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Is it time to retire letter grades?

COVID-19 has exposed the limitations of many educational structures, including a grading system that has outlived its usefulness. Are K-12 leaders bold enough to make systemic changes?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been incredibly disruptive to education, hindering instruction and other services for thousands — perhaps millions — of K-12 students across the United States. But those who see the glass as half full would say it has also presented schools with a unique opportunity for change.

Count Michael Horn among these optimists. In his podcast series “Class Disrupted,” Horn — an author and consultant who focuses on the future of education — has teamed up with Diane Tavenner, co-founder and CEO of the Summit Public Schools charter network, to discuss how the sudden shift to remote learning this past spring exposed the limitations of many educational structures we take for granted. Yet, it also suggests what might be possible if K-12 leaders are bold enough to see a new way forward, Horn and Tavenner agree.

For instance, a lot of the time wasted in transitioning from one class to another during a traditional school day could be reclaimed for learning and practicing essential life skills, they say. The factory-style model that herds students in groups from class to class could be replaced by a more personalized, student-centered approach that caters to each child’s unique interests and learning needs. And the letter-grade system that schools have been using to evaluate student learning for generations could be supplanted by a mastery-based grading system that gives stakeholders much more insight into what students know.

Rethinking the purpose of grades

As Horn noted in his podcast, many school systems adopted a pass-fail grading system instead of giving out letter grades to students this past spring — and some even chose to give every student an “A” instead.

Although their reason for doing so was well-intentioned — because not every student had the same access to high-speed internet service and other learning resources from home, it wouldn’t be fair to compare what students were able to accomplish — this practice revealed the shortcomings of using a letter-grade system in the first place.

If everyone gets an A, what’s the point of even having a grading system? Or, as Horn asked in his podcast: “Do letter grades serve students? Do they serve learning? What would happen if we approached grading differently?”

An assessment system should quickly communicate what students know and can do, Tavenner said. However, that’s not the purpose being served by letter grades today. A letter grade doesn’t give any deeper insight into what skills and concepts students know; it’s simply a shorthand for rating (and therefore ranking) a student’s ability.

Letter grades were established when not every student was expected to go to college, and one of the functions of a school was to sort students by ability. Yet, K-12 education has advanced beyond this way of thinking. The goal of schools today is to ensure that every student learns foundational skills that are critical for success in work and life.

“Why would we think the kids who know how to read 60 percent of the way, or understand algebra 70 percent of the way, would then later be able to read and understand complex texts or do advanced math?” Tavenner observed. “Plus, a blunt grade like that doesn’t communicate which part of the math or reading the student didn’t master. So what is the 60 percent? What is the 40 percent? It doesn’t tell you anything other than they don’t have a full foundation.”

As Horn explained further during an interview, giving everyone an A or a pass/fail grade this spring was intended not to penalize students — but in reality it did just that. It shortchanged those who continued to learn by not capturing this growth, and it failed to serve the kids who weren’t able to learn as well, because schools now don’t have an accurate record of where their growth ended and what they still need to learn in order to advance or be ready for next year.

A grading system based on mastery — whether it’s a portfolio that showcases student work, or standards-based grading that details the growth and mastery of discrete skills — would have addressed these issues. Having a richer tableau with which to document students’ learning “would have allowed schools to give students more substantive feedback on how students were progressing during remote learning,” Horn said, “while also affirming the learning that students continued to do from home.”

Changing people’s mindset

Moving away from the use of letter grades raises important questions: How can K-12 leaders implement a system that is more meaningful for students, while still giving colleges and employers the information they need to evaluate graduates? How can students differentiate themselves without using a grade point average? How can leaders reassure parents that breaking from convention won’t harm their children’s prospects of getting into an elite university?

While these concerns should not be dismissed entirely, Horn believes they’re overblown.

“Colleges have more capability than is popularly assumed to use different grading mechanisms to evaluate candidates,” he said. “We’re also seeing more initiatives like the Mastery Transcript Consortium, which is working with school districts and colleges on alternative ways of showcasing what students know and can do.”

A grading system that provides deeper insight into students’ skills would also make it easier for colleges and employers to assess how likely graduates are to be a good fit for their institution. As for how students can differentiate themselves, Horn imagines a system in which students aren’t limited by arbitrary grade-level barriers, but instead can demonstrate their passion for learning by taking their education farther, or deeper, than the curriculum calls for.

“I can imagine these systems evolving over time,” he said, “so that colleges could evaluate the pace of a student’s learning and also the direction and depth of that learning. If a student was really good at a particular subject, how deep did he or she go into it? Did the student showcase his or her passion?”

And if students and parents are still concerned, schools can always maintain letter grades alongside a mastery-based grading system, Horn added.

Transforming the grading process — or making wholesale changes to other traditional systems and practices — requires changing people’s mindset, as Todd Rose, author of The End of Average, observed in an earlier episode of the Disrupting Class podcast. To do this effectively, Horn said, leaders must be very transparent in communicating their intentions, while leading with the “why.”

“If you articulate your values as a school system, and explain how the traditional grading system doesn’t reflect those values,” he said, “then when you get to the actual grading change, people will say, ‘Yeah, of course we would do that,’ because they want to make sure all students master the vital content and skills needed to function in society.”

This is something that Eric Gordon, CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, has been working on in his school system. Gordon has floated a plan that would replace the traditional model in which students move up to a new grade level automatically each year with a mastery-based system of advancement.

“We’ve got opportunities here to test, challenge, and maybe abandon some of these time-bound structures of education that have never really conformed to what we know about good child development,” Gordon reportedly told the school board in May.

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Dennis Pierce

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