Saturday used to be a cleansing breath after a week-long race. I looked forward to sleeping late and eating French toast with my family, maybe reading a novel in my pajamas or playing Yahtzee with the kids. But when my son, Jack, started middle school last fall, our relaxed routine was breached by an intruder: the automated grade report.
I registered for the school’s weekly e-mail alerts not because I was concerned about Jack’s grades, but because I wanted to participate in his education. At middle school orientation, Jack’s teachers repeatedly mentioned our district’s online reporting system. They advised parents to log on regularly for up-to-date grade listings. For our convenience, they said, we could opt to receive weekly reports in our inbox.
By the second month of school, that Saturday e-mail felt less like a convenience than a detention. While I wasn’t previously worried about Jack’s grades, the weekly reports generated anxiety. I dreaded opening the message and discovering a low score or a late assignment. My stomach clenched as I waited to see whether Jack’s grades had risen or fallen since the previous week.
I was in middle school myself when I first internalized the high stakes of grades. Academic achievement, formerly the immaterial result of curiosity, suddenly felt precarious. I was teetering along a cliff where the slightest misstep would cause me to fall. However vaguely I imagined the consequences of a plunging GPA, I worked to the bone to avoid them.
I’ve mellowed with age. As an adult, I didn’t expect to become preoccupied with middle school grades, but the automated report stirred something dormant in me. The compulsion for perfection awoke in a panic like a student who’d overslept.
Acknowledging my over-investment in Jack’s grades, I looked for a better way to engage in his education. But I found few alternatives within the existing system. With the transition to middle school, my prescribed role as a parent has shifted from partnering with Jack’s teachers to monitoring his grades. The grade report has replaced parent-teacher conferences, school newsletters, and classroom volunteer opportunities as my primary connection to Jack’s academic experience.
To some degree this shift is appropriate. As Jack takes on more responsibility, my involvement should diminish. And I can still request a conference if a problem arises. It troubles me though, that my only indication of a problem is a number on a computer screen.
What do those numbers mean, after all? Does a low score mean Jack is struggling or slacking off? Or did he miss a deadline or misinterpret an assignment? Does a high grade mean Jack is an engaged learner and an active classroom participant? Or has he simply figured out how to perform well on a test?
It turns out education reformers have questioned the value of grades for decades. Seeking advice on navigating grades as a parent, I came across an article by Alfie Kohn published in the journal “Educational Leadership.” Kohn summarizes 80 years of research to demonstrate three ways grades undermine the learning they’re supposed to measure: by diminishing intrinsic motivation, discouraging intellectual risks, and promoting superficial recall over critical thinking.
If research consistently supports the detrimental impact of grades, I wondered, why don’t we do away with grades altogether? In fact, a growing number of educators are doing just that. The Teachers Throwing Out Grades movement has generated new interest in a cause that progressive educators have championed for years.
Mark Barnes, a veteran teacher and author of “Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grade Book and Inspire Learning,” founded the Teachers Throwing Out Grades Facebook group in 2014. With more than 3,500 members, the group is an interactive community for teachers who are replacing grades with qualitative assessment. On Twitter, Barnes and like-minded educator Starr Sackstein lead a weekly chat that has generated thousands of tweets under the hashtag #TTOG. Barnes told me by phone that his social media followers represent a fraction of the tens of thousands of educators who are eliminating grades in classrooms around the world.
I wish Jack could experience education in a no-grades classroom, where assessment supports learning rather than detracting from it. I wish I myself had experienced school without grades. As a high achiever who benefited from the economy in which grades are exchangeable for access to higher education, I may seem an unlikely advocate for change. But I believe my investment in grades ultimately compromised my education. I traded curiosity for fear, exhausting myself to maintain my GPA and treading the surest path to an A.
As much as I desire an alternative path for Jack, I doubt his teachers will throw out their grade books anytime soon. So I asked Mark Barnes how parents can de-emphasize grades in favor of learning. Barnes offered a simple phrase for reframing parent-child discussions: Tell me what you did.
“I think that’s a really important questions parents and teachers leave out, that sort of summary statement,” Barnes told me. “What did you accomplish? What did you learn? What did you do on this that you’re proud of? Why did you go this way instead of that way?”
I’ve started asking Jack these questions, and I see a difference after less than a month. This week, I still felt a flutter of anxiety when I spotted the grade report in my inbox, but the conversation that followed was upbeat and productive. Jack described his approach to a recent assignment and spoke enthusiastically about a current project. When we finished talking, he thanked me for asking and gave me a hug. It may be too early for assessment, but I think Saturdays are looking up again.
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