Conversation Cafe – Is it time to eliminate grades in education?

Last night I attended a “Conversation Café” hosted by Brock University Department of Community Learning. The idea behind the “Conversation Café” is that they are public forums where anyone is welcome to come, share ideas, co-create knowledge, and build relationships. The conversations are usually moderated by a professor or community guest, who has an area of research related to the question being discussed, who is responsible for getting the discussion started. Each week there is a different topic being discussed, and although not all of the related directly to education a great deal to. Last night, I think many people left with more questions than when they arrived which I think is a great way to get any meaningful discussion started.
The discussion last night was around the question/topic of “Is it time to eliminate grades in education?”. The discussion was introduced by Dr. Susan Drake, a professor in the Faculty of Education who is particularly interested in innovative educational practices. When looking at “grades” it was marks or the assessment component (A, B, C) and not the grouping of students (although this could also be examined and I am sure it would be an interesting discussion).
In order to look at if it is time to eliminate grades in education, it is important to understand the historical context of “grades”  as an assessment of students in the first place. Schools are historically designed around the factory model which was designed to ‘process’ students through a standardized experience. The ‘bell curve’ was also used to distribute students in terms of norm referencing – with the majority of students receiving a ‘grade’ in the middle of the spectrum (B’s and C’s) and less students as you move toward the polar ends of the spectrum (D’s and A’s).
As time has evolved especially over the last 10 years, the assessment component in the education field has begun a transformation. More recently the belief that all students can achieve has moved to more of a ‘j-curve’ with more students at the higher end of the spectrum. Along with this ‘j-curve’ has come a lot of media attention to policys around grading such as students not receiving zero’s (For an interesting look at this topic read Joe Bower’s Giving Zeros).
The Ontario, the document “Growing Success” has been recently (2010) introduced new assessment, evaluation, and reporting procedures. Looking at assessment in terms of ‘assessment of learning’ (summative assessment), ‘assessment for learning’ (diagnostic and ongoing assessment), and ‘assessment as learning’ (reflective assessment) has adjusted the assessment practices in schools.  Assessment is now more of an ongoing process that guides instruction and is constantly informing the teacher of where each students understanding is and they are able to work with student to continue their growth. I like to think of it as a continuous feedback loop where students understanding/achievement is always improvable.
The research that is available regarding grades and feedback is interesting – as most often if there is a letter grade assigned with feedback most of the time students do not read the feedback but instead only look at the grade. I quickly noticed this at the beginning of my teaching career – after spending hours coming up with valuable feedback to students and then seeing them not really care about anything more than the grade. A recent edition of Education Leadership focused specifically on Feedback for Learning is an excellent source of many articles related to this topic. One of the best articles from that month was by Grant Wiggins  – Seven Keys to Effective Feedback.
Some people now wonder if it is time to eliminate grades as a form of assessment in education altogether.
Why do we need grades? was a question that came up during the conversation and the answers were interesting. “To get into university” was one answer that came from the crowd – but is that really the best way to determine if someone possesses the skills to be successful in university? Another person suggested that he was motivated by grades and things that were not for a grade he didn’t usually try as hard on. This comment was one that struck a cord with me because at this point the person is not completing the task for the learning experience and what was to be learned from completing the assignment but was instead doing it for a reward.
Some of the questions that were still circulating at the end of the evening included:
How do grades take away from the learning experience?
Could students learn the same/more without ‘grades’ and more focus on providing effective feedback for learning.
How do we educate parents/society about the changes happening in terms of assessment?
Overall, it was an interesting and engaging discussion. It was refreshing to speak with a wide cross section of people that are not necessarily teachers to get their views as well.
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