I recently visited a school in Manchester, New Hampshire. The school uses some innovative programming and I went to check out how things work and how it impacts learning. This school was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.
First, students are not grouped according to age or grade, but by “phases.” There are four phases in the Middle School and four in the Senior School. Students move through the four phases at a pace that is appropriate for them. The school has students ranging in ages from 12 to 24.
Second, the school does not resemble a traditional educational institution. There are no classrooms, computer labs or cafeterias. There are no desks in rows and no whiteboards at the front of a lecture hall. There are large open spaces that are used for multiple purposes, every student has their own device, and most walls and surfaces have special paint on them, allowing them to be used as whiteboards by anyone, anywhere, anytime.
All of these departures from the traditional educational experience were interesting, but what I found the most fascinating was the fact that the school does not assess student learning with letter grades or percentages. Students do not receive a report card at the end of each term with As and Bs awarded for each course. There is no reward for work that is done well besides the reward of a sense of satisfaction and the permission to move into the next phase.
When I asked the staff and students what happens when the work isn’t up to standard they replied that the consequence for not doing “quality work” is doing the work. When student projects are completed and turned in, rather than receiving a letter grade or percentage, students are either allowed to move on to the next topic (thus allowing them to progress) or they continue to improve the project until it is deemed “quality work.” The school aims to prepare students for life beyond the school and feels that the use of grades is contrary to this. And they are not alone in their thinking.
In the latter 20th century, educational psychologists systematically studied the effects of grades. One such study was conducted by Alfie Kohn in 1999 (Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes). This study looked at students who were led to focus on grades versus students who weren’t. The conclusions found that:
- Grades diminished student interest;
- Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task;
- Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.
Recently, the conversation about relevance of grades has resurfaced in the education world. In Grant Lichtman’s 2014 book, #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education, he writes that the assignment of letter grades is “absent from almost any other system in the real world.” Education is changing. We know we must prepare our students for the world that awaits them and that the Industrial-Age model of education no longer serves our students best. When looking at best practice for teaching, best practice for assessment and evaluation also becomes part of the conversation.
At the Middle School, we are continuously reflecting on how we assess students and provide feedback. We use letter grades for a few reasons, but in particular, the B.C. Ministry mandates that “in Grades 4 to 7, formal reports will include letter grades and written reporting comments to indicate students’ levels of performance.” Yet, we recognize that letter grades have limitations, and for that reason, we supplement grades with other types of feedback. More detailed information is provided through outcomes-based assessment, which reports on individual course outcomes. Also, detailed anecdotes about student performance are written by each subject teacher, and learning skills are evaluated.
Regardless of the future of grades, the SMUS Middle School assessment methodologies will continue to provide quality, substantive and meaningful documentation of student learning.