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Why Do Schools Use Grades That Teach Nothing?

A few years ago I was speaking to a group of parents whose children had just started at Hampshire College. A father asked a question that was on many minds: "How can your college be rigorous without grading student work?" Before I could respond, another parent stood up and asked, "May I answer that?" I nodded with interest.

"I run a company," he said, "and I have a few thousand employees in multiple locations. They'd be mystified if our managers started to give them grades. We manage by setting goals, evaluating progress, and mentoring employees on how to improve their performance. What would a letter grade tell them?"

At the college where I serve as president, we do evaluate student work; we just use a higher-quality method. Our students receive written evaluations not only on every assignment, but also for every course and learning activity. These evaluations are designed to be formative teaching tools.

For similar reasons, we completely stopped accepting SAT and ACT for admissions two years ago, after an internal study revealed standardized test scores are poor predictors of student success at Hampshire. We also recognized the bias of standardized tests against low-income students, and the negative influence of standardized testing on education.

This decision has disqualified us from the popular U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges rankings. We face the same financial challenges as many colleges, but we decided to follow our mission rather than chase rankings. This week we announced our second-year results under this strategy:

* Our incoming class is again more racially diverse and includes more students who represent the first generation in their family to attend college than in any year before this policy went into effect.

* Retention of first-year students is again higher than it was before the policy change, 81 percent as opposed to 78 percent two years ago. Our "yield" percentage of students who accepted the college's offer of admission is again higher than in the years before the policy change.

When we reduce students to numbers and grades, they and we focus on test-taking skills and grade requirements rather than on learning.

At Hampshire, instead of grades, our professors weigh performance against course goals using criteria such as a student's demonstration of analytic thinking and writing skills, research abilities, use of primary and secondary literature/substantiation of claims, ability to use data, integration of theory and practice, framing, disciplinary knowledge and skills and positionality.

After almost five decades of our professors assessing students using written evaluations, we've seen and documented their benefits as an alternative to grades. Grades tell students the absolute minimum about their abilities; they tell them only whether they have earned enough points under a teacher's rubric to get a good mark.

Too many students use grades to figure out how to do only what's required, asking their teachers questions like "What do I have to do to get an A?" At the same time, they're trying to determine the minimum they can "know" to pass. "How can I game the system?" "What are the fluff courses that will get me an easy A?"

Grading systems also risk pitting students and teachers against each other through arguments about a grade and create counterproductive competition as students vie to outperform one another.

At many elite institutions, grades are absurdly inflated by professors with the result that students across the board receive more A's than C's. This has reduced the A-F grading system to little more than one of pass/fail.

In narrative-evaluation systems, students never have to worry about accumulating a GPA. Instead, they focus on the quality of their work, with guidance from teachers who are often learning with them. Evaluations create closer relationships between teacher and student and enhance the teacher's role as mentor.

Evaluations enable teachers to diagnose weaknesses, reflect on growth, and present constructive ideas for improvement and intellectual development - and discuss it all with their students.

Using evaluations, students can concentrate on learning. Progress toward graduation is measured by the development of intellectual skills rather than the accumulation of credit hours.

Aaron Berman, one of our veteran professors and a graduate of one of Hampshire's first classes, points out that a grade point average is not developmental or based on change over time. The final GPA for a student getting C's at the beginning of high school or college and A's at the end is a B, because the student's GPA is handicapped by the slow start. But in a narrative-evaluation system, if an incoming student starts off weakly but in the fourth year shines, that's not average work, and the final evaluation will stress exceptional development and growth.

Dean of Curriculum Laura Wenk puts it well: Grades become labels . . . these labels become engrained in children's views of themselves, as well as in those of their teachers and the beliefs are too often self-perpetuating.

Narrative evaluations suggest ways to keep building on student effort and success. Any student can improve. Intelligence isn't fixed; it's malleable. And education is about growth and improvement.

The Hampshire Learning Project interviewed a few dozen of our students who, according to their faculty, were producing high-quality academic work. The project verified that for these "thrivers," not being graded translates into deeper intellectual engagement and the courage to take more intellectual risks.

One respondent explained that "In high school I was always a bit of 'I need to get an A in this,' but here at Hampshire I wouldn't be treated as a number and I could focus on what I wanted to learn." Another said, "I'm not doing this stuff to get a grade anymore. In high school, I knew what I had to do; it wasn't really learning. It was, like, memorize and put it back on paper."

The Hampshire Learning Project also talked with a group of alumni one year after graduation, those identified by professors as having thrived at the college. We learned they have the ability to take constructive criticism and set goals for themselves.

They used their college evaluations and now use self-evaluation to think across their work, see patterns, assess strengths and weaknesses, devise plans to improve, and establish how they want to move forward.

Recently, we invited thousands of our alumni to respond anonymously to a survey about their college experience. One of the most popular topics for comments was evaluations:

"I spent so much of my middle and high school career worrying about getting A's and seeming perfect," said one former student. "Evaluations made me realize that I'm not perfect academically, and not only is that okay, but it's celebrated. When I read my evaluations, I knew my professors worked hard to understand me and my needs."

The survey also revealed long-term benefits of narrative evaluations. One former student, now a professor, said grades don't mean much at the large university where she's teaching. "Narrative evaluations mean more to students and say more about them," she wrote.

Another alumna, this one teaching at a large state university, reported feeling appalled by the number of students who want to do the bare minimum with the goal just to pass. With evaluations, she said, students push themselves for their own sake, not to get an A or fulfill the requirements of their major.

How do our students compare with the alumni of traditional, GPA-reliant programs? According to federal data compiled and reported by the National Science Foundation, Hampshire College ranks in the top 1.4 percent of U.S. colleges by alumni who advance to earn a doctorate. By this measure, we rank No. 30 in a nation of 4,000 colleges, side by side with the most distinguished institutions of higher learning.

And that's without ever giving any student even one grade.

Jonathan Lash is the president of Hampshire College. This column first appeared on The Hechinger Report.


Comments welcome.


Posted on September 21, 2016

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