Another "Grades Are a Barrier To Learning" Post

My three loyal readers of this blog (I count as one) have heard me rant about the problem of grades before. I do it often. And I'm going to do it again. But this time it will be different. Kinda. 

This weekend, our local newspaper ran an article entitled "Passing on Grades." It looks to alternatives to traditional grading, and the need to find new models for measuring learning. The article offers the following case-study as a way of highlighting, first, the potentials of making this shift...
Juniata College student Anna Oldenbrook attended Jefferson County Open School, a public school in her home state of Colorado. There were multi-aged students in classrooms of eight, and no grades given; the education was all project-based and individualized, she said. 
Each student had an individualized education plan. 
“I loved it,” she said. 
“We still had to do statewide testing, but the teachers never ‘taught to the test.’ They would say ‘OK guys, this is how we keep our funding. Do your best. You’ll do fine.’ 
So far so good, right? A student leaving high school with a genuine love of learning--and a healthy degree of skepticism regarding education's status quo.

But there's just one tiny problem...
Applying to colleges was a bit difficult without a grade-point average. . . . She applied to New York University and was well on her way until the time came for the university to review her transcript and GPA, which she didn’t have. She was rejected. 
“I submitted a portfolio. It was 54 pages that I wrote all myself. People didn’t read it,” she said. 
Her portfolio included summaries of several projects she completed during her high school career along with a self-reflection for each one and handwritten feedback from teachers regarding the strengths and weaknesses revealed through the projects.
OK, so... NYU probably gets eleventybillion applications every year. GPA is likely one way to trim down their piles. I get it. Practicalities. A portfolio might demonstrate a love of learning. But... only so many hours in the day.

Of course, Juniata did look at her portfolio and she ended up at this very good school.

Everything's good, until...
Once on campus at Juniata, she realized her perception of education was a bit different from that of her peers, who were used to chasing grades. 
“I would hear my classmates at Juniata saying, ‘All I need is a 69 percent to pass this class,'” she said. 
She seemed to be less concerned with a grade and more concerned with how to apply what she was learning. 
“I think the kind of experience I had creates more passion for education,” she said.
All told, this story brings to the surface two important points.

First, let's rethink how we categorize "elite" schools. Sure, NYU has a great reputation. Awesome scholars everywhere you look, and The Rankings. Oh, The Rankings! But if someone like this student had no chance there, then maybe the best and brightest should take their talents elsewhere. Like to Juniata. Or Saint Francis. Malcolm Gladwell makes a great case for this in his podcast episode, "My Little Hundred Million."

Second, I have said and keep saying that grades are a barrier to learning. The student featured in this story discovered this just as soon as she arrived at Juniata. "Gotta get that grade!" But wait??? Isn't learning supposed to do something? Shouldn't engaging with new ideas be life-affirming, productive, and compelling--for its own sake???



Chasing after grades is a sort of intellectual idolatry. It elevates random numbers and letters to sacred status, and forces a deadening loyalty to this system. It's a system that produces anxiety and unrest for everyone involved. In contrast, real learning inspires, engages, and liberates. Every professor got into this business because of their deep love of a particular subject. This is what we want to share with our students.

I know that this is one of those "the devil is in the detail" sorta things. No system for documenting learning is going to be perfect. So whatever I can imagine to replace grades would no doubt have its own issues. And I have plenty of experiences where grades have been helpful--they can mark a noteworthy achievement, or become a way to nudge students into working harder or caring about a particular subject.

But overall, I see more problems with traditional grading. That's why it is heartening to hear stories like these, and to know that other people are seeking better alternatives too.