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 In Hashavua Article

When I was in college I took a class that required me to submit a weekly “position paper”. Inevitably most of my grades were in the B+ range. Much to my surprise, at the end of the semester I ended up with an A in the class. Of course I was quite happy about this unanticipated turn of events. I was also a bit perplexed and wanted to make sure that this wasn’t a mistake, so I went to speak to the class T.A. She shared with me that when the professor looked at the final grades, he felt uncomfortable giving me a lower grade than some of my peers to whom he had been giving higher grades all along. In his mind, the weekly B+ grades were because he felt that I was capable of more and wanted to motivate me to try harder. At the same time, the objective quality of my work relative to the class, was within the threshold of an objective A in his mind.

What should an A mean? Should it be relative to an objective standard? Should it be relative to peers in the class? Should it be relative to one’s potential?

This has been a question that I have pondered for many years, and one that I brought with me to Yavneh when I arrived over five years ago. As our faculty first began exploring these questions shortly after my arrival, it became apparent that there was a wide range of opinions and approaches within this single institution (as I believe is the case in many institutions). Society pushes the value of an A so strongly, and schools are so motivated to satisfy their constituents, that grade inflation has become the norm at many schools. The university that my two eldest children attended specifically fought grade inflation for decades, capping the number of students who receive A’s in any given class at 35%. After feeling that this “grade deflation” might be hurting admissions, the policy was recently reversed.

In true Yavneh fashion, we began looking at the “why” behind grades. Reasons seem to center around three basic ideas:
– “Better Get Used to It”, i.e., students need grades because the whole world is based on grades.
– Grades are a way to communicate student performance to students and parents.
– Grades are an effective way to motivate student learning.

Momentum is gaining against grading in research and in institutional practice. And while there may be some who are not yet convinced, I thought I would share some thoughts and observations about the subject. I hope you view this as an invitation to join the conversation and not a specific call to action, as our faculty and leaders continue to explore what is best for our community.

As far as the notion that the world operates on a grading system, it generally doesn’t. Yes, some people receive feedback on their performance at work (though not usually as grades per se), but I don’t view that as justification for giving grades to a twelve year old. If a student is truly motivated to learn material, that should be enough to have them succeed in any system of assessment in the future, including high school and college. Schools around the country, including Union Middle School, are experimenting with new assessment models. Some of the most prestigious high schools in the nation have now joined a Mastery Transcript Consortium, which will be reimagining how student’s skills and abilities are communicated for college admissions.

And ideally, parent-teacher communication should be ongoing and more meaningful than transmission of letter grades. Regular family conferences, emails and comments on work should provide a clear picture to parents of student learning and achievement.

Which leaves the question of grades as a motivator for learning.

Mostly, we want our students to want to learn, to actually learn and to always want to learn more. It is my feeling that if we can embed a love of learning we have achieved our biggest academic goal. So how does that interface with our school’s approach to student learning?

I listen to teacher frustrations:

Often when students do not get an A, instead of being motivated to improve, they identify with the grade they receive (“I am a B student”) or they decide that they are not good at the subject and give up (this is in line with the Growth Mindset approach popularized by Stanford researcher Carol Dweck).

Often when students get a low A, they decide that since they achieved their A already, they do not need to put forth additional effort to learn ways in which they can improve or learn more. The potential for learning is lost to the sense of achievement.

The problem in both of these scenarios is a mindset in which students focus on what they need or don’t need to DO to get a specific grade, not what more they can learn so that they are more knowledgeable about a subject. The language of “getting” an A rather than “earning” an A, is emblematic of why grades can be problematic.

In fact, most research appears to back up our teachers’ observations as pointed out by social scientist and author Alfie Kohn:

“The research quite clearly shows that kids who are graded – and have been encouraged to try to improve their grades – tend to lose interest in the learning itself, avoid challenging tasks whenever possible (in order to maximize the chance of getting an A), and think less deeply than kids who aren’t graded…The problem isn’t with how we grade, nor is it limited to students who do especially well or poorly in school; it’s inherent to grading”.

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard a version of – “I studied for the test and got an A, but I don’t really remember anything I learned”. We know from research in the realm of behavioral psychology that extrinsic rewards, such as grades, have a negative effect on intrinsic motivation and interest (students are less likely to engage in an activity on their own accord if they were previously rewarded for engaging in that activity). Students are also less likely to take a risk and try new approaches if they fear it will affect their grade. And when students and parents are presented with a grade on a paper, they are less likely to pay attention to the comments and other more meaningful feedback.

In short, grades seem to build motivation for achieving grades, which is different than achieving learning.

We have been grappling with these dilemmas over the past few years and have been experimenting with different approaches to make sure that we are continuing to bolster learning across the school. In the lower grades (K-3), report cards are presented as narrative reports which are designed to provide meaningful feedback. While Yavneh will still continue to provide graded report cards in higher grades, teachers have been focusing on giving meaningful narrative feedback on specific aspects of assignments. I overheard a teacher recently talking about how much more work this entails, but how she is already feeling a significant difference in her class’s motivation to learn more.

Our faculty witnesses how bright our students are on a daily basis. Our school has consistently ranked highly on standardized tests. At the same time, I hope we will continue to explore ways to make sure that we are leveraging our resources to maximize student learning and student LOVE of learning. In the Jewish tradition, there are many reasons one might learn, including the concept of torah leshem shamayim – learning for the sake of a higher purpose, and torah lishma – learning for the sake of learning. It is my wish that students will learn for purposes other than reward. May they learn because they love to learn. May they learn to find meaning and purpose in their lives. May they learn in order to make the world a better place. I welcome hearing your observations and feedback and will share additional thoughts as our discussion continues. Shabbat Shalom -Zvi