Grades are punishment. Discuss.

Sometimes it’s nice to be given the keys to the car; you get to do what you want.  you can do things like pull out interesting comments and put them up for discussion.  (Of course, that’s not usually Joanne’s style so she might not appreciate my doing this…)  Here’s Mark Barnes’ latest comment from the comments to my recent post on computer essay scoring.

Grades are a punishment, because they are subjective, judgmental and provide no useful feedback for students. There’s much more to it, but I’m not sure this is the thread for it.

So given that that post wasn’t the place for a more in-depth discussion about this issue.  I propose that this post is.  He’s right: there is much more to it, which you can (and should) read about here.  Here’s Mark’s list of reasons he doesn’t given grades, without the more detailed explanations:

5 — Grades are always subjective.

4 — A points and percentages system discriminates.

3 — Poor weighting of activities punishes some students while rewarding others.

2 — Grades turn even honest kids into cheaters.

1 — When students perform for points or letters, they lose any interest in real learning.

I think he’s terribly mistaken, but I also think this is an important conversation worth having.  For my part, I’ll rattle off some very brief, glib responses and then make way for all of you (I may have more to say in the comments).

I think that #5 is pretty obviously false, and that it’s not necessarily a terrible thing even if it’s true.   #4 is true; but it might be a feature, not a bug.  #3 is an argument against poor weighting, not against grades.  #2 is, I think, false.  It’s easy to seem “honest” when there’s nothing at stake.  Honesty’s about what you do when it matters.

#1, I think, is the one real, substantive point that Barnes has, though I think it’s at once overstated (they probably lose “much”, not “any” interest).  But it’s also possible that it’s operating on some wrong assumptions, too.  Part of the reason I think schools need the carrot and the stick is because what the schools are promoting is not “real learning.”   It’s quite often disembodied, inert knowledge designed not to teach any sort of useful skill, but to inculcate a certain type of worldview, or mimic the sorts of mental processes of a certain type of person.  There isn’t any interest there to begin with, so it would be false to think that the grades destroy that interest.


  1. Roger Sweeny says:


    I went to the linked post and it seems to me that you’re not complaining about grades; you’re complaining about school.

    So, two questions:

    1. What is the purpose of school? (compulsory K-12, more specifically)

    2. What should its purpose be?

    • Roger, the purpose of school should be simple, although the traditionalists — see all below — and the bureaucrats complicate it. The purpose is to instill a thirst for lifelong learning in students and teach them to learn independently.

      I don’t need a grade or a test to do it. In fact, these make students hate school and see no purpose in learning. I know, because what few people here realize (pay attention, Cal) is that I used to be just like them. For 16 years, I used drill-and-kill practices and ended units with long, boring multiple choice tests that yield little about real learning.

      I have changed, because I see what works. My students enjoy learning; they like my class. It’s not about me, as some suggest, it’s about the system. Oh, and not that it’s a good measure, but my progressive-class students will far outperform their peers in traditional classes on our state-mandated achievement test.

      Sorry, I was ranting about other comments below, not yours. Thanks for asking a reasonable, thoughtful question.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Mark, thanks for your response. I’m afraid I have another question. Why should that be the purpose of school?

        • Roger, unlike some people commenting here, I don’t believe that all students come equipped with a thirst for knowledge. Unfortunately, most schools feel it is their job to fill heads with mindless facts and so-called skills. Real learning is the application of skills to problems. If schools are to be successful, we need graduates who have the desire and abilities to learn on their own.

          I can’t be there for my students forever, so I’m hoping that when they leave my class, they’ll be self-sufficient.

          • Mark, I’m right there with you!
            Grades are a perpetual nuisance for me as a teacher, and when I focus more on great instruction versus all of the ins and outs relating to grading, my classroom has been much more productive.
            Granted, it’s a utopian vision to think that all assignments and learning should be intrinsically motivating, but that’s still what we should strive for as educators.

      • Mark Barnes,

        Below is the summary of your idea of what the purpose of school is.

        “The purpose is to instill a thirst for lifelong learning in students and teach them to learn independently.”

        Frankly, I think you are wrong. People already have a thirst for learning. That’s why people travel, meet new people from new cultures, pick up hobbies, learn how to do new things, and so on from the very start of their lives without school or teachers “instilling” it in them. People like to learn and experiment. It is part of what makes humans human.

        So what then is the purpose of school? It is to teach young people (school here being K-12) the skills and sets of knowledge that they need to be successful in life that they might not otherwise develop or investigate on their own or be able to do so on their own. Your whole perspective of education is flawed, Mark Barnes.

        • It would be nice if everyone had a thirst for learning when they left school, but sadly, many people do not. I find it difficult to believe, now that I have so much passion for learning new things, that passion took a hiatus from me between the ages of 15 and 25 just because of my age. Something caused that hiatus.

          Grades turn learning into a bit of a game wherein the young student is most of the time thinking, “What can I do to avoid pain? Oh, I can do my homework, finish these assignments for the teacher, raise my hand a few times during class and I will avoid pain.”

          Outside of school I had a tremendous passion for learning. We had a library full of books in my house (inherited from my grandfather) and I read everything on the shelves that looked remotely appropriate. My father gave me a computer, and so I taught myself how to program it. I only shared either of these two passions in schools – once when I was unable to complete my science fair project, I turned in a game that I had programmed by myself, completely for fun.

          See the list below by George for some examples of bad reasons to be trying to learn. This seems like a fairly accurate list of reasons why students try and learn things in school. The problem with this is, once you remove these reasons, students are unlikely to have developed intrinsic reasons for wanting to learn (obviously there are exceptions). This is part of the reason why so many students flounder at the beginning of University – most of the carrot and stick stuff around grades is gone.

          It may be that something like grades is necessary for some students. It certainly was never necessary for me, and I feel ashamed now of all of the time I spent trying to calculate minimum scores necessary to “get an A.” I would have been better off focusing on what my job was at the time – learning.

  2. Life has tests, so kids better learn how to deal with it. In the real world, it doesn’t matter how good your grades were in college if you can’t pass the x-ray tech, pharmacy or nursing licensure exam, or the National Medical Boards, medical specialty boards or the Bar exam. The waiting room wall at my car repair facility has the techs’ certifications displayed; hydraulics, transmission, electronics etc.

    The real-world work product, whether written, graphic or otherwise, also serves as a test. People whose work is not up to standard get fired.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Yes. Life has real measures of competency – when it’s not suppose to be a learning experience. I don’t want my surgery to be a learning experience for my physician. I don’t want my tax returns to be a learning experience for my account.

      Sometimes we need a subjective measure of basic competency even if the measure is imperfect.

      Grades and tests are just measurement tools on the way to greater competency. Sometimes overused and misapplied like many other type of tools, but none-the-less helpful.

      • Stacy, if we have to grade, we should use more standards-based report cards focused on skills rather than subjective letter grades, don’t you think?

        • Paul, I wholeheartedly agree. Our problem is not that we use grading, it’s how we use grading. To say that a student got a B in a class does not inform what the student can an cannot do. This is why we have students progressing through school not learning the things they missed.

          This is one reason I’m hopeful for developments in technology that can assist in diagnosis. If we can give students, parents, teachers, and anyone else involved in a student’s learning more precise ideas of what students know and can do, we will have a much better system than one that says that this student earned a D in a class, so it was good enough, but not great, whatever that means.

  3. I’ve taught at the college level and will soon be teaching high schoolers at a homeschool co-op, so I may be coming at this a bit differently. When the co-op hired me, they wanted their students to be taught in such a way that they were prepared to transition to college if that was their choice. In college, students take tests. My college students were going into medical fields, and for the safety of their future patients the students need to master certain math skills and specific knowledge of biology. I don’t know of any good way to assess their knowledge without asking questions. I would even argue that, in medical fields, the ability to come up with the information ‘under pressure’ is part of what is being tested.

    If we agree that people in some jobs must be able to demonstrate their proficiency on demand (a paramedic must be able to do CPR, a nurse start an IV, a doctor look at symptoms and come up with a diagnosis) then testing proficiency has to start at some point, and college is probably a bit late. Even with my homeschooled kid in K, we do ‘reviews’ at the end of sections so that I have some idea of whether he has mastered all of the skills in a given unit or if there are still gaps. Putting it all together is not the same thing as doing each skill as it is taught. At this age, it’s fine to be pretty informal about it all, but at some point I’m sure he’ll need to demonstrate to others that he knows something – the math necessary to take chemistry, the writing required for a literature class, the physical fitness required to make it through basic training, whatever he decides to do – and I would expect that there would be a test so that they can compare his abilities with the requirements of the program.

    • I took CPR, and in order to be certified, I had to demonstrate that I could properly administer CPR to a person. It wasn’t a test. I can’t imagine what an IV test looks like. In order to diagnose a patient, a doctor evaluates the symptoms and makes the diagnosis, based on what she’s learned over time; at least, this is what it looks like on Grey’s Anatomy (wink, wink).

      I agree with your take on demonstrating skills — physical fitness, chemistry, writing, etc. Using a test to compare with requirements is never an effective way to accomplish this demonstration, though. Doing is what matters most.

      • At the college level (and in any lab I teach) there are ‘practicals’, which are tests of practical skills. From intro biology labs, you might be asked to use a balance, write how much water is in a graduated cylinder, identify the molecule based on a chemical test, or calculate a dose. Students write the answers to the test, and students who lack the skills don’t pass the test and move on to the next course. Ideally (and in my homeschool) we don’t move on until there is mastery of all skills, but in a bigger class you can still gauge who is capable of moving on using a test of the needed skills.

  4. Barnes is a narcissist who teaches because it feeds his own need. He gets off on visualizing himself as a leader of otherwise unguided youth.

    Of course he’s wrong. He’s offensively wrong. When I get fed up with eduformers, he’s exactly the sort of idiot who reminds me how harmful the progressive side is.

    He’s not just wrong. He’s an attention junkie, which is why he introduced the topic. And here you are, tossing rotted meat to the coyote.

    And no, this particular conversation isn’t worth having, because his criteria for hating grades is pathetically misguided.

    • tim-10-ber says:

      Cal — well said!!

      I would have yanked my kids from his class. The big push with school today is to get kids ready for life…well, companies want A and B players, we stack rank our associates…we want the best not those that expect to get ahead for no work, no results and no feedback (good, bad and neutral).

      My younger one is in college. He learned a value lesson this semester. He turned in a huge project using the wrong format. He missed the first week of school due to complications from a surgery.. He got the assignment but when he couldn’t find certain pieces of information he did not double check the questions he had on it with his teacher.

      Did he learn what he was suppose to learn from the assignment? Yes. He learned what he studied. However, the bigger lesson he learned was to double check assignments (clarify when you have questions), to go to his teacher/boss and explain what happened and figure out how to rectify the situation. This he has done. He is busting his tail to raise his grade for the remainder of the semester. He will…he understands and values that hard work and dedication are needed to accomplish one’s goals/dreams in life.

      Under Barnes none of the knowledge/experience my son had to build upon to help him through his situation would have been gained by students in his class. Yes, grades might be subjective but today so many teachers use rubics and the kids know what they are to do and the weighting of each part of the assignment. Grades reflect whether or not the student understands/grasps what the teacher is trying to convey. (Grades are also a measure of how well or poorly a teacher performs. Maybe he doesn’t give grades because he is an ineffective teacher?)

      As far as weighting grades by the various components this guy is full of it.There are so many examples of how great teachers and schools weight exams, tests, homework, quizzes and participation…I say he is doing his students a huge disservice…a major disservice.

      All of this from the view of a parent who needs and expects help from her children’s teachers to help me help them be prepared for the world beyond home and school…

      • Hmm, did your son work hard because he wanted to learn more, or was it to garner a letter?

        Are you comfortable with him caring only about a number or letter, or do you want him to care about learning for learning’s sake?

      • Timber and Cal,
        I’m not sure how much time you have spent teaching, but what Mark is proposing is not wishy-washy or without performance standards or the expectation of excellence.
        The teachers who prompted me to do the best work did it through great, engaging instruction, not through threats or heavy-handed grading practices.

    • Barnes is a narcissist

      He’s an attention junkie

      Project much???

    • After re-reading my post, I also realized that, in my experience, it was rare to find a student who did well on the practical but badly on the more ‘traditional’ tests, or vice-versa. I taught both the lab and associated lecture, and there was usually a decent correlation between the hands-on ability and the more theoretical understanding.

  5. Amazing. Just been having this discussion, as we have a summer reading assignment, and teachers have traditionally scheduled accountability assessments for the first week of school. For example, most give an objective “did-you-read-it” quiz on the second day, and they schedule a longer written assessment later in the week.

    Some have philosophical objections because hitting kids with a “gotcha” quiz on the second day “isn’t good for kids.” They worry about the kid who “didn’t understand.” Others argue that accountability is fair, and it’s not good for kids to not assess them and make it count. Many kids who do read are bothered by those who don’t if there is no accountability. They believe the quiz and assessments give them a chance to prove that they’ve learned and finished the assignment.

    Compromise is offered by some teachers who argue we still control the gradebook, and if we want to accommodate kids who struggle, we can, while still assessing and awarding kids points for achievement. It maintains the integrity of the assignment. Certainly, teachers must use formative and summative assessments. Grades provide feedback on learning and also maintain quality control in a classroom.

    Everything after school will be “graded” in some way, and to deny that or shield kids is, in my opinion, not good for kids. Even opposing standardized testing is not reasonable when we know the kids will face the ACT/SAT. To not prepare them is actually negligible and irresponsible.

    Grades can be punishment, to be sure. It’s in the way that we use them. For an effective teacher, grades are not punishment. To claim so is to misunderstand our mandate.

  6. Mommayomma says:

    I’d like to see more discussion on who grades are for. Do parents and students need to see the same information? I dont necessarily need my kids to see everything.. but as a parent, I like the information report cards provide.

    • When you get a report card with a B on it, what does it mean to you? What does an A mean?

      Are these arbitrary letters more meaningful than narratives on each activity or project that summarize what a student did, along with detail about what learning outcome still needs to be mastered?

      • Michael E. Lopez says:


        You keep saying that. But saying it doesn’t make it so.

        • The letter grades are perfectly arbitrary because they do not even mean the same quality of effort at different schools. An A is not universally an A. A passing grade is not even universally a passing grade! No where was this more evident to me than NYC, where students needed to get 65% to pass (but in practice could not fail at 60%).

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            While this is very true, a 1600 on the SAT is universal (or is it 2400 now with the essay? Not sure). Specific classroom grades are somewhat arbitary and reflect the culture of the school and community more than any subjective measure. That’s why we have standardized tests. Any district/school can very well measure their performance by comparing grades to standardized tests. If they have a majority of students earning passing classroom grades but tanking on standardized tests then we know there’s a disconnect.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Forty degrees on the Celsius scale is not the same as forty degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. However, neither scale is arbitrary. In each scale, a degree has a specific meaning and in each, more degrees means hotter.

            Of course, to compare measurements in different scales, you need a way to convert one to the other.

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            Specific classroom grades are somewhat arbitrary and reflect the culture of the school and community more than any subjective measure.

            You all keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            But, Roger, different teachers and different schools are creating their own measurement scale. It’s easy enough to figure out how to compare C to F, but what if we have a thousand other measures?

            Arbitary is the wrong word. There are differing standards, standards that are challenging to compare.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            I agree. As you intimated upthread, that is one reason the SAT was developed. Right now, grades are not arbitrary but they are also not comparable.

        • Michael, “arbitrary,” is defined by Webster as, “depending on individual discretion and not fixed by law.”

          So, when I say that grades are arbitrary, I mean what Webster says — the grades depend on the individual teacher’s discretion.

          It’s easy to twist this notion into a numbers game, like saying a 1600 on the SAT is universal, but this is still arbitrary. Who is to say that the SAT folks have the market cornered on which are the best questions to ask? While scoring 1600 might look perfect for one student, perhaps the kid who scores 1200 is a whole lot smarter, but he just didn’t agree with some of the answer choices.

          This holds true for letter grades in the K-12 world. Who am I or anyone else to put a score of 80/100 on an essay? Perhaps you would score the same essay a 70/100 and Roger might score it a 100/100. The author of the essay, whose opinion is certainly the most significant, might score it a 60/100.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Mike, you are right but as the lawyers say, “you prove too much.” Oral and written feedback is similarly arbitrary.

            You have not gotten rid of arbitrariness by getting rid of grades. You have just moved it to your new system.

            The real question is, as always, have you improved what students get out of it?

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            Michael, “arbitrary,” is defined by Webster as, “depending on individual discretion and not fixed by law.”

            Except that grading doesn’t depend on individual discretion in anything except the most extreme cases of negligent teachers.

            When a teacher says, “I feel like giving this paper a C, but it’s extremely well-written and interesting, so I have to give it an A”, that teacher is following a “law” in the sense used by your definition.

            And that teacher is not grading arbitrarily.

            And don’t even think about running the regress argument, claiming that the selection of standards is itself arbitrary. That will run you into the ground every time.

            I should also add that a real Webster’s — not the superficial, cheesy online one you get for free and which I tell my students to avoid for precisely this reason — has several additional words like “solely” and “completely” that make it clear that arbitrary is a word that should not be tossed around…

            … arbitrarily.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        To my students, a report card grade means how well they have met the grading standards of the school and class. It also means how well they have done that compared to the other students in the class and the school. And it means, indirectly, how strong their college applications will be.

        They find this very important, and over the year have developed strategies to succeed at it.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          Great, sounds like to works for you.

          After homeschooling for 8 years, my son and I determined during his 8th grade year that he would begin high school at our local public school in the fall.

          I didn’t and don’t test or grade as a homeschooler. It’s a silly activity if you’re watching and assessing on a daily basis your child’s individual progress. We read, we discuss, we do stuff. In preparation for high school, we signed him up for a rigorous online physical science class. This class was very traditional in structure: online lectures, use of a textbook, experiments with lab reports, chapter and semester reviews and tests, research projects/reports.

          I felt it was important to experience the traditional learning process that he would encounter in a institutional setting. It has served him well this year. He’s done well in public school, and we count his freshman year a success.

          At some point in our lives most of us need to work within a structure that is not of our own making. We need to respond to external expectations and standards. And, that is my argument with Marks philosophy. He’s tell his students, either explicitly or implicitly, that external expectations don’t matter. That is a lie. They do matter – eventually.

          • Stacy,

            Although I understand your point about external expectations, I certainly don’t lie to my students about them. In fact, I explain that the system we live in requires grades, so we put one on the report card. I tell them that I believe grades are a poor way to help them learn, so I won’t put them on any other activity or project.

            Their other teachers assign homework. When students ask why I don’t assign homework, I tell them I don’t believe in it. I say that excellent research shows no discernible connection between homework and achievement. If other teachers choose to assign it, I can’t control that, and they’ll have to deal with that system.

            We all work within some sort of structure, but we can deal with it as we choose. I choose to do what I know is best for my students.

  7. Imelda Judge says:

    The problem here is we have to define what we mean by grading! If it is grading for grading sake then it is a wasted opportunity.
    1. We need to build students who are assessment resilient!
    2. Grading needs to be part of this but is only effective if students see it as part of a process that they have been active participants in. And teachers are assessing what is worthy of being assessed!
    3.This means that what is being assessed has to be understood by the students (and it goes without saying that the teachers should know!)
    4. Students need to have a clear understanding of what success looks like before they participate in the assessment (we all know that even we want to know what is expected of us before we do or create something!).
    5. Then they need to have strong, clear feedback in their language, simple to read and interpret, that is attached to the grading. Feedback is one of the most important parts of our job! But, it needs to come within a relationship that is valued by the student and where trust is established!
    6. Students then have to be given an opportunity to evaluate what this test/ assessment has taught them about:
    – where they have achieved success.
    -what they have learnt/ achieved.
    – what they need to learn more about.
    – what gaps exist in their learning and skills

    Grading alone is never enough and just serves a ranking purpose for us!

  8. I think the top purposes of grades are to measure student performance on assignments, to provide information to students about their performance, and to rank students relative to others in terms of that performance.

    I think Mark Barnes’s view of education is pleasant but impractically idealistic. It’s interesting to me that someone who isn’t a professor of education or Alfie Kohn is selling it. What subject, grade level and number of students do you teach, Mr. Barnes?

    What was the catalyst to your transformation as a progressive educator?

    • NDC,

      My transformation took place a few years ago after much research including, ironically, most of the work of Alfie Kohn. I’ve also read Daniel Pink, Edward Deci, Dylan Wiliam, Stephen Krashen, Nancie Atwell and John Hattie, among others. These luminaries in the fields of education and psychology have spent decades studying best practices in education, literacy, feedback and human motivation.

      After years of frustration, feeling more like a disciplinarian than a teacher, I needed something different. I teach 8th grade English language arts, and I have 100-125 students yearly. With class sizes as large as 30, including many reluctant learners, I realized that I had to do something different to get my students’ attention.

      What I learned from excellent research is that people aren’t motivated by extrinsic rewards — grades and consequences chiefly among them. When I considered switching to what I call results-only learning, I knew it would be difficult. The concepts may be idealistic, but I’ve found that they are, in fact, not impractical.

      A results-only classroom makes the elimination of traditional teaching — homework, worksheets, rules and even grades — work. It isn’t easy, but the payoff is truly amazing.

      Thanks for asking. I appreciate a chance to share.

      • 100 to 125 students a year!!!!!!! Wow! I have 155-165 a year (8th grade social studies) and I am a huge believer in giving massive amounts of feedback on their essays, short stories, speeches, research, and other authentic products that they develop in my class to show me that they are both developing skills and mastering content. And yes, Mark Barnes, some of those are reluctant learners (as well as LRC and ELD and I teach in a Title I school). You have 100 students a year? You are spoiled, chum.

        • Lightly Seasoned says:

          100 – 125 is usual at my school, too. (I have about 70 this year due to teaching specialized groups and having a release hour for department chair work.). I am not in a Title I school. I don’t think either Mark or I have it “easy” — I think you have an unreasonable workload.

          I’m sympathetic to wanting to reduce throwing letter grades on everything. I try to wean my students away from it as much as possible in their formative work. Much of it is instant gratification. Why didn’t I get a grade for this? Did you learn it? Yes? Well, the grade comes on the test, not the learning.

          I believe the research on homework is far more nuanced than Mark suggests. If the 8th graders are doing reading at home, it really is homework, even if they are enjoying it. One of the things I fight at the high school level is the idea that reading isn’t “real” homework and that they don’t have to read a book if they don’t like it. But, that’s fine. That’s a transition that has to happen.

      • As large as 30! HA! 30 is pretty much expected at my school. Man, you have it easy Mark Barnes.

        • swede, No where in my response to NDC did I suggest that I had a more difficult job than you or anyone else, because of the number of students I have. I’m fully aware that many teachers have it much worse than I, due to large classes and less technology.

          I was only answering the questions she asked. I teach in a Title I school, too.

          Oh, and my kids have to walk to and from school up hill both ways.

  9. George Larson says:

    “Hmm, did your son work hard because he wanted to learn more, or was it to garner a letter?

    Are you comfortable with him caring only about a number or letter, or do you want him to care about learning for learning’s sake?”

    Mike Barnes,

    Why should we expect anyone to learn for learning’s sake? Many children and many reasonable adults will ask what is in it for me?

    I always thought I had reasons to learn. Many had nothing to do with love of learning, exams or my instructor.

    1. Satisfy my curiosity
    2. It seemed easy
    3. I already knew it
    4. I enjoyed it
    5. Obtain a skill or knowledge I valued
    6. Prepare myself to learn material that I did have an interest in learning
    7. Please my instructor
    8. Please my parents
    9. Avoid my parents wrath
    10. Impress my peers
    11. Annoy my peers
    12. Annoy my instructor
    13. Annoy my parents

    I do not recall my goals were ever letter grades, numbers or percentages but mastering the skill or subject. If I pursed that goal the grades seem to be sufficient to avoid trouble.

    Some of my peers promised cash or cars for good grades. It did not appear to work very often.

    A few times I was threatened with loss of privileges I valued. It got my attention, changed my priorities and made me stop complaining about teachers and changed my attitude toward the material.

    As far as bad grades go I think of this:

    Encouragement after censure is like sunshine after a shower.

  10. George Larson says:

    Mikle Barnes

    As far as CPR goes, I think a hands on demonstration of skill for a certificate is still a test. I am sure it is not the kind of test you are complaining about.

  11. A big problem with grades the way most teachers do it is averaging. Once you get a grade you are stuck with it no matter how much better you do later on. Grades should be additive so that as you accomplish something it adds to what you have done. You also should have unlimited time to finish and unlimited retakes for exams. This would eliminate the concept of failure from the system. In the real world, averages are often misleading. We should banish this practice in education.

    • Unlimited time to complete work and unlimited retakes for exams; great preparation for the real world!

      • momof4,

        I care a lot more that my student learns than if she meets a deadline.Since I don’t test my students, I don’t have to worry about retakes, but I certainly would allow as many as a student wanted. This gives her a chance to demonstrate learning.

        You and others keep beating the real-world drum. The real world isn’t filled with worksheets, workbooks, homework and tests. The testing examples people have given here are ludicrous. I want to know what person works at a law firm, a bank, a salon, a restaurant or at the service department and is asked by her employer to take a multiple choice test.

        A results-only classroom prepares students for all challenges in life, because they are thinkers — not automatons.

        • How about your physician? Continuing education is required and it is common for MC tests to be collected at the end of presentations given at professional meetings; don’t hand in, don’t get CME credit, don’t pass, don’t get CME credit. They are also a staple of medical board exams, including the specialty boards and (usually 10-year) recertification exams. A family connection just spent a year studying for his ER Medicine re-certification exam; largely MC. Many hospitals require certain personnel to be certified in cardiac or trauma care; certification requires passing a MC exam. Intensive care nurses are expected to be CCRN certified; must pass the exam.

          A friend’s son just finished a post-law-school specialty year and had to pass the MC exam in that specialty in order to practice in that field. He has already passed the state Bar exam, also MC.

          I have a number of relatives and connections who have CPA certificaton, CFA (certified financial analyst) certification and/or CFP (certified financial planner) certification; all tests. There is also a whole series of specific certifications/tests for finance people who sell/handle various kinds of securities etc.

          • I have a friend in Mumbai who says no one ever has to take a test for anything. Okay, I made this up.

            Perhaps, giving examples was a waste of time. The point is lost on you and many others.

            Tests are bad. Grades are bad. I know it, because I’ve experienced the other side.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Mark, don’t give up so easily. Engage with momof4’s assertions. I am pretty sure they are true.

            “The point is lost on you and many others” makes you sound pompous and small-minded, like you are used to being “the teacher” and can’t handle it when your students disagree with you.

  12. Tests are measuring instruments and it’s only within the context of the public education system wherein the people who actually do care whether the kids are learning don’t have a voice that this sort of airy, philosopher-king discussion could take place. In any other venue measuring instruments are taken very seriously since there’s no point in bothering with the taking of measurements unless the quantity being measured is important.

  13. Is testing fundamentally flawed, or are there just bad examples? The rubrics and grades my son had in K-8 were just awful. I prefer the classic grading system our high school uses. That would indicate that I think that there is nothing fundamentally flawed about grading. I could spend a very long time talking about my philosophy of grading, but that doesn’t seem to be the question posed here. Also, grading is very “real world”, and educators seem to care a lot about that these days. Or maybe not.

    There is also the issue of testing in the classroom versus state testing and grading. There is also the issue of tests like the SAT and how they are used. This is not so simple unless you decide that it’s all just garbage. Do you dismiss the SAT or other grading game and refuse to follow the carrot? Or, do you play the game to win? I don’t like the fact that my sophomore son has to spend time on the fussy SAT Math game (limited to algebra II) when he wants to play with Mathematica and study Fourier transforms.

    Being pragmatic, I can deal with reality, but I don’t want to follow the carrot blindly. I want to find a proper balance that’s best for him. Philosophically, I want him to understand that life contains many annoying aspects and tasks. I want him to evaluate the choices and not turn up his nose whenever he see a carrot. I’ve met too many kids who have given up on college because it’s not meaningful or some such thing.

    Another question is whether grading is just a necessary evil. Why have winners in sports? Why have American Idol? Why award a large cash prize for the first commercial space flight? I used to give my son math worksheets (horrors!) and he always wanted me to grade them. He was driven to get good scores. That wasn’t the only driving force, so I don’t see grading as just a negative force. It can be quite positive. Does a good grade on a worksheet mean that he is good in math? That is a separate question. Is there no correlation by definition?

    Then again, I don’t mind if you disagree with me. I won’t force my view of a proper school on you if you do the same for me. Ah yes, opinion versus “best practices”.

    • Steve,

      You make articulate and valid points. I deal with my own children in much the same fashion — explaining that there are things I believe are wrong but are part of a system that they are part of.

      I’m trying to change that system. Hence, this discussion, I suppose.

      • “I don’t need a grade or a test to do it. In fact, these make students hate school and see no purpose in learning.”

        “I’m trying to change that system. ”

        You seem to have missed my last paragraph. I disagree with you, and I see too many educators pushing their own opinions and claiming that they are somehow “best practices”. Please go start your own school or make sure you include parents in the decision process.

  14. Chartermom says:

    So I’ve just read all these comments and looked at Mr. Barnes’ blog.

    Here are my thoughts:

    It seems that Mark argues that grades are stifling because kids just do what is expected of them to get a grade and if we don’t grade them but instead give them lots of feedback then they will naturally learn without all those pesky grades.

    However in my experience, giving narrative feedback on projects can be every bit as subjective and stifling as grades. If kids believe they need to perform in a certain way to get the feedback that they’ve done a good job (achieved a goal, gotten the right learning result, etc) then they will perform that way and it doesn’t matter if there is a grade associated with it or not. Narrative feedback can be micro-managing and stifling while grade feedback can be liberating. It all depends on how the teacher chooses to use it.

    I recently witnessed an example of that in feedback my son received on a draft of an English analysis. He had organized his points chronologically showing how the same symbols appeared at several key points in the novel. The feedback was essentially that he needed to create a paragraph for each theme and organize his essay by theme instead of chronologically. Now at this point in the process there was no grade but the message was clear — his way was wrong and in order to be “right” he needed to organize differently. In my view either could be correct. Now Mark you may say that you would never give that kind of feedback — but then it’s a matter of you and not the system (feedback vs grades).
    A teacher giving grades could just as easily accepted both formats.

    But I also have a question — you say you don’t give grades so I assume you’ve made a deal with your school or system not to give grades. If that is the case then how do you determine who from your class gets to move on to 9th grade and who gets retained? There must be some criteria.

    • Chartermom,

      Not sure why you say I “would never give that feedback.” The feedback he received sounds fair, if it’s based on clear guidelines. I’m with you, though; not sure what’s wrong with how he wrote the essay.

      I use as SE2R system of feedback — summarize, explain, redirect and request resubmission of the work. It works well on anything.

      In terms of report card grades, my students and I discuss their production and how they’ve handled feedback. Then, we agree on a fair report card grade. Ninety percent of the time, the grade they choose is exactly what I would have given, if I were grading them.

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      Chronological organization isn’t wrong, just less sophisticated than organizing by theme or controlling idea. I’d have given the same feedback.

      • Chartermom says:


        Mark — there were not clear guidelines that said the essay should have been organized by themes. If there had I would have found the guidelines stifling but would have agreed that the comments were fair. Also when I said that “you may say that you would never give that feedback”, I was referring to the fact that based on reading your blog and your comments, that you would have accepted both forms of organization (which in your comments you indicated that you would) and therefore would not have given that specific feedback. My point however is that whether you give grades or not, the fact is that your students know/learn what you expect and strive to meet your expectations. So whether they are striving for an “A” or striving to avoid resubmission, whether or not they feel stifled depends on the teacher and not the fact that there is a grade involved.

        Lightly Seasoned’s comment highlights my point for me. He/she said that organizing by theme is “more sophisticated”. Why is organizing by theme “more sophisticated” than organizing chronologically? I would tend to think that sophistication was more related to the ideas being expressed rather than the organization of the essay and that I could write a very unsophisticated essay organized by theme and a very sophisticated one organized chronologically. It’s a preference and therefore subjective. So whether it’s provided to a student as feedback or as a grade doesn’t really matter. It is saying there is a best way to write this essay.

        Mark — I do agree that learning is the key thing that should happen and I applaud your being willing to spend the time to provide the feedback and allow students to resubmit work until they get it “right” (whatever right happens to be). However I also know that the teachers at my sons’ high school teach probably 150 to 180 kids at a time so that might not always be possible. And I should note that as much as I disagree with the feedback my son’s teacher gave, I appreciate her willingness to take the time to give it.

        I will also say that one of my main complaints about the state tests used by my state is that they often want the “expected” answer, not necessarily the “correct” answer. On samples, I’ve seen questions that should only asked in essay or short answer format asked as multiple choice.

        But I digress — my point is that grades in and of themselves aren’t bad or punishment, they are one feedback mechanism and as with other feedback mechanisms they can be used for good or evil………(OK, so I am getting a bit dramatic here 🙂 )

        • Your points are well taken. I see what you mean about students working to “avoid the resubmit,” although I like to think that most of my students simply want to prove to themselves that they can accomplish the learning. Ultimately, no matter what we’re doing, it has to be about the learning.

          I couldn’t agree more with what you say about the standardized test. Very poor instrument.

          Thanks for your insights.

        • Lightly Seasoned says:

          Organization by theme supports analytical writing because the thesis has to stay central to the discussion, while chronological tends to lead students down the well-trodden path of plot summary. Truthfully, I wouldn’t notice chronological organization if it were used in a solid piece of analysis. It’s easier/more intuitive for the sudents to teach the analysis through the organization at that level.

          Aw, hell. What do I know? Never mind.

  15. Wow. Marc Barnes doesn’t seem like a very popular person to agree with, but I don’t see a problem with any of his logic. I agree with most of what he writes here. I teach 6th grade, so my thoughts come from a Middle School perspective.

    My two cents:

    5 – The only grades that aren’t subjective would be those that consist of adding up totals for simple right/wrong questions. Even then, the weight those questions are assigned is subjective.

    4 – I’m not sure discrimination should be a “feature”. It depends on what discrimination means. My job is not to level my students but to give them clear feedback on what they did and nudges on how to get better.

    3 – Poor weighting does punish and reward. Aside from common assessments or standardized tests, most weighting IS poor though, because weighting itself is subjective. Should harder questions be worth more than simple fact questions? How much more? Should questions that go beyond what was taught in class be weighted higher, the same, or just as extra credit? These decisions can be made with good reasons, but those reasons are still subjective and still vary wildly from teacher to teacher.

    2 – I suppose grades could turn honest kids into cheaters, but more than that it turns motivated kids into unmotivated kids, or it causes kids to be motivated by a game as opposed to learning. I’ve had kids not want to take a test because even if they earned 100% it would lower their grade because they’d earned 102% in the class so far. (Shortly after this, I was able to convert my classes to standards-based grading and avoid this problem.)

    1 – Totally agree that letters and numbers distract and complicate student motivation. When letter grades are given, studies show that often kids won’t look at any written feedback… they don’t learn from their mistakes.

    One other thought on why grades are broken:

    A single letter can’t signify more than one thing. When I try to add a number of standards and performance data into it, it because completely undecipherable. Why even bother to give it? Because that’s the meaningless language that colleges understand? Maybe that’s a good enough reason. Then why do it at lower levels?

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Everything you say about subjectivity and weighting is true. But that is true of any system of assignment and feedback (which grades, of course, are). You are never having the student do exactly what is wanted in exactly the right proportions. Your feedback is never perfectly objective. To think that you have avoided these problems by going from “grades” to “feedback” is presumptuousness on stilts.

      I don’t think grades turn motivated kids into unmotivated kids. I think time and puberty and having to take courses in things they aren’t really interested in do that.

      • Hi Roger,

        Standards-based grading is still subjective, but it’s much less subjective than grading based on the 101 point scale. If you’re interested, you can see some of my reasoning here:

        Also, while there are many reasons kids will be unmotivated, I think we can do better than motivating them with grades. I believe it’s my job to to my best to motivate kids with learning. I do that by doing my best to give them autonomy, meaningful tasks and a chance to improve. I’ve certainly got a long way to go, but that’s my goal at least.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          I don’t think most of my students are motivated to learn by grades. They are motivated to get good grades. I try to motivate them with learning and to make things meaningful to them but it’s an uphill push. Most of them are taking the course not because they have a great interest in the subject matter but because they have been told they really should.

          In my first few years, I searched for ways to motivate them to want to learn. I figured it had to be possible. Now?

          God grant me the serenity
          to accept the things I cannot change;
          courage to change the things I can;
          and wisdom to know the difference.

    • Taylor Swedberg,

      I may need a publicist. You interested (wink, wink).

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  16. Michael,

    I want to thank you for posting this and bringing attention to a topic that is very important to me. Let me leave you with some final thoughts.

    I can’t say that I’ve proven anything with my responses. Like grades, they are subjective, which, by the way, is never a good thing.

    What I’ve learned from these mostly-insightful comments is that there are still many people who are not ready to be transformed. Like people who thought that the Internet was a fad or that phones were only for talking, they are stuck in the past. Most teachers are too comfortable with their points and letters, their workbooks and worksheets and their tests and quizzes to even consider teaching any other way.

    The one constant that no one can deny is that I have lived in both worlds, so I do speak from a unique experience. For most of my 20-year teaching career, I taught in a traditional classroom and graded everything. Missing deadlines wasn’t tolerated and test retakes were an obscene notion.

    After 16 years, I changed everything. This wasn’t easy; it still isn’t. I question what I do daily. It’s this introspection that keeps me going. For every student who resists the Results Only Learning Environment, there are 20, who thank me for my feedback and tell me they wish all classes made them enjoy learning as much as a ROLE does.

    This isn’t about me, as some might suggest. It’s about a system that creates a remarkable community of learners, like none I’ve ever seen.

    I’ll close with a challenge for the classroom teachers who have participated here. For just one of your units, eliminate all traditional methods — homework, worksheets, tests and grades. Replace them with brief projects, web tools, cooperative activities and small- and whole-group discussions.

    I’m guessing this will the most worthwhile test you or they have ever taken.

    Oh, and watch for my book, ROLE Reversal, coming in February from ASCD. Okay, Cal, that one was about me.

  17. Roger Sweeny says:

    The one constant that no one can deny is that I have lived in both worlds, so I do speak from a unique experience.

    Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
    That saved a wretch like me.
    I once was lost but now I’m found,
    Was blind, but now I see.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Yes, A true believer in search of converts.

      Mark, your arguments would be convincing if you used data – you know, measureable facts.

      • “… and watch for my book, ROLE Reversal…”

        “One of the focuses of the ROLE Reversal blog is the elimination of grades. Like homework, there are many reasons that grading is detrimental to learning. Here are the top 5 reasons I don’t give grades.”

        More power to him if he can create converts. The question is whether the conversion is by argument or force; whether parents have the choice to just say no.

        I disagree with his views, but feel no need to change his mind. I know that some parents love the idea of unschooling. Go start your own school. It’s interesting to see the difference between Phillips Exeter and Phillips Andover. Both work in their own way, but nobody is forcing Harkness Tables down your throat in the guise of best practices.

        In many cases, the question is not whether you grade or not, but how you set and enforce high standards. It’s how you define a proper education. My view is that learning (via a rigorous curriculum that keeps all doors open) is not a natural process. One of three basic things I want for my son is to know the value of hard work; that not everything is natural or fun, especially at first. If everything is translated to pass/fail, that cutoff has to be at the low end and that causes the level of student effort to drop. My son’s middle school added a level 5 to their rubric scores because kids had no incentive to work harder. Many only worked to get over a cutoff.

        That’s my opinion.

        • “Go start your own school” is sort of like saying, if you don’t like the way our government does things, move to Australia. I like it here.

          I do what I do because it’s best for kids. With grading out of the equation, they learn for learning’s sake. I know this is true, because I see it. They don’t need added incentives, like A’s or a level 5.

          Because I know this system works far better than our archaic, subjective grading system, I want to share it with our public school teachers. Like any change in a broken system, it has to start some place.

          I could start my own school, but I’d rather help fix the broken ones that already exist.

        • Lightly Seasoned says:

          LOVE Harkness. Use it every day. I consider it a best practice.

          • “I do what I do because it’s best for kids.”

            “LOVE Harkness. Use it every day. I consider it a best practice.”

            For all kids?


          • Lightly Seasoned says:

            Well, I use it with my AP seniors and my remedial class. I use it in different ways and for different purposes, but yeah, seems to work with my whole population, which makes sense since it was designed for the average-to-low achiever.

      • Stacy, how would you propose that I measure my students? We have a standardized test, which is a horrible tool, but my students consistently outperform their peers in traditional classrooms with grades.

        I have statistics on that, but I think they’re useless, because I don’t believe in the test.

        My students reading increases dramatically, based on amount of books they read in a year, increased Lexile measures and the remarkable analysis they do as the year progresses.

        Best of all, they create fabulous projects and become remarkable self-evaluators. I think these things are amazing evidence of their growth.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          Mark, My original complaint was from the prior thread when you asserted that essay tests were about learning – everything was about learning – and had no value as accountability tools for both student and teacher.

          I’m all for teacher autonomy in the classroom. If what you do leads to higher performing students as determined by an objective, measurable standard then I’m all for you continuing on. God Bless. I think where you lose me is in the hubristic assertions of all tests and all grades as punishments.

          As I’ve stated throughout this thread, some tests aren’t about learning; they’re about evaluating both learning and teaching. I get that you don’t value that type of evaluation, but it’s really not your right to determine what is valuable in this sense in a public institution. Of course, you’re free to do as you do and advocate for your philosophy just as parents and others are free to advocate for the use of test as accountability tools.

          I have a freshman currently and would probably be satisfied with you as his teacher IF he were developing and mastering the skills and knowledge he needs to do well both on the SAT and in a college setting and that you’d proven with prior classes that you were capable of doing this. I’m pretty pragmatic that way. But, but, my son has certain tests in his future that will be unavoidable and determinative. I want him prepared.

          Also, I find your idea/belief that it’s your responsibility to ignite a love of learning in your students as a first priority to be a bit, well, condescending and immature. This idea/belief (not sure how to characterize it) strips students of a certain type of independence/autonomy. It forces your worldview on them. Your first priority, in my opinion, should be to present or represent you field of study – your specialty- with integrity and a deep knowledge. If a love of learning should spring from your students out of respect and appreciation for your knowledge and skill? Then, CHEERS. Good on you.

          And, now I’m going to go all Forest Gump on you and say: that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

          • I have a feeling that what works well for Mark – and I’m glad he’s one of the few that this is working well for – would work well for few other teachers. I give him kudos for being one of the few that can pull this kind of classroom off.

          • Stacy, I agree with some of what you say. I’m for tests as tools for diagnosing learning, just not as a grade for individuals. Your son would leave my class well-prepared for any test. A point I’ve tried to emphasize throughout is that results-only learning students do well in all facets of education — because they develop a thirst for learning and an enthusiasm to demonstrate it.

            Where I disagree with you, respectfully yet wholeheartedly, is on your opinion of igniting a love of learning in students. This is not an idea of mine; it’s something all teachers should be doing. You can call it condescending, immature or anything else. I call it a teacher’s biggest responsibility.

            It’s this notion that we have to fill our students’ heads with some perceived grand knowledge that we may or may not have that is misguided and, frankly, arrogant. My students don’t need me to be some sage on the stage, spouting my opinions about literature.

            I’d much prefer that they cultivate their own opinions and learn how to apply them effectively.

        • Mark,

          What grades/subjects do you teach? If you teach elementary school kids, and it seems like you do, then are you asserting that your observations and methods are universally applicable throughout HS? college? graduate school? Professional schools of all types?

          Just where does your expertise end?

          • I teach 8th grade. I have taught 10th grade, too. I also teach graduate courses through two accredited colleges in Ohio.

            I believe my methods are universally applicable. The sooner we abolish grades everywhere, the better.

            My expertise ends when you put a hammer in my hand. I’m mechanically inept.

  18. How are grades subjective but just deciding “Well, John, you’re doing better than James” is not? Does no one fail then? Does everyone get a ‘P’?

    Also, what happens when you apply this philosophy to other areas of life? Like not keeping score at Little League games? (The parents might refuse to, but the kids still do!)

  19. 5 — Grades are always subjective.
    – Here’s the deal. Some students understand the same material better than others. We use grades to quantify the extent to which those students understand the material at hand. If you think grades should be abandoned, you must offer a better alternative. What is that alternative for determining and representing how well a student understands the material at hand?

    2 — Grades turn even honest kids into cheaters.
    – Grades offer an incentive for students to cheat since social repercussions ride on it (approval from parents, acceptance into schools, internships, and so on). It’s the students who react to the grades. In the end, students make a choice to cheat. Shouldn’t the students who cheat be blamed for cheating rather than the system of grading their work?

    1 — When students perform for points or letters, they lose any interest in real learning.
    – I agree with this. I was one of these students actually. In high school and college classes, barely any students were focused on learning something new. Most students were obsessed with finding out what will be on the next test. A student’s interest in learning must compete with their interest for good grades.

    • My alternative is simple. I call it the SE2R system.


      There is no subjectivity involved. I tell students what they did and how they did it, based on what I observed.

      If any learning outcomes are missed, I redirect them to a prior lesson, model or presentation. Sometimes, I ask them to see me for help. Then, I ask them to make changes to demonstrate mastery learning and to resubmit the activity/project for further evaluation.

      This is an objective and effective system of feedback that produces real learning.

    • Grades are not always subjective! Maybe in an Art, Social Studies, or English Language Arts class, where you grade presentations and essays, etc. But not in Math or Science. If 2+2 = 4, and you put 7, you got the answer wrong. Period.

      • SuperFund Man, You are absolutely right about 2+2. Seven is wrong. It would be equally wrong to grade a student on putting 7 as the answer. If she puts 7, apparently the teacher didn’t get the job done.

        So, instead of punishing the child with a poor grade for the teacher’s shortcomings, I’d rather ask the student to review and resubmit.

  20. “Grades are a punishment, because they are subjective, judgmental and provide no useful feedback for students.”

    To sum up: grades, if applied with malice in mind, could be punishment. But mostly they’re not, and they are:

    1. less subjective than feedback (although all teachng should include feedback as well as grades, often much more feedback than letter or numerical grades.

    2. judgmental? what does that even mean? more judgmental than feedback? hardly.

    3. provide no useful feedback. Really? NO useful feedback? It means nothing to a student of Spanish that s/he got 100 on a vocabulary quiz? nothing that s/he got 25% on a translation exercise? I beg to differ.

  21. I partially agree with Mr. Barnes’ rationale. Especially in humanities, grades definitely have a degree of subjectivity, whether we admit to it or not; but what is an education without feedback?

  22. Peace Corps says:

    I am not a convert. I am a math teacher. I try to be open minded to new ideas, but based on the students I have had in the past, and especially the students I have now, very few students would make any effort to learn the material I am teaching without tests. I think there would be even less effort without grades. This year more than my previous 2 years, many of my students want to know their grade (their standing) in my class weekly if not daily. It annoys me that they are more concerned with their grade than with learning math. So, I guess you could say I try to manipulate them by using their preoccupation with grades to try to get them to learn math. Do I wish that I got only students that enjoy math and want to learn as much as I can possibly teach them? Absolutely. But I don’t. So I work with what I am given, and I try many things to see what works with them.

    • Exactly! I think most of the anti-grades teachers here teach subjects like Art, Music, Social Studies, and English Language Arts. The Math and Science teachers would greatly disagree.

    • I used to teach physics. In my experience, most students are like thermostats. Some are set to ‘A’, and will tune in and work if their grades fall below ‘A’. Some are happy with a B-, and won’t work to improve it or even to maintain it, just to return to that level. The worst are the one’s who are happy with a ‘D’, because it’s almost impossible to motivate them with anything less than an ‘F’, which could be career suicide for the teacher.

      Not everyone has a “love for learning”, and even those who do don’t spread that love evenly. Even though I loved math, biology, and physics in hs I couldn’t stand English and there’s no magic motivation that I can think of that could get me through Hemingway. I even tried as an adult to get through some of the classics but I never could. They just don’t hold my interest and “great teaching” wouldn’t have changed that.

      • Some consider the Socratic Method the “perfect plane” of education. But then there is reality. Schools are faced with issues of basic competence and getting kids over minimal state standards. Look at the sample NAEP questions and answers online. The reality is that there is no one “best practice” for all kids. The perfect plane might consist of all happy, natural learners, but I don’t even see that in my son, who is a very good student and a sponge for knowledge. You can be natural at first, but give up when the going gets tough. Does anyone ever naturally learn to become an expert? Magic Johnson never liked it when people called him a natural.

        “There is no subjectivity involved [with SE2R]. I tell students what they did and how they did it, based on what I observed.”

        This isn’t correct. As soon as you start judging, subjectivity comes into play. Even math is subjective when you select the number and type of questions and give partial credit. Pass/fail might seem less subjective, but you still have to define the pass/fail point, and many students will “naturally” do the least work possible. My son works hard in school and does not like pass/fail or easy grading teachers. More annoying are the teachers who grade the more able students on a tougher scale. Rubrics are notorious for that – most are nonlinear.

        Do all students have the same Redirect and Resubmit level? What grade is that? My son has an English teacher who “interviews” students and asks them what they think their grade should be. He finds that so annoying. I told him back in 5th grade that if any teacher ever pulls that on him, then he should immediately say “an A”.

        Grading is a merit function. It’s a formula that tries to determine a single number that reflects quality. It could be something concrete, like profit on a product, or it could be something you see in Consumer Reports with weights assigned to imprecise variables. Even if something is subjective, defining a merit function forces you to be less subjective, or at least, it forces you to think carefully about your weighting values. That’s what grading is all about. If you have trouble defining your weights, you will have trouble giving students proper feedback.

        In math, I used to weight homework very little but told students that if they did the homework and understood it, then the tests would be easy. I gave many quizzes to keep them honest and working on a consistent basis, but I dropped the lowest grade. In computer science, however, the homework (working programs) had the highest weight, but tests were weighted low.

        You either subjectively grade, or you subjectively define a pass/fail point. Students who work harder than others want to be rewarded more than those who do less work. You could (subjectively) define an ‘A’ cutoff point and then use redirect and resubmit to get all students over that point, but good luck with that. If the resubmit cutoff is lower, better students won’t like it if their hard work is not rewarded with good grades based on clearly-defined weights.

        Grading does not have to be a demotivating factor, although it can be. Our high school has had discussions about the major impact of a single zero or very low grade. It kills your average. The solution, however, is not to claim that there is some proper objective approach. One solution is to drop the lowest grade on quizzes and homework. There is also the issue of designing a test so that a grade of 90-100 reflects ‘A’ work (etc.). This is very hard to do unless you have taught the course for a long time. (There is also the issue that if some teachers keep taking off points from the top, then it would be possible to get a negative score!) That’s why many teachers curve tests. They make a post-test judgment on the difficulty of the test. On some tests I’ve given, there was no curve applied because I had some historical knowledge of how students should do. On other tests, where I tried something new, I might realize that I expected too much and then apply a curve. Our high school has no option for post-test curving, so many teachers use tests with extra credit questions. That’s not necessarily a good solution.

        You have to confront subjectivity and deal with it. Good students don’t want pass/fail and they don’t want vague levels of redirect and resubmit.

        • Steve,

          I’m glad the parents I deal with aren’t so cynical. They are very open to the elimination of grades and love that their students have say in the process.

          • I rasied many specific issues, but this is your response? And you want to force these ideas on everyone?

  23. Roger Sweeny says:


    Let me start by saying that I think I would have enjoyed your class, and I would have been happy if my kids were in it. I think we agree more than it appears. Having said that …

    I think that you are sometimes linguistically imprecise. Upthread is my complaint about one use of the word arbitrary. The fact that an A at one school is not the same as an A at another school does not mean that the grades are arbitrary. It means that they are not comparable between schools (though they may be comparable within the school).

    Similarly with the word “subjective.” SteveH raises a number of good points, as have a number of the other commenters. You said on April 17, 2012 at 1:39 pm, “There is no subjectivity involved. I tell students what they did and how they did it, based on what I observed.” This is going to sound harsh but you should be embarrassed to have written that. It says you are perfect and have managed to transcend human weakness as no one has ever done before.

    There is no question that grades are subjective, but so is any system of task assignment and feedback. Any system involves some arbitrariness. You simply cannot honestly say, “I have eliminated arbitrariness and subjectivity from my classroom.” Unless you redefine them to mean “bad things that happen with grades that don’t happen with my system.”

    That is intellectually dishonest.

    You have something that you think is better for students and you want to sell it to other teachers. It is so tempting to use “my system gets rid of arbitrariness and subjectivity” as a sales pitch. After all, who doesn’t want that? Thus, It is so tempting to actually believe you have done it. The best salesmen believe their own lines.

    It’s a lot harder to say, “I have reduced some kinds of subjectivity and I think that is important because …” However, it’s just more true, and I got into this business because I care about truth. It bothers me when good people let their proselytizing get ahead of the facts. (Which then leads to cynicism when people try the system and it doesn’t work as well as the sales pitch said it would.)

    • Roger, this is quite possibly the most insightful comment made here, including all of my own.

      You are absolutely right. There is definitely some degree of subjectivity in the assignments given and the feedback about how they’re done, so saying there is none is overstating.

      I do believe that what I do is far better than grades, as well-written narrative feedback removes most of the subjectivity and is far less judgmental.

      You have given me much to consider, and I promise to work hard to eliminate any further proselytizing.

  24. Roger Sweeny says:

    Nothing wrong with honest proselytizing 🙂

    Walking home from the store this morning, I was thinking grades/narrative feedback is like dating/marriage.

    When you’re dating, there’s all this anxiety and game playing and insecurity. Does he like me for who I am or is he using me? How much should I misrepresent myself? How much is he misrepresenting himself? If he wants to do something that I don’t, should I pretend to like it? If he says something that I disagree with, should I pretend to agree, just keep quiet, or let him know what I really think? Will he stick around when the novelty wears off? Will he stick around when he gets to know me better? Can I trust him? Should I leave him before he leaves me?

    After you get married, you get rid of a lot of that–but not all of it (and, of course, you add some new problems). Anyone who thinks that getting married means that you live “happily ever after” without any problems really does believe in a fairy tale.

    But for many people a lot of the time, it’s better.