Motivation for a Gradeless School
Bloom’s Taxonomy is a familiar sight to most folks in education. It describes processes and skills that are broad and fairly universal, from the simplest to the most difficult or complex. Here is the “revised” version of the cognitive taxonomy, from 2000:
Most evaluations target the bottom three levels: Remembering, Understanding, and Applying. The SAT is an excellent example. If you can recall a great number of facts and see the ways they apply to a given situation, you can do well on the SATs. The SATs are also easy to grade; so easy that a machine can do it.
As we go higher up the taxonomy, it becomes more difficult to assign scores. The processes become more subjective, more idiosyncratic. Many “creating” tasks fall into the realm of artistic work, which is notoriously difficult to critique well. Many art class rubrics rely heavily on completion, effort, and the use of design elements. Work that is an “A” for a gifted student will be noticeably superior to work that is an “A” for a student without much artistic talent. I’m not saying that effort doesn’t deserve credit, far from it. I’m merely highlighting the difference between grading a creative task and grading one that requires only memorization.
So if that “A” grade isn’t the same for everyone in the same class (let alone for students in different classes, different subjects, different schools), how does that leave us feeling about the validity of our students’ grades? Ego comes in, of course. We all want to be able to say, “Of course my grades are valid. I’m a good teacher.” I hear where you’re coming from, but for this topic we’ll take you being a good teacher as given. The validity of grades has nothing to do with whether you personally are a good teacher. It depends on every teacher being a good teacher in the exact same way, and not only is that the kind of educational straightjacket that I’ll never want to participate in, it’s just unreasonable.
So if grades aren’t valid, what next? How do we create something that is?
Just by asking the question you get horrible backlash. As with most serious changes in our practice, the idea of removing grades meets a lot of resistance, much of it internal. We flounder for what we could possibly do, how we could hold students to a standard, what their parents will think, how will colleges react, etc. etc. Relax. It’s not as if it hasn’t been done before. Compass Rose Academy, Jefferson County Open School, Evergreen State College, Fairhaven College, Yale Law School, and more, have all done something other than traditional grades. They use pass-fail scores, narrative evaluations, portfolios, or even score their students’ work on multiple standards without creating an overall grade. There are good sources to draw on, and a world of possibilities that haven’t even been explored yet. It’s an area ripe for innovation.
It’s not as if doing without grades will be easier. We may well spend more time on things like narrative evaluations than we would on scoring tests. Personally, however, I would prefer to take two hours of my time doing something that I believe shows a student’s true mix of talent and effort rather than spend one hour giving someone a number without true meaning. Hopefully, some day, I’ll get the chance.