An interesting discussion started at our Infinity School when one of our parents said that a friend’s hesitancy in sending their children to this school was that there weren’t grades assigned.
While it is true that we don’t assign grades, the reality is that all of our students achieve 90% or greater on their academic programs; with our focus on mastery, the students are given the time and tools necessary to achieve excellence and confidence in all of their subjects.
The comment from our parent’s friend has sparked great conversation about the usability, accuracy, and relevance of a traditional grading system. Some of the questions that came up are explored here:
What does a grade actually tell us about how much a child knows?
Having taught in different schools for over ten years, I can tell you this: we’re not entirely sure. For example if the letter-grade system is used, which is very general in nature, when a student gets a “B,” you’d expect that this child has a fairly good understanding of the material. If you tested that student again, you’d expect him or her to get about 80% of the questions on a test right; but we don’t really know what that means in a more subjective topic like art, physical education, or writing.
Also, does this grade truly represent this student’s knowledge and comprehension? Did this child study the night before, remembered the material for the test, but will forget it shortly? Did the child get lucky and get asked the few questions that he/she actually knew? Did the child cheat on the test? Did he get high marks for participation but couldn’t really do the task well? What was the criteria for getting this grade, and was that criteria generated in a reasonable manner? Did the teacher dislike the child and refuse to give him an “A”?
Before I removed my children from public school to start this Acton Academy program in London, ON, I asked my son’s classroom teacher about the PE teacher who gave him a B in PE. I asked this: “Gym is his favourite subject. He is a highly skilled athlete with a ton of energy who does everything the teacher says. Why didn’t he get an A?”
His classroom teacher’s response was this: “Oh, that’s certainly true but this teacher gives everyone a B.”
Principal Ryan McLane (Teach Like A Pirate) said this about grades in the post, Why Grades Should Reflect Mastery, Not Speed:
“Simply putting a grade in the grade book an moving on is the exact reason why public schools are in the position they are in today. This process begins early in a child’s education when a child never learns the necessary skills, and then continues to fall further and further behind [as the class moves ahead].”
Are grades based on knowledge acquisition still relevant given our easy access to information via technology?
Is a 75% grade in a biology class, which was based on how well a child remembers the parts of a cell really important? A child could just look up a diagram of the cell anytime on his cell phone, tablet, or laptop and use that to help with the problem at hand. How he/she is able to use and analyze the information is far more important than the simple memorizing of facts.
What is the purpose and value of grades in this day and age?
We know that one of the roles of grades is to provide feedback to the students and parents about how much students learned or to shine a light on gaps in their learning. Grades can also be used as a communication tool between parents and teachers.
A common feeling is that grades (and good grades at that) are crucial to getting into higher education programs. Given the abundance of home-schooled students, and those attending alternative education institutions, most of these programs do now accept portfolios instead of grades; the more tangible examples of their learning are often looked at positively compared to the inherent uncertainty behind a simple grade point average. It will be interesting to see how the acceptance requirements will change to reflect the changing styles of assessing learning in this 21st century.
In our school, we use many different styles of communication and tracking methods so that grades are not needed for that purpose. Families have many ways to follow their child’s progress on a daily and weekly basis.
To answer the question about how all of our students are getting at least 90% average, the important thing to note is that they continue to work on something until they achieve mastery. They move on when they are able to demonstrate their learning at a 90% rate.
This might mean that one child who is eleven is getting 90% in “grade three” math; however, that child will be better able to tackle “grade four” math now than he would if he was forced to move on at age nine, getting only 55% . He can now feel confident in his knowledge and, therefore, more brave as he moves on to more challenging concepts.
In the same regard, we have younger students getting 90% in much higher-level material because their brains can zoom ahead and tackle more complex learning. They don’t need to be held back by the pace of the class.
Does your current employer care what your elementary, junior high, or high school marks were?
Did your potential employers ask you about your grades? Mine did not and I’d guess that most do not. As an employer myself, I have never asked someone in an interview about their school grades.
When our students apply for jobs or higher education programs in the future, they can feel confident in the real life skills they have learned – like critical thinking, adapting to change, and conflict resolution — in addition to ones like being able to write well, do mental math, ask good questions, and speak well.
It is very exciting to be able to critically analyze traditional educational practices that have been in place for over a hundred years, shedding those that are no longer relevant, and creating new systems to let kids soar.
*Infinity School is an Acton Academy program in London, ON, Canada. If you have questions or would like to talk more about this topic, please do look through our website and contact us anytime. You might also like to visit our Facebook page to gain a “day-in-the-life” glimpse of our school.