Gradeless Schools: Exploring Alternative Evaluation Methods

In conversations about education, it feels like we can get caught up in the nitty-gritty. When kids, parents, and teachers are fixated on grades and scores, we risk ignoring the importance of learning.

Schools are meant to educate students. A handful of schools are so focused on this mission that they’ve stripped away anything they believe distract from this mission — like grades.

The Community High School of Arts and Academics, in Roanoke, VA, has been operating for a decade and offering feedback in the form of narrative evaluation.

Josh Chapman, the Academic Director, describes this as a system of coaching and diagnosis, rather than a system of sorting and ranking, as with traditional grades. The school is modeled after its K-8 equivalent, the Community School, an independent, progressive school modeled on the principles of John Dewey. Chapman sees students arrive at school expecting “a series of boxes to check off," and instead coming to understand learning as a continuous process.

Foregoing Letter Grades

Not all gradeless schools use narrative evaluations; there are a variety of feedback methods. For example, Stanford Law opted for a sliding scale system to indicate how closely a student’s work meets expectations, a system that is often referred to as standards-based grading. It dropped the traditional grading system to counter rising student anxiety and encourage greater innovation. Stanford offers four possible outcomes to a class — honors, pass, restricted credit, and no credit.

Public schools, feeling that abandoning a system of grades entirely would go too far, may implement standards-based grading to measure a student’s mastery of particular core concepts. In this case, parents could receive feedback such as “approaching expectations" or “meeting expectations" for a given skill.

Other common grade-free approaches include pass/fail courses, which many colleges offer, or the Montessori system, which incorporates frequent family conferences and review of student work with self-evaluation opportunities for students.

Why Go Gradeless?

There are many reasons a school might adopt a gradeless system. The founders of Community High School were frustrated by the standardization of the public schools, and wanted to create an atmosphere that not only fostered natural curiosity, but more closely mimicked (and prepared students for) the working world. Students are able to take charge of their own learning process and become more deliberate about self-assessment.

In an article published in Educational Leadership, M. Jon Dean, a principal in Bloomfield Hills, MI, points out that students are not motivated by grades themselves, but by pleasing their parents (who value good grades). Students can just as easily be motivated by the sense of mastery that comes with developing a new skill, which more closely aligns with real life anyway. In any case, traditional grades are not as objective as we might think, but rather influenced by the teacher’s perception of the student and her behavior — how many of us were marked down for lateness, after all?

In Practice

While the system takes some getting used to, Community High School has a teacher-retention rate that defies the national average because they are given more room to do the part of the job they love the most — sharing knowledge. Parents feel more involved and informed about their child’s education, and students have a greater sense of agency in school.

While the narrative system requires much more thought and energy than a typical box-checking system, Chapman has gotten grateful feedback from parents and colleges alike, who feel as though they better understand the student’s achievements.

According to Alfie Kohn, students in a typical school are not as interested in learning itself; instead, they are focused on achieving that coveted A+. Kids are less likely to take on a challenging task if it may affect their grade, and they think less deeply about ideas when they’re focused on a single letter or number to convey their achievement. When the attention shifts from these letters and numbers, school changes entirely.

The Next Step

A common concern for many parents is that student progress will not be recognized as readily by other institutions, whether a student is transferring schools or moving up to the next level such as in the college admissions process.

Educators will be the first to acknowledge that GPAs are still very subjective, often measuring student behavior or agreement with the teacher more than academic progress.

Chapman assures parents that the 20-page evaluative report that students receive is much more informative than a standard transcript (although he adds that some colleges may sigh at the extra reading). And his students don’t seem to have any trouble getting into the colleges they want to attend.

Ultimately, kids will work towards the values they are taught by the adults around them, whether this is grades, innovation, or good manners. If you feel as if foregoing the grading system may be a good option for your kids, search for schools in your community that employ standards-based grading. You can also check out this list of colleges that do not use letter grades to evaluate students.