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LISTEN — Class Disrupted Episode 7: Straight A’s for All? What’s the Purpose of a Grade?

By Michael B. Horn and Diane Tavenner | June 29, 2020

Class Disrupted is a weekly education podcast featuring author Michael Horn and Summit Public Schools’ Diane Tavenner in conversation with educators, school leaders, students and other members of school communities as they investigate the challenges facing the education system amid this pandemic — and where we should go from here. Find every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Stitcher (new episodes every Tuesday).

To accommodate for the challenges of life and education during the global pandemic, many schools and districts shifted grading systems to pass/fail metrics or, in some cases, to 4.0 GPAs for everyone. For parents accustomed to viewing letter grades as metrics of learning and for students who see straight A’s as end-all achievements, these changes raise the question: “What do we do without grades?” In this episode of Class Disrupted, we go beyond that inquiry and dive into the deeper consequences of the traditional report card system.

After hearing from a parent and college freshman whose concepts of education have been challenged by grading changes, we discuss why the A through F system exists and the unintended consequences it might have for teachers, students, and most importantly, for true learning. Is there a better way of “making the grade”?

Gary, a parent: After coronavirus happened and the kids came home and were not going to school in person anymore, originally, they said it was all going to be voluntary learning. And there’d be some resources available, but they weren’t going to grade anything or do anything. Then, they eventually decided that in terms of grades, they were going to give everybody at the high school level a 4.0 or straight A’s. I guess from my standpoint, it angered me because I don’t really understand what the point of giving everybody a 4.0 is. I keep trying to understand why they could have done this.

Hava, a college freshman: We petitioned — there was a big petition and the teachers got involved, and the faculty made a decision, and the student senate. It was a really big thing. And the grading system switched to all A’s, except it wasn’t, “You’re going to get an A on your transcript.” It’s just going to say “pandemic satisfactory,” but it’s going to be weighted like a grade. It’s going to be a 4.0 on your GPA, which means that for every single one of my classes, I would get an A.

And something that I saw that my friend posted online was that “this is how the grading system is supposed to be.” Grades aren’t good in the school system. They do all sorts of damage to kids. And I see that, my whole life, it’s not been about learning — it’s been about the grades.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Diane: Hi, I’m Diane Tavenner.

Michael: And I’m Michael Horn. Thanks for joining us for Class Disrupted. Diane, as you know, out of the many ways that the coronavirus threw schools for a loop, grades was a particularly tricky one.

Diane:  It’s true, Michael. And I know we’ve heard plenty of conversations with people like this dad, Gary, and this college freshman, Hava. Parents like Gary are confused and often angry that schools all across the country, really, have decided to opt out of grading. And mostly parents are wondering how to motivate their kids without grades. But I think that’s the wrong conversation.

Michael: And perhaps it’s no surprise, Diane, but I agree with you. And it seems like the better approach, frankly, is to go a layer deeper as Hava started to and really talk about why we have grades in the first place. To ask the question: do grades serve students? Do they serve learning and what would happen if we approached grading entirely differently?

Diane: Well, not to jump to the headline, but I think it might be great.

But I’ll hold back and say, let’s get into all of that. But first, I’m really interested in talking about how we ended up with this model in the first place. There had to be a reason for it, right?

Michael: Right, so precisely true. In the last episode, we talked a lot about how schools grew really rapidly at the turn of the 20th century and how, to handle that demand, our country turned to a factory model. All of a sudden, we had a lot of kids to educate and teachers used to be able to send home personal reports about how students were doing, but they couldn’t do that anymore. There were just too many kids. They needed some kind of unified system of sorting students for the economy of that era.

And so the reports that started as a way to communicate internally right between teacher and student, and teacher and parent, essentially transformed into a system for communicating with the outside world. Basically, a way to show who had done well on the various concepts as the students flew down the assembly line, in essence, so that we could sort students. And out of that, letter grades stuck.

Diane: And here we are still stuck with them, Michael.

Michael: Are we ever! And as you know, Diane, I’ve spent a lot of time pushing people to rethink grading as we rethink schooling. But I still remember my mom calling me up many years ago when I was in an airport, traveling between events or testifying for legislatures.

Diane: Oh no, this isn’t going anywhere good.

Michael: So she literally called me up as she often does when I’m in the airport, checking in. She literally, Diane, yelled at me on the phone for 10 minutes because of some story that she’d read in The Washington Post about a school that had abandoned A through F grading. And she kept talking about how they were dumbing down school, and, “Can I believe that schools are doing this? I have to do something about this.” And so I listened, I listened, I listened, and then at the very end of the conversation, I sort of meekly replied, “Mom, this is actually what I work on and try to get schools to do!”

I had to convince my own mom, Diane, because she was just so tied to the way that she’d gone through schooling and the way I had gone through schooling that she couldn’t imagine any other way of doing schooling except for A through F letter grades.

Diane: Well, and now coronavirus has kind of blown things up with regard to grading, and people are more willing to have this conversation, but Michael, your mother is pretty normal.

I’ve spent a long time on grades, a couple of decades on this, and I’ve heard that same story and argument over and over and over again. People are pretty suspect when I say I have serious concerns about our grading system. And usually they think that I’m going to have the tired, old complaint that’ll end in me wanting every single kid to basically get a trophy for trying.

Michael: Which I know is not what you’re saying.

Diane: That’s not what I believe in! And it couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, I care about systems that are designed to do what we intend them to do. And so, I really think the place we need to start is — and quite frankly the pandemic is driving us here — is to ask the question, “What is a grade meant to do?” And you won’t be surprised to know that I actually have an answer to this. So let me share with you what I think a grade is meant to do.

First, I think a grade is meant to very quickly communicate what someone can or can’t do or what they do or don’t know. And then second, in communicating that, a grade is meant to enable people to act on that information. So let me make that real. When we talked to Todd Rose in the last episode, he talked about admissions officers and employers sorting people and deciding if a person should be selected for a job or a program or school, and so, there you go, communicating something for selection. Or for me, more importantly, it could be a parent or a student who can then take that information from the grade and decide if they want to do something to improve where they are, or if they’re satisfied with it and if they’re happy with where they are. But they can use it to make good decisions.

Michael: OK, so if that’s the purpose of a grade, our grading system isn’t doing that job right now at all. So let’s tackle the question of acting on the information in a moment, Diane, but I want to start first with the point about grading being a way to communicate what someone can or can’t do, or what they do or don’t know. Because here’s the reality: Report cards aren’t actually conveying the information that people like my mom think they are. I don’t mean to pick on her, but they do not adequately measure what someone knows.

And I was struck in the last episode when Todd Rose talked about how there’s absolutely no link between the time it takes someone to do something and someone’s ability, and yet grades on a report card are in somany ways directly linked to the question of whether you could do something in a fixed time period that you were given.

Diane:  You know, Michael, Sal Khan talked about this, too, when he was on the podcast and he uses this really powerful analogy of a building. He asked us to think about how you would never live in a house where you built 50 percent, 60 percent, 70 percent, even 80 percent of the foundation, and then thought you could successfully build the house on top of that. Can you imagine the real estate agents saying, “Well, I got a B minus”?

Michael: Yeah, can you imagine living in that home?

Diane:  That’s crazy, right? Not comforting at all. And so, with grades, quite frankly, anything short of an A+ is really representative of less than a full solid foundation, and so that’s what’s happening in learning.

Why would we think the kids could 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? Plus, a blunt grade like that doesn’t communicate which part of the math or reading or whatever subject 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.

Michael:  Right? There’s a big gap there. And then on top of that, we know grades are capturing all this stuff that has nothing to do with the knowledge or subject matter in which you’re working. So just as an example, if I have a C in chemistry, it might actually not have anything to do with the chemistry I do or don’t know. It might be that I never turned in my homework.

Hava actually had a lot to say about what getting good grades really meant at her own private high school. So let’s hear from her again.

Hava: Parents are kind of paying the school to give kids good grades. And obviously they have to teach the kids to get the kids to have good grades — that’s how it’s supposed to work, but no one at my high school ever failed or got held back a year, anything like that.

Which is great. It’s like everybody had a lot of support, but in the same way, I grew up having access to all these tools. I knew how to ask teachers for help, and when to ask teachers for help, and how to ask teachers for extensions, and how to ask teachers to edit my essays in a way that was just enough so I’m not cheating, but I can get all the help that I need. So my world was pretty centered around grades.

Diane: Michael, none of what she said surprises me, but it does break my heart. She is pointing to how unfair grading is and illustrating what we’ve been saying throughout this podcast, which is that the system we have is not working. It isn’t meeting the needs of our society or really any individual in it.

Hava is one of the winners, Michael, she’s one of the winners of the grading system, and even she is losing in that system. The people who are getting the good grades are doing so because they’re playing a game that puts grading first and leaves the actual learning behind. No one is winning. And our most vulnerable students are the ones who are really losing.

Michael: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And so not only do grades not actually convey the information, people think they do, but what Hava is essentially saying also points to the reality that the way we grade actually causes harm, Diane. And they do that because grades actively disincentivize learning.

So I want to stretch back all the way to Episode Two of this podcast and remind folks about how we talked about the learning cycle. And, in essence, a healthy learning cycle involves setting a goal, making a plan to reach that goal, carrying out the plan, showing what you know, and then reflecting, and then making a new plan based on the information that you just gleaned and continuing around that cycle again and again. But here’s the thing, grades just don’t fit into that cycle the way they’re done, because they change your whole orientation toward just trying to get the grade, and then that’s it.

So many people talk about how high school kids aren’t curious, that they’re burned out, that they don’t want to learn, but is it any wonder? Learning hasn’t been offered to them so much as grading really has.

Diane: Michael, I’m noticing that this conversation is making me really frustrated.

Michael: I can see you boiling over.

Diane: It really strikes at my values of fairness and makes me think of a local reality that every time I think about it — it just drives me crazy. And it really takes the second problem of disincentivizing learning to a new level.

There’s this local school here that is highly, highly competitive. Most of the students in the school are gunning for really elite school admissions for college. And so what they do, believe it or not, is they take the math courses in the summer that they’re planning to take in the following school year so that when school starts up, they’re not actually trying to learn the math at all. They’re just trying to get a perfect grade in that class on their transcript. That’s just bad enough for those kids who are living that life, right? But now let’s just think for a moment about the kid who had to work during the summer, or whose parents couldn’t afford to allow that student to take the summer class, or, for whatever reason, maybe he’s just rational and doesn’t want to do a math class twice.

That poor kid is going into that classroom with all those other kids who’ve already learned the math but are playing this game. And what does the teacher think of that student? Does the teacher think that that student doesn’t know any math or is so far behind these other kids? Or that the other kids are math geniuses or this kid is never going to learn it?

Think of the label that other kid is getting because of this crazy system. And the grade is a reflection of that.

Michael: Yeah. Diane, this is just so wrong on so many levels and stepping back for a moment, it’s almost one thing if grades aren’t useful or fulfilling their purpose. And I would actually argue that much of that is grades being a symptom of the problem with the factory model education system, not the problem itself, per se. But when we go to your example and they’re actually actively causing harm, it becomes really, really disturbing.

And here’s the thing on top of that, which is the science of motivation. All this research shows that when you give people data or information like grades with no ability to do anything about it — so you give the grade and, “Sorry, that’s what she got” — it’s literally the worst thing for motivation. Seriously, if we were to design an experiment to demotivate people any more than this, we’d use grades and report cards with literally no ability to take the information and improve how you did on it. That’s what we would do to kids. We’d say, “Here’s a piece of paper, a simple letter online that’s going to label you, tell you how you did, tell you who you are, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Diane: If you go through the garbage cans in high schools you find graded papers that have just been tossed away without a student ever even looking at them because there’s no purpose in it, right? “I got the grade. There’s nothing I can do about it.” There’s no learning to happen.

Michael: No one cares about the feedback. It’s “What was it or not? And there I am.” That’s it.

Diane: Michael, and then couple that with making grades the key to future opportunities, truly making or breaking lifetime opportunities, which is how many families perceive acceptances to “good colleges,” and you’ve got the makings of a really problematic system.

Michael: Right? So we’ve broken down two very big reasons that grades just don’t make sense. But if that isn’t enough, there’s actually a third way that our system of grading causes harm and makes for the perfect storm. And this third one is not something that most people even think about, but it really makes sense once you think it through. And that is that grading, as we currently do it, creates a pretty conflicted role for teachers in the system.

Diane: That’s exactly right, Michael. And this one really cuts close to my heart. So let me start by describing what teachers are asked to do — some things that most people might not realize that teachers are asked to do.

When students apply to colleges, or for scholarships, or for programs or internships, teachers are very often asked to write letters of recommendation. Honestly, I can’t even count how many letters of recommendation I’ve written in the last two decades. And every single time, I pause and I feel extremely conflicted. Because, most often, I’m asked to rank the student I’m recommending, and I’m asked to check a box to state if this student is in the top 1 percent, 5 percent, 10 percent of all the students I’ve ever taught in my entire career.

Now, ironically, the letter is supposedly asking me to describe how this student is unique and special. But at the same time, it wants me to judge this student against every other student I’ve ever taught — to rank them, which takes me back to what Todd Rose said, which is our standardized system that is only measuring a really narrow set of things asks every student to be just like every other student, only better. Now imagine letter after letter and year after year of that, what does that do to you as a teacher? Even if you’re super careful, you are inevitably going to start mentally ranking kids in your class and ultimately in your grading.

Michael: So that creates an obvious conflict, right? The teacher is supposed to be the one teaching every single student, and theoretically, every teacher that I know wants every student to learn everything, but here we are putting them in a system that says, “Oh wait. Don’t build that foundation for every kid, because at the end of this, you’re going to have to rank these kids against each other. And you’re going to have to tell us who’s better and best and all the rest.” So if that’s the case, if you’re a teacher, subconsciously, would you even design a class expecting that every student will learn everything?

Diane: You’re calling the exact right question, Michael. If, as a teacher, I have in the back of my head all the time that at the end of the year, I’m going to have to judge these kids, it starts to have me put kids into buckets and not see them for everything they are. It limits my view, which affects how I see my students. And by the way, kids know that. It gets to a point where they start to see that they’re competing with each other instead of collaborating.

Michael: This is such a big point because it means not only do grades harm the relationship between the teacher and her students but also between the students themselves. And Carol Dweck, the famous Stanford professor known for coining the idea of growth mindset and in her best-selling book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she actually wrote this out. She said, and I’m quoting here, “When teachers are judging the students, they will sabotage the teacher by not trying.” I want to just say that one more time. “When teachers are judging the students, they will sabotage the teacher by not trying, but when students understand that school is a way for them to grow their minds, then they don’t insist on sabotaging themselves.”

So students not only know this is the case that teachers have this mindset, but it’s also negatively impacting their performance, which is insane. It’s just literally the system. We couldn’t make it any more pernicious. The only thing, and I’ll say this very cautiously, Diane, because the only thing that’s giving me a little pause is this: I’m sure many who are listening to us right now would say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. But that’s real life, right? Like ‘just tough.’” You go out into a world where you’re labeled and you’re put in buckets and it’s competitive. I mean, that’s just the world. So isn’t the purpose of school to prepare kids for that?”

Diane: OK, Michael, no, no, full stop. No. You have called several very tired arguments on this podcast, so I’m going to throw the red flag on this one. We’ve really tried to identify and put duress on these misconceptions here. So let’s look at this one this way: You’re preparing for a job you will have as an adult that exists in our real world, Michael, and that world isn’t always fair or easy, as we know. You get to pick how you will prepare and you only get two choices. The first is that you get to have a learning experience where you will master all of the skills you need to successfully do the job. And you will be given clear feedback that lets you know you’ve mastered the skills. The second choice is that you are in a system where you are trying to learn the skills you need for the job. But the system is really unfair and judges you as not as good as others, and you will only learn some portion of the skills you need to do the job. Which would you pick?

Michael: Well, when you put it that way — but seriously, when you put it that way, it seems obvious. Right? So I guess the question is why are we perpetuating a system that isn’t designed to prepare all kids for success?

Diane: I don’t know, because as we talked about last episode, we have the power to change this as a country. We’ve done this before, and the pandemic gives us a really cool opportunity to wonder, “What if this worked differently?”

I was really interested in what Hava had to say about the experience of gunning for grades her whole life and then finding herself in college — grades essentially thrown out — and realizing what really did matter to her. And it was so inspiring to hear a young person actually get that love of learning and that motivation coming back for her. So let’s hear from her one last time.

Hava: All the classes, suddenly, their meanings totally shifted for me from what they were before at school. There were two classes that I really worked the exact same amount in, before the grading switched and after the grading switched. And those classes were my government classes with this one professor named Professor John Shields.

I was taking “Intro to American Politics and American Culture Wars,” and we had these two big 13-page papers, one in each class. And I could have just not done them and gotten an A in the class. I realized the importance of why I was staying up till 1:00 a.m. during finals week, every night to do these essays. And why was I so stressed out about it when there was literally no consequence if I didn’t do it.

And it was because my professor had done a really good job in making sure that I cared about the material, and it was stuff that I was so interested in and engaged in that I wanted to do really well. And I really liked my professor and I didn’t want to let him down. That was another big thing. The importance of professor-student relationships at this point became really apparent.

It was just interesting. I feel like I had to relearn what all of these classes meant to me and relearn what learning means, too. If not for grades, what am I actually in school for? What’s the goal here? And I know that it’s for me to learn. When that became so in-my-face, and prioritizing my own learning came first, what I really cared about — the way that I saw school and classes and teachers and work — completely shifted.

Diane: OK, so here’s my takeaway. Amidst a terrible pandemic, it created an opportunity for Hava to have learned something really valuable about grades and learning. And what a gift that is that she got to realize this as a freshman in college.

Michael: Couldn’t agree more, Diane. And to be fair, there’s also some more good news for folks listening, which is that a lot of districts and states over the last several years have started to ask this question of, “What’s the real goal here around grading? And what’s the real goal around having a system that’s so fixed, as we’ve talked about, that puts the labels on people and doesn’t give you the ability to continue to learn and master your learning?”

And so we’re starting, and I don’t want to overstate it, but we are starting to see some creative solutions pop up. So just I’ll give you a couple of examples, because as you’ve said many times, we’re all about hope on this podcast.

New Hampshire and Vermont have taken some big, bold steps to start to free up high schools to rethink this and create personalized learning plans for each student to allow schools to reflect when students have actually mastered concepts, as opposed to being focused on just the letter grade and labeling.

And so they’re still early in their innovations there, but it’s encouraging. And then I would say maybe one of the most encouraging things that came out of this pandemic (amidst a sea of really rotten news of how districts have responded) was that just recently, the district of Cleveland came out and said that they’re going to get rid of A through F grades completely and move to a mastery-based system where they allow each individual student to keep on working, reflecting that learning cycle we talked about, until they can show mastery of the knowledge and skills that they’re trying to acquire.

And look, I want to make this point again, because all of these places that I just described and a bunch of others around the country who are rethinking this, aren’t starting by saying that grades are messed up. They’re starting by saying that the system is messed up.

We have to get rid of this factory model system that we’ve talked about, where time is fixed and every student learns different amounts so we get those holes in the foundation that Sal Khan talks about. But then as districts and schools are doing that, they’re realizing that grades are a key part of that factory model system and they simply don’t make sense. And so, we have to change them as we reinvent schooling.

Diane: Like you, Michael, I’m really excited about these folks who are doing this work. Cleveland is so interesting and exciting, and I can’t wait to watch what they’re doing. What I really admire and appreciate about them is that they’re totally focused on designing a system to do the job we need it to do, which is something we just keep coming back to every time we’re talking about a different subject. And so they’re working on a grading system that gives meaningful and timely feedback to students so they can grow, and learn, and get better, and ultimately master the skills they need. But we need to remember there is always a “but.”

Michael: Yeah, there’s always a “but.”

Diane: And this worries a lot of parents who wonder about the grading system we’re used to, and you know, your mom is not alone, as we said. And so how will colleges evaluate these applicants?

Michael: I hear that worry from parents all the time as well. And I think we do need to ask, “What does selection look like with this new model that we’re proposing?” And conveniently, that’s the subject of our next episode of Class Disrupted.

Thanks for listening and thanks to our awesome crew for making this all work: Jenna Free, our writer, Steve Chaggaris, our producer, and Nathan James, helping us with publicity and graphics. We’ll see you next time on Class Disrupted.

Michael Horn is the author of numerous books on the future of learning including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He works with a portfolio of organizations to help transform education so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential.

Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools and co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a lifelong educator and innovator and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.

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