results, such as the cramming that I mentioned above, and also rote memorisation and shallow, knowledge based teaching. These methods ensure temporarily high scores, but actually offer very little long term value. But nevermind, because it is only the scores we are interested in.

Back to that bank account analogy. Something else that today’s bank balance does not show me is all of the other assets that contribute to your worth. If you own property, if you invest your money, if you have a hot new business that is attracting interest from big players in industry, then all of these things mean you’re likely worth a lot more than your bank balance suggests. All of this is analogous to the various skills and characteristics that a student might posses but that are not accounted for in standardised tests.

So the results you get from your exam could be much higher or much lower than your actual intellectual prowess for a great number of reasons. But exams do not ask for reasons; they deal only in numbers, in black and white.

And what about the word “results”? If you spend, say, 12 years in education and graduate with a grade or certificate, is that really the “result”? I might suggest that the day you leave school is merely the end of the beginning, and the entire rest of your life will show us the “results” of your education. The relationships you form, the wealth you earn, the contributions you make to society, the children you raise, the businesses you establish, the support you give to others—these are the true results of your education. But these are much harder to monitor and to measure, so instead we settle for a proxy: sit in silence for an hour and answer some questions from memory. Is that really a proxy for all of those things?

Until we stop caring so much about grades and exam results, we’re not going to be able to produce meaningful research. We won’t be able to change teaching approaches and classroom practices because everything that is recommended has been optimised for maximal grades, and if you try something out that reduces those grade outcomes by even a point or two, then your experiment will be deemed a failure, regardless of what other positive effects it might have on your students future worth.

So if we want to change anything in education, we need to move away from grades FIRST not finally.

In coming posts, I will explore some of the ideas around Going Gradeless and some of the no-grade approaches that I have used with my students.

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