About a month ago, Asao Inoue visited my campus to talk about pedagogy and race; the room was packed, standing room only. Among his recommendations that day for addressing systemic racial injustice in education: Don’t grade.
For most people who have been raised in most late 20th/early 21st century formal education systems, this seems impossible. But it’s worth it to, with apologies to John Lennon, imagine there’s no grades.
Dr. Inoue was, of course, mostly concerned with what instructors and administrators, as arbiters and bearers of authority, can do to dismantle systems that reproduce and amplify racial injustice by disguising it as “merit” and “achievement.” And that is a worthy concern, one I respect deeply, while acknowledging that in more ways than I’m even capable of seeing, I benefit from these systems.
However, what I want to look at here is how eliminating grading might benefit instructors–that is, how do we, who are the arbiters of these labels themselves, improve our own lives by removing grades.
Instructors benefit very little from the tedious decision-making of ranking each student into one of 5 ranks (one of which, it should be noted, is usually a MUCH larger range of scores than the others). Well, you say, just replace it with raw numbers. But what I mean here is to focus not on generation a cumulative mark at all, but rather to use a pass/fail at most to indicate if students have succeeded in mastering the skills promised by the course description.
The slavery to these marks that we practice, for both ourselves and our students, results in focusing on the marks themselves as a substitute for content and skills themselves. It focuses on putting numbers and letters on assignments and assessments rather than responding to them in their own rights, leading to false equivalencies.
It also results in too much anxiety for both students and instructors alike. The anxiety for students is obvious; the difference between an A and a B is functionally very small, yet who among us has not seen a student cry over it? For instructors, it’s more subtle. It is a sort of Pavlovian conditioning, so that we flinch when we grade precisely because so often when we put a grade down, we are immediately slapped with a complaint, generally as an email, often so fast that we can be sure the student didn’t read our carefully considered feedback. The grade, then, harms the student by distracting from the feedback, and harms the instructor by forcing them to spend more time defending their grading practices and balancing rubrics and answering emails than focusing on the students’ work itself.
So what would a class without grades look like? For that, we probably need to look outside the academy. When I asked a colleague with some experience how Dr. Inoue does it, I was told contract grading, which seems to be many instructors’ favorite answer–but contract grading is still grading, as Dr. Inoue himself admitted in his talk. What I am proposing is more radical than even that, but not so radical that I haven’t seen how it would work in practice.
My mother is an art teacher; I learned a lot of my teaching skills from her, rather than my pedagogy classes (sorry, it’s true). But she doesn’t teach in conventional settings; instead, she teaches at after school programs through a park system, at senior centers, at renaissance fairs and anime conventions, and anywhere else that will give her a table and access to students. While it is she who taught me to clearly articulate the purpose of each part of a lesson, and to consider how I might evaluate that my students learned what the lesson was supposed to teach, her evaluations are never grades in these settings. Never once does she have to sit down at a spreadsheet and figure out letter grades (she does sometimes have to sort out attendance and rosters as a practical concern in some settings).
Generally, her students are there because they want to be (there are exceptions). And while many of her lessons are under strict practical time constraints, they aren’t under the artificial constraints of the bell curve. Unlike myself, never once has she come under supervisor scrutiny because too many of her students did too well in her class.
But her students do learn. And often come back, hungry to learn more. And she can measure that her students learned. But those measurements are qualitative, not quantitative. She assesses her students not by tests and percentages, but by watching them do the thing that they are learning to do. The content is first and foremost.
But, you might say, that’s fine for teaching art skills, which are by nature qualitative and subjective. But, I answer, so also are other skills, hard or soft. Our numbers and letters and spreadsheets are meant to help us process more students more efficiently, but that doesn’t serve us or the students. It serves only the administration, if anyone at all. Then again, the hard part would be persuading the administration to let us do away with grading. To let us teach the ways that these students on the margins–in these cracks where learning is happening without official sanction–are learning anyway.
What would this look like in my perfect classroom? I would still carefully assign my students work that would teach the necessary skills. But instead of a grade, I simply write the comments I usually write anyway. But without the grade, students would not be able to shortcut past those comments. Instead, their emails would no longer be “Why did I get a B?” but “What did you mean by…?” And at the end of the semester, I simply sign off on a checklist of skills to say that they acquired the necessary skills.
And somehow, that seems like a better world.