An argument against summative grading

Beth Still asks in a recent blog post

After being on Twitter for nearly 3 years I have learned to spot a bandwagon from a mile away. The latest bandwagon to come along has the words, “Let’s Abolish Grades!” written on the side of it. Maybe I am not as forward thinking or as innovative as I thought I was, but I don’t get this movement. Grades, whether they are letter grades, percentages, scales, or something else help students, parents, and teachers measure growth and progress and also indicate the level at which a student is performing (average, below average, above average). Students are admitted or denied access to certain programs, classes, and other things based on grades. Many times grades dictate scholarships and scholarships dictate where a student will attend college. This decision will have a lifelong impact on a person.

I responded

"I have no choice but to put zeros in their gradebook." Surely this isn’t true? A zero on an assignment is a slap in the face, and it certainly does nothing to encourage learning. You are not grading the student’s achievement, you are grading their behaviour. Those two areas need to be kept distinct from each other.

Here are my arguments against grading:

1. They are a shallow measure, they don’t tell the whole story. As a parent, I’d much rather have a complete picture of my son’s abilities rather than a brief summary.

2. They have a very high margin of error but are used for ranking students. Different teachers grade differently, use different assignments, but then students are all measured as if this wasn’t true. This is the equivalent of one scientist measuring in feet, and another in inches, and having them compare results without converting units.

3. They are so final! They end the learning rather than being an indicator of where further growth is. "Okay, well we finished that end of unit exam, here’s your grade. We’ll never think about that topic again."

4. They communicate the wrong message to students. Here is your F, clearly you know nothing about American History, or here is your A, now you know everything. Really? You can tell that a student knows nothing because of a letter they received?

5. Generally you know within a few DAYS of working with students what grades they will end up with at the end of the semester. To me, that says that the system must be rigged, because how could we possibly know what our students are likely to learn in advance of them learning? It’s like knowing the entire outcome of an experiment you’ve never done before.

6. They are used to rank students, schools, parents, communities. If you don’t think ranking is all that bad, remember that some educators careers, and student’s aspirations for the future are often dependent on a tiny variation between a "passing grade" and a failing one.

7. Grades are a cheap and easy substitute for parental involvement. "We absolve you of actually getting to know your child’s strengths and weaknesses within a subject area because we are going to give you the final summary of what they know in a single grade." Parents don’t have to feel guilty that they don’t know their children because they know their grades instead. This might be a little far-fetched, but think of the parents who act upon the final grades that their kids receive with punitive measures, rather than taking the time during the semester to be part of the learning process with their children.

I grade my students at my school, while recognizing that it is not a perfect system. It is a substitute for having sufficient time with parents and students to communicate the detail I think they deserve about their learning. We split the grade into "approaches to learning" and a summative score, which does help mitigate at least one of the issues Beth brings up in her post but I still find students searching for the final grade rather than being more curious about their learning progress.

I had a student recently who came to me after an exam, and told me she felt like she hadn’t done well. We sat down and went through her exam, and I gave her feedback on each question. We clarified what she understood, and where she had difficulty. It took about 30 minutes to go through the entire exam. I didn’t give her a mark, and say, "yep you did poorly now go away," I took the time to listen to her, find out what she felt like she understood, and give her the feedback she needs to improve her learning.

I recognize that I can do this because I have very small classes, and spending 30 minutes here or there with students to communicate feedback isn’t as big an issue as it would be with gigantic classes. To me, the biggest argument for a reduced class size is not that the students are "easier to manage" or that there is less grading, it is that you actually have the time to give students real feedback about their learning rather than a quick and dirty summary grade.



  • It’s a broad brush to paint all these practices as summative. All of my >grading< is now summative: what matters is where my students are at the end of the semester. Most of my >assessment< is formative.

  • David,
    I couldn’t agree more. I am definitely pulled between the philosophy of the abolishment of grades and the system that requires me to give them. Too often we substitute real learning or real conversations with an arbitrary number that placates deeper connection. As I have been increasing the time I spend talking about learning with students they are ready to convert. Parents are too when they hear it is better for their child and feel included in the dialogue. Too often, we use parents or students as the road block, without giving them the proper time to follow the process of unlearning that grades are everything. It takes time.
    This is a great post.

  • I think you’re onto something with regard to grading. Even when I’ve gotten an ‘A’ in a class or on an assignment, it hasn’t felt very satisfying. I’d much rather receive feedback on what I did well and how I could improve, since there is always room for improvement. I think that one of the problems with grading as it is currently structured is that students are scored assignment by assignment. Sure you can see progress throughout the year if you continue to give similar assignments, but it would be so much more helpful to students and parents if students were graded by outcomes where an assignment might be a particular indicator for an outcome.

    Matt Townsley was exploring Standards-based grading a year or two ago in his blog MeTA Musings, and I really liked what he had to say. Here are a couple of his posts:

    Just some more food for thought. There are lots of other people who are exploring alternatives out there.

  • I almost entirely agree. When it comes to work throughout the semester I am looking into not using grades. I wrote a post yesterday about this. I have been working for the last several years to find a way to motivate students to really learn, and not just do what is necessary (with continual guidance) to complete the exercise. I have been conflicted because I have given students who could not complete work on their own, and who would never be successful in industry passing grades, while students who could do the work, but had to miss class due to work, or had unexpected situations come up dropped or failed, just because of not completing work that made up the portions of the final grade.

    When my son enters school I would be thrilled if I would get more detailed information that just a letter grade. I know that it would have made me work harder when I was in K-12. It wasn’t until i was in college that I came to the realization that an education wasn’t just passing a class, but being able to apply what you learned to a situation.

    Being in Higher Education I see the need for a easy to understand way to see if someone understand the material in a course. It would be really meaningful if it was all based on the same scale. With instructors choosing what determines an A in their course you don’t know if someone was the best student in a bad class that was curved, or really mastered the material. i remember one class that after the test the instructor would draw a frequency table on the board and then draw lines where the grade breaks were. this translated directly to the final grades where two students who were within several points on each exam, and had the same level of knowledge received different final grades because only so many A could be earned.

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