Tuesday, June 1, 2010


I have been battling in my head about grades. It comes down to one essential question:

Is a grade an average of test scores or is it a measure of competence?

I was reading Alfie Kohn's essay on rubrics. Then I went on to his work on grades. He doesn't like either. I'm having a hard time disagreeing with anything he says. I've been discussing it with colleagues on twitter and here at school and I think I've come up with these basic rules:

1. Rubrics don't work. They stifle creativity and we end up teaching to the rubric.
2. Grades should not be a motivation device. Too often grades are used to measure behavior (attendance, discipline, penmanship, etc...).
3. Grades should measure growth. Yes, this means my A- might not mean the same as your A-.
4. Students and teachers shy from authentic, continuous assessment.

I have thought about two models from very successful groups I have been in:

1. Newtown High School band circa 1986 or so. We had two grades per year--the midterm and final exam. Your grade on the exam set your grade for the next two marking periods. This was definitely measuring competence. You could earn an additional point for making All-State. Now, Mr. Grasso had about 200 kids to grade so he decided to spend two full weeks per year 8am-5pm assessing individual progress. He gets points for efficiency. Effective--heck yeah--we worked our tails off.

But he assessed us constantly in rehearsal. We had to have our A game every single day. We were always getting feedback, just not as a grade.

2. Oberlin. You played bad you were out of the group. End of story. Nobody cared about their grade. Again, serious assessment every single day, but grades were largely irrelevant. Four years there and not one conversation about grades.

Does anyone have a grading model that works?