Not having grades at all would be good for being radical, “making a statement” and all, but actually grades do serve one productive role in our education system. Grades are a very good system for allocating college scholarships to the students who work the hardest for them. This is a valuable function that helps provide economic opportunities to the most deserving students. (Grades are probably the part of college applications least affected by a students’ socioeconomic background) When I assign grades, though, I will strive to follow the advice Alfie Kohn gives in his book What Does It Mean to be Well-Educated?
“Finally, there is the question of what classroom teachers can do while grades continue to be required. The short answer is that they should do everything within their power to make grades as invisible as possible for as long as possible. Helping students forget about grades is the single best piece of advice for those who want to create a learning-oriented classroom.
“When I was teaching high school, I did a lot of things I now regret. But one policy that still seems sensible to me was saying to students on the first day of class that, while I was compelled to give them a grade at the end of the term, I could not in good conscience ever put a letter or number on anything they did during the term—and I would not do so. I would, however, write a comment—or, better, sit down and talk with them—as often as possible to give them feedback.” – pg. 85
Teaching a math or physics class with the current emphasis on standardized tests, I think I will have to “put a letter or number” on some of the work students do. However, I wouldn’t have to count that letter or number toward the students’ final grade. (Maybe separate the class into a “standardized testing” part, and a “learning the actual subject” part, and just grade based on the “learning the subject”). I believe Alfie’s advice is excellent, for me, at least.
Rather than just looking at the work a student has done (aka whether or not they do what you tell them to do), this system gets teachers to consider students’ motivations in assigning grades (Students who genuinely cared about the subject would be deservedly rewarded). Admittedly, this non-objective grading system could become extremely unfair, so I’ll have to make sure I develop a trusting relationship with each student in order to assign them a fair grade. Luckily, developing trust with students is exactly what I think teaching should be about. 🙂
Just as a last thought, I doubt I would give grades below a B-. In other words, for a student that most teachers would give a C or D, I’ll probably bump them up to a B-. We need grades to differentiate the A students from everybody else, but other than that, I think any further ranking of students in high school is pretty useless, and probably does more harm than good. (Who cares whether or not a future office clerk can do geometry, or whether a future engineer reads Shakespeare?)