Monday, June 15, 2015

Idea #1: Eliminate Letter Grades, GPA and Class Rank

At the end of the school year I met with the administrator who does my evaluation and he/she asked me to think over the summer about some "big ideas" that would be worth discussing that could improve our school. This is the first of hopefully several blog posts that will explore some of those ideas. Warning - this will be extremely long, somewhat rambly, and very narrative/descriptive.

Name of Administrator,

You asked me to think of some "big ideas" that could help Arapahoe improve and meet the needs of our students even more effectively than we currently do. A former administrator of ours used to refer to this as "taking it to the next level" (and the gaming culture refers to this as "leveling up"). While well intentioned, I grew to dislike that phrase over time because I felt like it was too ambiguous and was too often for "show" and not for "substance." It also implies that there is a "level" we are at that applies equally to all students, a one-size-fits-all approach that suggests there is one right way to meet the needs of all of our students. I, of course, disagree with that, both in theory and in practice. So as I began to think about your request I decided to frame it more in the context of educational "first principles" instead of "levels"or even "improvements."

As I began sketching out a few of those big ideas, I quickly realized that some ideas were bigger than others, which meant I had to make a decision: do I start with the smaller big ideas or the really big big ideas? Many folks would suggest that we should start with the smaller ones, because - while big - they are still much less threatening to the existing structure and therefore more likely to be adopted or at least partially adopted. But as I thought about first principles, I decided to take the alternate approach. We should start with some of the biggest ideas first, because so much of our system (both current and hopefully future) flows from some basic decisions (assumptions) that we've made and often don't even go back and question. That doesn't mean that any of the ideas that follow can't stand on their own or aren't worthwhile even if we don't adopt the biggest ideas, it just means we should do the hard work of tackling the biggest ideas first because they will not only have the biggest impact, but will shape all the other ideas to come.

I've written previously about mission statements and how I don't think ours is a very good one. I think the problem boils down to first principles, and that we haven't truly identified what our core values and goals are for our students (or even for ourselves as educators). Clearly it wouldn't make much sense for me to to try to identify those core values for our school by myself, so I'm not going to try to do that here. But as I thought about what I could suggest that might be one level of abstraction removed from those core values, I thought of three majors areas: our system/schedule, our curriculum, and our assessment/reporting system. All three of those are worth discussing in depth, but for this first idea at least I've decided to focus on the last one: our assessment/reporting system.

Here is my basic assertion, which I would suggest is a basic truth about our current system: When we have an assessment and reporting system for learning that undermines the learning, the reporting system is fatally flawed and needs to change. To me, so many of the "problems" I see with our current system, and probably the single biggest impediment to meaningful change, is grades. Specifically, letter grades, and especially because those letter grades are typically assigned by averaging percents across multiple discrete assignments over an arbitrary amount of time (a semester). We then compound that huge mistake by translating those letter grades into GPA (more averaging of discrete and unrelated items), and then use that GPA to establish a Class Rank for each and every one of our students. In my view, this is both morally and pedagogically indefensible and needs to stop. Which is why it's the first of the "big ideas" I think we should discuss as a school.

There are a myriad of different ways that grades (along with GPA and Class Rank) undermine the learning; I will mention just a few (although I'd be happy to go more in-depth on any of them if you'd like).

Ask any teacher at AHS in the last two weeks of the semester what is frustrating them the most, and one of the first things out of their mouth will be students asking what they can do to improve their grade. (We even have a name for this, "grade grubbing.") It's frustrating because the students are basically asking what they can do to get more "points" - the conversation is not at all about learning. As educators, we complain endlessly about this, but fail to acknowledge that we have created it. If we want the conversation to be about learning, we need to remove the whole idea of "points" and "letter grades."

The idea of assigning a percent to what a student knows on a particular assignment, and then averaging those percents over an arbitrary amount of time to come up with an overall grade, is indefensible mathematically, pedagogically, practically, and based on what we know about human development. If we value learning, if we value growth, if we value effort, then letter grades must go.

Our staff has been asked to read Dweck's Mindset this summer so we can discuss in the fall. The central tenet of the book is that by focusing on a growth mindset, you will maximize potential, growth and achievement. Our current system undermines that every chance it gets. As an example, take two hypothetical freshmen starting at AHS in English 9. The first student has struggled previously and starts the year unable to write a complete and coherent sentence. By the end of the semester, that student has made great strides and can now write a pretty good paragraph, but still hasn't managed to put four or five of those paragraphs together to write a good essay.

The second student has had many advantages over the years, including an affinity for reading and writing, a supportive home life that has provided not only the encouragement but the background knowledge necessary to be a successful reader and writer, the fine motor skills that allows the student to physically write fairly effortlessly, has had excellent teachers over the previous nine years of schooling, and has the "slack" in their life to be able to recover from any minor setbacks they may encounter. They begin the year already being able to write a terrific five-paragraph essay and, by the end of the semester, can still do that.

In our current system, the first student is likely to get a 'C' or a 'D', and the second student will get an 'A'. If we believe that all students can learn, if we believe that our role is to help students improve and get better, if we believe that a "growth mindset" is key to helping all students achieve their potential, then letter grades must go.

GPA and Class Rank have never made much sense to me, even when I was in high school and an active participant in the "race." I still remember my counselor, one of my teachers, and several of my friends who all strenuously argued with me about a couple of my class choices. We had a weighted GPA system, where courses that were designated "college prep" received extra points toward your GPA (5, 4, 3, 1) vs. "regular" courses (4, 3, 2, 1). (At AHS, of course, we do the same thing with AP Courses.)

The classes I chose to take were a Typing class and some Accounting classes. Because I chose to take these instead of "college prep" courses, it "lowered" my GPA relative to other high-achieving students and dropped my class rank. Those classes, of course, turned out to be some of the most useful classes for my adult life. Being able to "type" quickly and accurately has completely altered both my level of productivity and what I've been able to achieve as an adult. Those accounting classes allowed me to get a job in high school and college working at a credit union, which not only helped me pay for college but spurred a lifelong interest in financial matters. As I've pursued that interest, it has allowed me to be very successful financially compared to my earnings "peers", has allowed me to serve on district committees to help negotiate salary and benefits for all employees, and has allowed me to be elected a Trustee of PERA, helping oversee the accounts of more than 500,000 members and more than $44 Billion dollars in assets. Yet our system values those classes "less."

This hasn't changed. When I was a full-time math teacher and taught Honors Trig/Pre-Calc, I often had students in class who didn't seem to be very interested in mathematics or even to like it very much. When I asked them why they were taking an Honors Math class if they weren't interested in the field, the response was always the same: I need to take this so that I can take AP Calculus so that I can keep my GPA and Class Rank. When I asked if there were other classes they would rather be taking, they could easily name 5 or 6 without even thinking about it. Even though I'm not a full-time math teacher at present, I still hear student conversations every year around scheduling time talking about the classes they "have to take" in order to eventually get the weighed GPA that AP classes give them.

We need to ask ourselves what the purpose of GPA and Class Rank is. I really, truly don't see any valid purpose, but here's my understanding of what advocates say is the purpose. We need an easy way to rank and sort our students, to determine who is "better" and "worse" than other students. Because that's the way to identify who is "successful" and who is "not," the way to provide "feedback" and to hold teachers and students "accountable" and to "motivate" students to do their best, and, of course, to make it easier for college admissions officers. I would suggest that only that last one is actually true, and I don't think that should be one of our core values and goals. (Since I know college admissions will be a sticking point for some, I will point out that some of the most elite schools in the U.S. don't give letter grades and their students get into college just fine, and so do home school students. And, of course, I think college should be the goal of only some of our students, and probably a lot fewer than most people expect.)

One last example. The students who just finished their Freshmen year at Arapahoe are the Class of 2018. As you would expect, there were a wide variety of GPA's among our freshmen class, but I think most observers at a distance would consider a 3.5 GPA for a freshman to indicate a fairly decent outcome (our freshmen don't take AP classes, so this is out of a straight 4 point scale). The interesting thing, however, is that a student who just completed their freshmen year at AHS with a 3.5 would currently be ranked 230th in the class, with little or no hope of having that be significantly higher by the time they graduate.

Exactly how many of our students is class rank actually helping? I would argue that, at most, it's helping the top 10 to 20 students; and even for those students, given all the other pieces of their admissions portfolio, I would question whether the class rank is much of a factor at all. For the other 500 students in the class the class rank is either useless, or actually hurts their college admissions process. Which is why many high achieving high schools - even ones who would disagree with the rest of this big idea - have eliminated class rank. They've figured out that it actually does a disservice to their students (and that's not even including the philosophical reasons not to do it).

All of these problems exist, of course, even if we assume that our grading process is fair and accurate. As I've written before, it's not. So the obvious next question is, what should we do instead? How should we assess and report student learning? (Note that I chose student "learning" very carefully as opposed to student "achievement", I think they are two different things and our focus on "achievement" has been a big part of our problem.)

Again, this is something that needs to be a school-wide discussion and, to be perfectly clear, I do not think there is one right way to do this. But I have learned previously that sometimes it's helpful for folks to have at least one possible vision of what it could look like in order to get the conversation started. So here's my conversation starter.

I think we should radically alter our current assessment and reporting system. I think we should eliminate letter grades, GPA and Class Rank and replace them with assessment and reporting that is not only much more accurate, but much more meaningful to students, parents, employers and colleges. I don't want to wade too far into the details, but I will get into the weeds just a little bit to give you an idea.

I think we should focus on providing on-going, meaningful feedback for students first, and then reports to document that feedback second. Feedback for students is only meaningful if it's actionable; if students actually act on that feedback and use it to help them learn. Our current system of feedback is typically very poor at accomplishing this. Again, ask just about any teacher at AHS about what happens when they return a graded assignment, and most of them will bemoan the fact that students just look at the grade, ignore the feedback, and then throw the assignment away. Instead of bemoaning this fact, we should change the system that has created this behavior. Since research indicates that providing feedback to students without a grade attached is the most successful at accomplishing this (as compared to only letter grade, or even to letter grade and feedback), we should focus our efforts on providing accurate, timely and effective feedback. (As an aside, I think that would be an excellent focus for our staff development efforts over the next year or two.)

Once we have dedicated ourselves to providing accurate, timely and effective feedback to our students, how then do we "report" out student learning to students, parents and the community? I would suggest one of the best ways to do that is with narrative reports. Instead of the false sense of precision that a "78%" in the grade book seems to give us, let's provide thoughtful, meaningful reporting tailored to each student. At this point many teachers are immediately objecting about the amount of time this would take and, for some of them, how hard this would be to do for each student. So let's address both of those.

First, the time it takes to do this. I would suggest that providing meaningful feedback throughout the school year is something that is essential to what we do and something that we claim to do already. So while shifting away from "points" and "percents" to something more in-depth might take more time throughout the semester, it will increase student learning and isn't that our goal? I also think that at least some of that time will be recouped by the time saved not figuring out points and entering assignments in the grade book. Since we presumably want something in the grade book throughout the semester, to indicate progress and for things like eligibility, I would propose a system that looks something like this.

While grades could be (and should be) adjusted more frequently as teachers gather more information, teachers would be asked to, at a minimum, have updated grades in the grade book at 6, 12 and 18 weeks. (As another aside, and to forestall some objections, I would point out that this is how we used to do it, so it can certainly be done that way if we choose.) The "grades" we enter in the grade book would not be letter grades, but our professional judgement as to how the student is currently progressing. Again, the details would have to be discussed and decided on as a staff, but as a starting point I would suggest three designations (if you wanted it slightly more granular, you could divide it into four categories, but I would definitely not go any further than four):
  • Progressing
  • Partially Progressing
  • Not Adequately Progressing (yet)
There are at least three ways these grades could be reported. The simplest would be just one grade in the grade book that is the teacher's overall assessment of the student at that point in time. Many folks might be concerned about the potential complications of this, but I think we need to step up and own our assessment and reporting. Most educators have been complaining that we wished the public and our elected representatives would trust us more, would trust our professional judgement. Well, here is an opportunity to walk that walk. Instead of relying on the false precision of meaningless points and percentages, we need to know our students well enough to accurately assess their progress.

As an alternative, we could get a bit more granular with the reporting. I see two ways of breaking it down further, either into major themes of the course (what we used to refer to as "essential learnings") or even further into specific standards. If we decided on essential learnings, then each course would have between 2 and 5 categories in the grade book, one for each essential learning, and at the 6, 12 and 18-week mark would be responsible for updating those 2 to 5 "assignments" with the student's current progress (again, could be updated more frequently, but at a minimum).

If you wanted to get more granular still, you could break it down to the standards level, and assign the Progressing/Partially Progressing/Not Adequately Progressing (yet) grade to each standard. Personally, I think this is too far, not as helpful as the first two options, and is in danger of replicating many of the problems of our current system, but I wanted to include it because I think an argument can be made for it.

At the end of each semester teacher and students would jointly develop a narrative report to document their progress. This would replace the less-than-meaningful "report cards" we currently generate with something that is both more accurate and more useful. This would take a significant amount of time and effort, but I think it is both doable and worth doing. My suggestion for how to find the time to do this is simple: eliminate final exam week and parent/teacher conferences.

Final exam week seems to be in direct contradiction to what we say we believe in. If we believe all students can learn, that learning is a process that is never finished, and that our goal is to create lifelong learners, why would we pick an arbitrary time to give a "summative" assessment? The idea of giving a "final" exam to a teenager is ludicrous. (In fact, it's ludicrous no matter one's age, but especially so for a teenager.) We even have a saying prominently displayed in our cafeteria, "Not for school, but for life, we learn." If we believe that, then final exams must go. (Note that if teachers are doing on-going assessment really well, we are constantly giving assessments that are both formative and "summative" - in the sense that they are summative up to that point. Teachers can still choose to give a somewhat summative "exam" at the end of the semester if they wish, we just wouldn't dedicate four entire days to it.)

In addition to eliminating final exams, I would propose we eliminate (at least in our current form) parent/teacher conferences. In the fall we currently spend two nights and two school days (one in-service, one "comp" day) on this, and I think most folks would agree that the actual results are not worth the time. In this day and age, we can easily communicate with students and parents whenever we need to, not at some arbitrary time partway through the semester that fits well in our calendar. This includes meeting face-to-face if necessary, and without the artificial constraints of parent/teacher conferences (meeting in the gym with hundreds of other people, with a five-minute limit, and usually without the student present).

When you combine the four days sacrificed for final exams and the two days for parent/teacher conferences, that frees up six days for end of the semester assessment for conferencing without cutting instructional time. (Second semester is slightly more complicated because we do scheduling after final exams three of those days, but that can be addressed.) My initial proposal is that we designate each of those 6 days for one of our six periods. So the first day would be to meet with students in period 1, the second day in period 2, etc. (There are obviously some teachers that have MWF and a TR class the same period, but those details can be worked out, including the fact that most teachers have a period completely off - which translates to a conferencing day that is freed up. Lots of details, but all doable.)

Teachers would meet with each student for roughly 10 minutes and have individual conferences with them. This could be done in a variety of ways, but I think the two most likely approaches would be teachers and students jointly developing something written ahead of time and then discussing and finalizing, or simply writing up (or audio recording) the 10 minute conversation (or a combination of these two approaches, depending on teacher preference and what works best for the particular course). With the technology we have available (Google Docs and Drive for writing and/or storing of the audio, cell phones or computers to record and easily upload the audio to Drive and share), this process is very doable. (Since one-size does not fit all, there might be several variations on this based on what teachers think would work best in their course.)

Given our class sizes and the nature of these conversations, these would be long, intense days, and I think teachers would be both exhausted and not at their best if these were 6 back-to-back days. So my suggestion would be to use the Monday and Friday of the last three weeks of the semester for this. (Using this fall's schedule as just an example, that would mean conferencing days on November 30th, December 4th, 7th, 11th, 14th and 18th). That would spread out the days, allowing three school days or two weekend days in between the intense days. The schedule for the three school days in the middle of each week could be adjusted to provide equity between classes that meet on different days. (Again, details, but very doable. And, again, this is just one possible way to give folks an idea of how it could be done.)

That addresses the time to do it; the second concern I expect to hear is how hard this would be to do for each student. I agree, this would be difficult, but I think it's what we signed up to do. To paraphrase President Kennedy,
We choose to do this not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Because it is what's necessary to truly meet the needs of our students, to provide them the education they deserve and that we have promised them. It is a challenge we are no longer willing to postpone, but one that we willingly accept.
If we truly believe that meaningful feedback for our students is the only way to help them learn, to grow, to achieve their potential, to fulfill our mission, we will accept this challenge. I look forward to having this discussion with the entire staff.



  1. "At the end of each semester teacher and students would jointly develop a narrative report to document their progress."

    This is the part that makes the most sense: student ownership! I applaud your idea, and I have thought about this for some time. Daniel Pink's _Drive_ may help with some of the ideas about what motivates us as humans.

    Do you need to do this school wide? Could you pilot your idea in a few classes? I suspect that there will be some push-back from teachers who hold on to the current system.

  2. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Senate HELP Committee version of NVLB re-write is up to full Senate either late this week or next week. It includes a section supporting competency based education. There is a wonderful fb group called Teachers Throwing Out Grades rolling on the topic as well. Fascinating and thought provoking discussions. Hope the movement catches fire.

  3. I've always thought that letter grades hurt students and affect the college admissions process more than any good they do! Students can't be defined by a letter grade or a class rank, students need to be focused more own their own progression in learning. When students become so focused on a letter grade to get an exact GPA, teachers have failed to properly do their job.