By Tim Bedley
In my 25th year of teaching I made a major change in my classroom. I asked my families to opt out of letter grades.
This past summer, I did a lot of reading on the effect of letter grades on students. I became convinced that letter grades did more harm than good to the average student. I was determined to make a big adjustment in my 4th/5th combo class. But how?
The first week of school I held I parent meeting. Most parents attended. I got on my soapbox and explained my thinking on letter grades. Unfortunately I didn’t have a solution. I was very transparent with my parents and admitted my lack of a plan. Here’s what I talked about at the meeting.
Why do I not like letter grades?
- Grades are subjective and arbitrary. What is an A? Who deserves A’s? If I give my students a math test, do the students who earn 90-100% deserve A’s? Why? What if the test is too hard or too easy? Should I grade on a curve? I teach GATE, so how would that work? Shouldn’t GATE students have a higher GPA than non-GATE students? How much higher? Was the math test given at a time when students were truly prepared?
- Grades give parents a false sense of security or insecurity. My kid got an A! Wow! She is doing great! Well, not necessarily. If a child earns a C, is that failure? Should a parent worry or rejoice?
- Grades don’t communicate any specifics. What does it mean to get a B in social studies? What information does that give to a parent about performance?
- Grades vary greatly from teacher to teacher. For years, students from my 5th grade class who earned B’s and C’s from me have reported getting straight A’s when they hit middle school. Why? Am I too hard? Are the middle school teachers too easy? I truly don’t know and I don’t believe there is any way to know.
- Grades don’t motivate most kids. This is a generalization and of course there are exceptions. I have found that most kids in elementary school are most motivated by “getting it done.” They just want to know that the assignment is over. I have offered retakes on tests many times over the years (on the student’s own time) and have never once had a student retake to improve a grade.
What hurdles did I have to overcome with the absence of letter grades?
- The district requires that I fill in a report card, with letter grades, on each student.
- Parents love grades, particularly those with kids who tend to get good ones.
- Families know nothing else. Letter grades are a part of our American school culture.
- Misunderstanding and shunning by fellow teachers. It’s hard to rock the boat. (I do not expect my colleagues to follow my “no letter grades” plan.)
- Honor roll. What do I do with all of the kids in my class who are accustomed of standing up before their peers at the end of each trimester to be recognized as honor roll students?
BUT, I had a burning in my soul that I couldn’t ignore.
So the parent meeting ending without a resolution.
I sought council from my brother, Scott. He helped me to figure out a great compromise. I would throw the decision back to the parents. I asked each family to decide if they wanted to stick with letter grades or use an alternative. The alternative was to give students and parents feedback in the form of assessments, rubrics, data, and narratives. BUT no letter grades written on any assignments. 22 of the 31 students in my class and their families decided to opt out of letter grades.
What about report cards and honor roll? I still fill in report cards on these kids, but I don’t give a copy to the parents. It remains an internal document only. I award “honor roll” certificates to students to recognize them for relative areas of strength. For example, one student was recognized for excellence in math and leadership. The non-graded students stood in front of their peers along with the honor roll kids. I spoke individually with each of my teaching colleagues and explained what I was up to. I also told them I was NOT trying to get anyone else to follow suit. No one seemed to have a problem with the de-grading of my class.
The first trimester has concluded. Each of the 9 letter graded students received a standard report card. The other 22 received a one-page narrative written by me along with several other forms of specific feedback throughout the grading period.
How has this effected the kids and parents? The verdict is still out. I will be sharing my observations in a post later this year. I heard very little back from any of the kids or parents after the first “report cards” went out. The little I did hear was positive. The parents appreciated the narrative. An example of a narrative is shown below (formatting did not work on the blog.)
I am interested in your thoughts, supportive or constructive. Please leave a comment.
(SAMPLE TRIMESTER NARRATIVE REPORT)
1st Trimester Critique by Mr. Bedley
Girl is a WONDERFUL young lady. She comes to school ready to learn every day.
- Reading Almost doubled her AR goal of 25 points. Reads books that are at a good level for her. Able to stay focused on books for a sustained period of time. Averaged 80% correct on the 3 story quizzes. Able to focus when reading with a friend.
- Writing Very active on class blog. Writing improves all the time. Listens to instruction and learns. Effective collaborator with peer writing critiques. Follows directions and writes more than required.
- Math Near the top of the class in math. Tries to get all answers right and understand every problem. Careful with math consensus. Stays on task until finishes math in class. Excellent scores on math tests.
- Hit the Road Jack Valuable team member. Works hard to accomplish tasks. Learning a lot.
- Behavior, manners Excellent behavior. Loves to help out in class. Follows class rules and procedures. Uses manners consistently. Does not complain.
- P.E. attitude/effort Tries to do her best at P.E. A good team player, good sport.
- Peer relationships Gets along really well with other students. Very mature.
- Responsibility Homework always completed on time. She’s only missed one stamp all year. Hard worker.
- Tutoring Girl is one of our best tutors. She’s very thorough and cares for her tutee. She’s very skilled at following the lesson plans and uses good judgement. She encourages her tutee.
- Research skills Girl knows how to find information on her own and use it to present her findings in a clear manner.
- Leadership Girl is a positive role model in the classroom. I would like to see her gain a little more confidence to lead other students and take risks.
- Speaking skills, discussion, pair share Girl knows how to share talk time, speak out in front of the class with good volume and clarity, proper English.
- Collaboration Good team member. Stays on task. Listens to the ideas of other students.
- Direction following Great at following directions.
Overall, I am extremely pleased with Girl and her performance in all subject areas. She is a model student! If you wish to discuss Girl’s progress in more depth, please email me and we can set up a conference appointment.
Tim Bedley has been teaching elementary school since 1988. He was recognized as the 2013 Riverside County Teacher of the year. Tim is also the founder of America's number one educational rock band, Rockin' the Standards. He also produces two podcast found on iTunes: The Bedley Bros. and The 5-Minute MishMash. Tim and his brother Scott are co-founders of Global School Play Day, a grassroots movement to promote unstructured play with today's youths. View all posts by Tim Bedley
Following more than 40 years as a distinguished public school educator, Gene Bedley founded the National Character Education Center, where he currently serves as executive director. The mission of the international center is to provide educators with the solutions and strategies they need to help develop "value-driven, respectful and responsible people." Previously, Bedley was a classroom teacher, curriculum coordinator and school administrator. Bedley's program "Values in Action," a comprehensive character education program based on seven Core Ethical Virtues, is being implemented in over 8,000 schools throughout the U.S., Canada, Africa, Singapore and Iran. Bedley is one of the early pioneers in comprehensive character development. Through his frequent national and international teacher seminars and his long-standing experience in training teachers on how to deal with bullying, harassment and social aggression, and the wide readership of his many publications on education reform, he continues to be an important contributor to the development of value-centered curricula and school discipline. He is currently a trainer for the Bureau of Education and Research, training teachers in Responsibility Management and Discipline and the Difficult Child. Gene has been selected by the Rachel's Challenge Organization as chairman of the National Educational Advisory Board. Rachel was the first student killed at Columbine High School in 1999.