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Is This the End of Grades?

Classrooms, schools, and districts are abandoning the traditional method of grading with letters and percentages. Find out why and learn what's next for gauging student success. 

Erin Werra

Student Success Surveyor

What do your report cards look like? If you’re imagining a black-and-white grid populated exclusively by the first few letters in the alphabet, you may just be in the minority.
Classrooms, schools, and districts are abandoning the traditional method of grading with letters and percentages. Why? Research shows this method fails to convey a reliable assessment of what students know.
Little by little, educators are moving toward alternative methods of grading—and parents are getting on board, too. Let’s explore a few ways schools are gauging student success in place of traditional methods.


All grades: Competency-based learning

Competency-based learning is closely related to proficiency-based, mastery-based, outcome-based, and performance-based learning. All describe the process of assessing which skills students have mastered and whether or not they can demonstrate skills mastery. Competency-based learning shows little or no regard to time spent in the classroom (“seat time”), frees students to learn outside the classroom, and often groups students by skill level, not age.
Standards-based learning is related, but not identical. Both require students to learn predetermined skills—for example, grade-level state standards. However, standards-based learning is more often associated with a seat time requirement in order to obtain a passing grade, and it more closely resembles traditional grading when communicating with parents.
Competency-based learning requires flexibility in classroom organization but gives students a little more freedom to learn. Teachers may also adapt their language to focus on skills instead of grade level. Instead of saying “Let’s work in the Kindergarten classroom,” to a struggling first grader, you might say, “These students are working on their sight words. Let’s go join them.”
Rather than graduating from grade to grade, students work at mastering specific skills, then move on to the next. This also requires flexibility and patience. After thoughtful, incremental iteration, one educator rebuilt the class syllabus to be more learner-centric. Instead of a passive checklist of assignments, he introduced active learning journeys aligned to three key components of learning: foundational learning, collaborative learning, and demonstration of mastery.
For proof competency-based learning can in fact work, look no further than the Granite State. New Hampshire is a leader in competency-based education—over a decade ago, the state approved measures to award academic credit based on demonstration of mastery instead of seat time.
New Hampshire high schools have embraced this method, but K–8 classrooms have struggled to follow suit. To that end, they’ve adopted the No Grades, No Grades (NG2) system of personalized learning to eliminate grades (as in letter-based grading) and grades (as in grouping students by age) in order to tackle the tricky business of assessing student mastery at the elementary level.

For early learners: Badging 

Badging (including digital badging) lends itself well to grading learners, particularly the youngest learners. The combination of gamifying learning and recognizing positive behavior satisfies essential components of early childhood education, and introduces grading in a developmentally appropriate way.
“Imagine mastery-based grading, add colors, and you have our badging system.” –Leaders of Pennsylvania’s Elizabeth Forward School District, contributed to EdSurge
Although young learners are at a crucial point in brain development, traditional percentage- and letter-grade systems are developmentally beyond their grasp, and often mean little to them. By earning badges, especially colorful ones, even the littlest learners can take ownership of their education.
The skills-based system is ideal for personalizing learning at a young age, but older students are geared for “leveling up” toward mastery thanks to video games. For more mature students who aren’t as fond of construction paper crafts, consider implementing a digital badging system based on skills they need to master.
Setting up a digital badging system doesn’t have to be difficult, costly, or time-consuming. Look into tools and communities like BadgeList, which has safeguards in place to protect student privacy. Remember, incremental change is the name of the game when making a big shift in grading systems.

For soon-to-be grads: Laude system 

In high school, grades can be a source of tremendous pressure from parents, teachers, counselors, college admissions, and students’ intrinsic desires to prove themselves. For high performers, a literal Top 10 list personifies the competitive nature inherent to using grade point average (GPA) for class rank.
A student’s GPA and class rank are rarely accurate measures of performance. Students today have a vast array of class choices, so comparing GPAs from different districts isn’t a valid science. Students in small schools also face difficulty, since the tiny population making up the top percentage of the class increases the competitive pressure.
Relieving this intense, yet essentially meaningless pressure is top-of-mind for many high school administrators, many of whom are exploring the laude system to recognize academic honors.
The laude system encourages rigor while decreasing competitive pressure between students. Multiple students can earn highest honors (summa cum laude), high honors (magna cum laude) and honors (cum laude). Colleges recognize this system and already use it, and most high schools no longer report class rank.
More than 20 high schools in Wisconsin alone have moved away from reporting class rank. Some of these schools, including ones in Manawa, Neenah, Waunakee, and Sheboygan Falls, are also implementing a laude system. Be aware this system can seem complicated and hard to understand. Make incremental changes, and give parents and students ample opportunities to ask questions.

The end of grades? Not quite yet.

As it turns out, grading methods are evolving, and traditional letter and percentage grades are inching their way out. That said, schools need some way to gauge student mastery, whether it’s a formal report or informal award.
The best advice we can give? Communicate, communicate, and communicate some more. When introducing any type of alternative grading system, it’s best to exhaust all methods of communication with parents and other members of your community—otherwise, parental objections can really disrupt the process.
When faced with big changes, people tend to want to hold on to the familiar territory, even when it’s not the best thing for students. For the best chance of success, teach parents to understand the new grading system, and share the research and impetus behind the move to alternative methods.
To learn more about introducing mindful, meaningful change to your district, check out “Design Thinking for School Leaders.”


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