12 Alternatives To Letter Grades In Education

by Terry Heick

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Few artifacts of formal learning are as iconic as the letter grade.

What can I do to get an A?

She’s a C student.

He’s always gotten As and Bs in all of his classes.

Then we turn the letters into numbers–letter grades become averages of letter grades, which, when calculated, determined whether or not a learner qualifies to play sports, get into college, or thinks of him or herself as “smart.”

She has a 4.0 GPA.

You’re not getting into Stanford with that GPA.

It is an incredibly powerful symbol that isn’t going to be erased by long-winded rhetoric. Learners and families–far and away the most vested stakeholders in education–understand them. They “get” what a B means, and what an F means.

The issue is, in all honesty they probably don’t.

The Failure of the Letter Grade

The letter grade fails because its job–to communicate learning results to learners and families—cannot possibly be performed a single symbol.

Further, the letter grade “pauses” learning–basically says that at this point, if I had to average all of your understanding, progress, success, and performance into a single alphanumeric character, it’d be this, but really this is over-simplifying things because learning is messy and understanding is highly dynamic.

But parents don’t want to hear about understanding because it’s grey area that doesn’t make sense. It sound like spin. It’s subjective. Complex. They want it to be distilled for them–and rightfully so, but that reduction dissolves the honesty of the learning process. Conversations with parents turn most frequently on missing work, learner temperament and/or attendance, and the letter grade, but rarely on knowledge, curiosity, or the ability to evaluate information.

So that leaves education in a tight spot. Parents need capacity as bad as the education system itself.

While standards-based grading is one attempt to reduce how subjective letter grades are–measure and report proficiency based on standards as “grades”–this is only a step in the right direction. Here, at least parents know what a grade is based on, but they still don’t know any more about what their son or daughter understands.

The ideal “response” here isn’t a single change, but a total merging of schools and communities. But until that happens, there are options.

12 Alternatives to Letter Grades

1. Gamification

A comprehensive systems of badges, trophies, points, XP, achievements. This uncovers nuance and is capable of far more resolution and precision than a letter.

2. Live Feedback

Here, students are given verbal and written feedback immediately–as work is being completed. Live scoring without the scoring and iteration. No letters or numbers, just feedback.

3. Grade–>Iterate–>Replace

In this process, work is graded as it traditionally has been, then, through revision and iteration, is gradually improved and curated. Eventually “lesser” performance (as determined by students, peers, families, and teachers) is replaced by better work, but without the grades. Grades jump-start the revision process, and that’s it.

4. Always-on Proving Grounds (Continuous Climate of Assessment)

In this model, assessment never stops–the result of one assessment is another. Not tests, but demonstrations. It doesn’t stop, so rather than halting the process to assign a letter, the process continues on.

5. Standards-Based Reporting

This one replaces letters with numbers, so it’s really not much better, but it can reduce the subjectivity of grading.

6. “So? So What? What Now?”

Here, students are asked–and ask themselves–at the end of every assignment–So, So What? What Now? This is similar to #4 above, but leaves the next step up to the student. Okay, you’re “finished” with this work. Now:

So: What did you “do”? Summarize details and big picture

So What? Why was this work important?

What now? What is the logical next step with this assignment, idea, or topic?

7. Metacognitive Action/Reflection/Narrative/Anecdotal

This approach dovetails behind #6. Rather than halting the learning process with a letter-as-performance-indicator, instead learners are tasked with reflecting on their thinking process–not as a patronizing “tell the teacher what they want to hear” activity on an exit slip walking out the door, but as a measure of their understanding and intellectual growth. This can be based on metacognition, reflective on the progression through the content, or more anecdotal about the learning process itself.

8. Curating the Highlights

A variation of the reflective and anecdotal approach, curating the highlights amounts to the student and teach getting together to extract the highlights of an assignment, or the process of project-based learning.

9. Pass/Fail

No letter grade–you either pass or fail. Not a great solution to anything other than the shades of grey between an A and a D, but an alternative nonetheless.

10. P2P, S2S, or Mentor Celebration

Gather with peers within and across schools to celebrate academic and learning success. No grades necessary–just planned visibility from the start of the project with a diverse groups of peers. Peer response can also be embedded throughout a lesson or unit by design, rather than only at the end as a summative evaluation.

11. Non-points-based Rubrics

This is much like the current systems–student performance is still evaluated against a rubric, but not grade or points are ever assigned. It is up to the student and their family to determine “how they did.” The goal of the teacher is not to grade students, but rather to support learners. Students will wiggle and writhe trying to turn the rubric’s assessment into a letter grade, and that’s fine. As a teacher, you’ve moved on to taking data from that performance to plan the next steps.

12. Publishing

Make all learning public. Publish it. It can by anonymous if necessary, but it’s visible to families, peers, and communities. Peers can collaborate on revisions, families can respond, communities can celebrate or scoff, but the process has been decentralized and, in a way, democratized.

This approach won’t work for every student every time, but the idea is sound–return the stakeholding to the stakeholders.

*previously published at TeachThought.com


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