Conventional letter grades cause students stress, and a lack of narrative feedback only further stunts student growth. (Chana Kim)
Conventional letter grades cause students stress, and a lack of narrative feedback only further stunts student growth.

Chana Kim

It’s time for radical reconsideration: Why grading is broken

February 3, 2023

As the first semester ends this year, Masters students will, as per usual, meet with their advisors to discuss the progress they have made this semester, the challenges they have either overcome or continue to face, and the goals they have for the next semester. And per usual, students will be able to look over their report cards to reflect on each class. Unlike years (or even quarters) prior, though, students will no longer receive written feedback from their teachers.

Masters often promotes itself as being progressive in its methodologies — the Harkness table and student-led discussions are a major appeal to families applying; problem-based learning, and the emphasis on collective problem-solving, allows students to better internalize their math and science content; and receiving only rubric-based and written feedback (as opposed to grades) on writing helps students understand where they excel and where they need to improve. And as a result, students find that their motivation goes up.

However, removing written feedback threatens to undermine the positive work that Masters is doing. When comments are removed, several negative issues will arise.

The Problems with Grading

The first and most drastic is changing the way students approach their work. By shifting the dynamic towards grades being prioritized, Masters sends the message that they now prioritize grades and “content mastery” over individual skill development or personal growth. Students are no longer hearing feedback on the great work they’ve done so far, or the skills they need to keep refining, they just receive a numerical value for their work with no explanation attached.

Students will now pursue work viewing only the grade, not content proficiency, as the end goal. Aside from the countless studies showing the negative impacts of prioritizing high grades over content enjoyment and proficiency, Masters faces a serious challenge. Putting such an emphasis on grades with minimal explanation behind them will discourage students from taking risks, out of fear that they will not be “right.” That fear can only now be exaggerated since students are after perfection and not learning.

Junior Caleb Tuckman explained his reactions to this decision. He said, “I think that especially as a student who strives to continue to grow and do better, that to not have the feedback is frustrating. Especially because you just have a letter grade right in front of you, and don’t know why you got that grade.”

Do you support Masters' move away from providing narrative feedback for semester report cards?


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Framing feedback under a grade might be tolerable, but providing a grade without adequate feedback and explanation is never sufficient. Studies show that students internalize feedback better when not accompanied by a grade, and by attaching no feedback and only a grade to student work, it fails to highlight the work they’ve done.

Ultimately, resorting to grades as a standard unit to categorize individual students with holistically different approaches to learning and work fails. It undermines the positive work that, for example, the Masters English Department is doing right now by moving away from traditional grading methods towards narrative feedback. Shifts to narrative feedback, according to students, allow them to understand on an individual level where they’re succeeding, and where to improve and focus. Without marking this as a grade, students can therefore move on focused on their individual writing journey instead of conforming to necessary standards and examples.

I think it’s a lot more impersonal. One of the things that Masters is about is allowing people to have better [communication] with their teachers, and I think this is cutting something off from that.

— Jonah Breen

Since not all students work in the same way, assigning the same grades to them all should thereby fall apart under any scrutiny. Why should a student who puts in hours of effort, comes in for extra help, and has improved tremendously from their baseline knowledge be defined by a letter grade corresponding to content evaluations? Why should students who show minimal personal progress be awarded an “A” if they perform well on assessments, without actually putting in any effort? Even if “this is the system we’re stuck with,” wouldn’t providing written feedback for students aid them in both interpreting the reasoning behind the grade, and informing them what they still need to work on?

Indeed, students find that feedback accompanying a grade allows them insight into what their grade is comprised of. Tuckman explained, “Especially if we’re being graded on things like participation in Harkness discussions, to not know where you stand on that and where you could improve with that, is frustrating.” Without feedback, teachers who base grades partially on participation, classwork, or other categories where students might not have seen letter grades throughout the semester, leave their students confused as to the reasoning for their grades.

Aside from just students and teachers, parents will be impacted by this decision as well. Oftentimes, parents look to comments to frame their interpretations and expectations surrounding their student’s grades. Junior Jonah Breen expressed his concerns on that matter, saying “I definitely can appreciate the comments that go along with the grades, I think my parents definitely like them, and it definitely helps us to figure out what I can improve on and what I’m doing well.”

I don’t think I’ve gotten a report card like that since elementary school, so this is definitely going to be very different.” – Jonah Breen

Is there a better alternative?

I’d like to propose a counter solution. As Mrs. Thorn said to Tower earlier this month, “Studies show that when you give formative feedback with a final grade, the formative feedback isn’t as useful because you’re already saying, ‘This is the end, this is the grade.’” Perhaps our grading system isn’t perfect as is, but we only further perpetuate the negative end of this statement by removing comments altogether. I propose that, instead of moving in this direction away from formative feedback, we move to a system of entirely formative feedback, and no more letter grades.

While many people will disagree with this idea, and I can understand why, there’s no real reason for us to be using letter grades anymore. Letter grades are arbitrary. They attempt to sum up a student’s entire performance and assign one value to it. They reflect only on content mastery, as opposed to student growth in a class. And the only real reason we’re still using grades is that it’s been the norm for over a century.

Moving towards a more progressive idea, like providing strictly narrative feedback, allows us to overcome the many issues of grading outlined above. It allows our community to move past the confines of an outdated, unfair, unnecessary institution that we’ve normalized. And it allows us to focus on what matters to many Masters students most: growing and learning from each other, knowing that the effort you put in is seen. Parents would benefit too — being able to see the progress and specific weaknesses their kids display would be even more informative than just grades are, since these personalized feedback comments would address trends teachers have observed, and allow for more open conversation.

Using only written comments instead of grades will allow us to move past the confines of an outdated, unfair, unnecessary institution that we’ve normalized.

This idea is not totally unheard of, either. In fact, two former Masters teachers, Erica Chapman and David Dunbar, cofounded an organization known as the DKDK project, which focuses on reforming educational institutions as we know them. Schools such as the Hawken School near Cleveland, among over 200 more schools, have begun testing out schooling without grades.

The idea of moving past grades is not unheard of. It’s not radical. It’s the future we need.

About the Contributor
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Xavier Rolston, Director of Multimedia

Senior Xavier Rolston is Tower's Director of Multimedia for the 2023-2024 school year. Rolston joined Tower staff last year, where he served as the Web...

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