What's not being graded?

The subject of grading comes to mind frequently.  Beyond the absurdity that we can actually measure somone's learning or knowledge lies our obsession with measurement... Our fetish with quantifying things.  For what reason, I'm not entirely sure - but I know that part of it is in upholding the fallacy that we have more control over things than we actually have.

Having grown up in a graded society and then taught at a non-graded school, I feel like I have some authority when it comes to the conversation surrounding grading.  From personal experience, I grew accustomed to earning the "A" and it took me 3 years out of college to realize that no one was going to continue giving me grades for being a good person, for doing my job well.

Everytime I used to admit to peers or others who engaged me in conversation about my vocation that we didn't give grades with some trepidation - I truly never knew the reaction I was going to get.  My Head Teacher used to love to share a story about her daughter who had attended our school and who had grown up in a non-graded school environment.  When she was in her first semesters of college - her first true exposure to a grades - others often ask her the presumably obivious question, "If you didn't have grades, how did you know how you were doing?"

Her response: "How does an 'A' or a 95 tell you how you are doing?  What does a grade really tell you?"

Often the conversation surrounding grading focuses on just that - how to grade, what to grade, how to divvy up the finite points on a syllabus.  But a shift occurred for me yesterday as I was immersed in Parker Palmer & Arthur Zajonc's new book The Heart of Higher Education.

Here it is: What does a grade not tell us?  What cannot be graded?  What was true about a student's experience that cannot or was not quantified in their test grade or in thie final grade?

In the asking and pondering of these questions I was able to step back a bit and generate a list:

  • A grade doesn't encapsulate how much a student struggled to learn the concepts.

  • A grade doesn't reflect the amount of compassion that student offered other students and the teacher.

  • A grade doesn't account for the quality of discussion held within the class sessions.

  • A grade cannot measure the depth of the relationships established through the learning process.

  • A grade cannot truly account for the change in a students' life and worldview upon completion of a course.

Whenever I think of grades and grading now, reflecting on what cannot be graded helps me keep things a bit more in perspective... keeps me grounded.


  1. I'd love to hear more about your experience NOT grading. I've always worked in schools where grading was required. What is a non-graded school like?

  2. Absolutely - and thanks for asking!

    I first knew something wasn't right when I was in my training to become a teacher... something about grading students just didn't feel okay to me, not in line with who I am as a person and as an educator. So as I neared graduation, I sought out a place where I could experiment with not grading. And - to be completely honest - I had no idea what system I wanted to replace grading then!

    I remember clearly a conversation about grading in one of my methods courses where I had one of those "A ha!" moments: grades, at their best, are reflections of a certain type of feedback for students... and they shouldn't be the end-all-be-all. This "A ha!" helped inform my practice later.

    The school that I taught at valued the individual and his/her uniqueness above all else (while still acknowledge that we can only be an individual relative to a larger community). We were also not so keen on ranking, normalizing, or standardizing but we discussed and processed these tendencies daily. We preferred and embraced equality of each person so the idea of assigning a number to someone just seemed ridiculous. How can Billy "be" a 87 while Julie "is" a 93?

    What we did provide for students throughout the trimesters and year was narrative feedback - all written by the students' individual teachers. We as teachers had free reign over the content of our evaluations, but many staff members shared templates with each other and conversed regularly about the best way to encapsulate a students' journey in their course in words. Some teachers decided to include rubrics to help showcase student understanding. Still others chose to include pictures and attached a DVD of the students' final project/reflections as their final assessment. The ultimate goal was to generate feedback that could be read and understood by (1) the student, (2) the parent, and (3) the larger community about the students' journey in the course.

    Now - that being said - the staff struggled constantly with the amount of time it took to complete these evaluations and over my tenure there we were able to get release time occasionally to write our reports. And, inevitably, every year there would be conflict and misunderstandings between teachers and parents and students about what a particular evaluation meant or the choice of wording. But, most of the time these conversations led to a greater understanding of the student's journey by all involved parties.

    Does that help some? I've never thought about writing more "officially" about my experiences not grading. :) Maybe that will have to go on the to-do list!

  3. Yes, that helped some. I'd still like to know much more about it. How did you incorporate rubrics? I'd be really interested to see some of the templates you mentioned that the staff shared with one another, if possible.

    Grading is such a fundamental part of most schools/classes that it is difficult to imagine what a school would look like and how it would function without it.

    One other question...what if you felt that a student really wasn't mastering the class? How did you demonstrate that?

  4. Alrighty. :) I'll work on another post - stay tuned in the next day or so. ;)

  5. I agree entirely. You still assess the student, so the skills that a student hasn't yet mastered becomes apparent, but the student doesn't get a grade. Competition inspires few and crushes most in a classroom. Grading should be replaced with the system you are advocating.

  6. I have yet to read it (pressed for time this week), but thank you for going into more detail. I'll read it asap and comment there. :)


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