Friday, December 9, 2011

My Struggle With Letter Grades

This was written by Tia Henriksen who is a vice-principal of an elementary school. Tia blogs here.

by Tia Henriksen

Much of my teaching experience, prior to becoming a vice-principal was teaching primary students. When teaching primary students, we do not assign letter grades. Instead, we look at each prescribed learning outcome for each student on a continuum of learning: not yet within expectations, approaching expectations, meeting expectations, and exceeding expectations. I very rarely indicated a student was “exceeding expectations”, unless a child is quite far above in certain reading, writing, or math learning outcomes.

When I became a Vice-Principal, I had the opportunity to teach a variety of classes, some of which had to be given letter grades. I wasn’t all that comfortable giving letter grades, but I did it the way many teachers did at that time – gather many, many assignments, and give them each a score (I had a 1-4 levelling system – not letter grades), then add them all up at the end of the term and then average them all out, etc… and come up with a letter grade for that subject. This was not the worst method, but it was still not great. That was 5 years ago. I’ve learned a great deal since then and have not taught/assessed this way this year.

This year, I am teaching 4 classes to whom I have to give letter grades as a representation of their learning at the end of each term. I teach French to two Grade 5 classes and Health and Career Education to a Grade 5/6 class and a Grade 6 class. While these are all new subjects for me to teach, I feel it has been going well this year so far.

In the Health and Career Education classes, we’ve been discussing, working in groups, working individually, blogging, watching youtube videos, watching educational videos on learn360, and talking about what we’ve learned. The students have been motivated and have been learning.

In the French classes, we’ve been singing, talking, watching funny french youtube videos, making posters, making booklets, and asking and answering questions. We have been just generally enjoying ourselves along with our learning.

In addition, and possibly most importantly for many students, but especially those from inner-city schools, we have been building relationships in all four classes. We have been getting to know one another, our learning styles, our likes, our dislikes, our hobbies, and learning to trust one another. Sometimes, I must admit, the curriculum has taken second-fiddle to relationship-building since we only see one another for 2 – 50 minute blocks each week.

We’ve had some assignments which the students have self- and peer-evaluated. I have also evaluated some of these assignments, but not many, to be honest. Too often, the kids would ask, “Are we being marked on this?” or “Does this count for our mark?” I cringed each and every time I heard this question. And, I would respond, “Everything ‘counts’ – it’s all about our learning. The process is much more important than the product. Stop thinking so much about grades and start thinking more about your learning.” This response seemed to pacify them for the most part. The learning and excitement continued. We also do not have homework in my classes. We work on the work in class. It may take longer to do things, but I feel with all the other work they have in their other subjects, the last thing I wanted was to add more work on them at home with our class as well.

My students come up to me each day while I am on supervision and ask, “Do we have HACE (Health and Career Education) today?” They would either cheer (if I said yes) or moan (if I said no). Same with my French classes. They love our classes. They are motivated, they are learning, and they are having fun!

Yah, okay, now reporting time is coming and I am struggling. This is my struggle. I really don’t want to give these students grades for their work this term. It all seems so subjective to me. We’ve read so much on letter grades and how letter grades actually hinder their learning, not enhance/motivate the students. In a recent article,The Case Against Grades (, Alfie Kohn, asserts that,

“Collecting information doesn’t require tests, and sharing that information doesn’t require grades. In fact, students would be a lot better off without either of these relics from a less enlightened age.”

Kohn goes on to discuss the effects grades have on students. In fact, he states that,
“when students from elementary school to college who are led to focus on grades are compared with those who aren’t, the results support three robust conclusions: 
* Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning. 
* Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task. 
* Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.“ (Kohn, November, 2011).
Furthermore, Kohn goes on to state that,
“the more students are led to focus on how well they’re doing, the less engaged they tend to be with what they’re doing.”
In today’s age of disengaged students, we need to do more to engage our students, not further disengage them and discourage them from challenging themselves and learning to the best of their ability.

One may think that there are not any alternatives. In fact, Kohn states that an alternative to giving letter grades is not a “utopian fantasy”. Some classes and schools are
“Replacing letter and number grades with narrative assessments or conferences — qualitative summaries of student progress offered in writing or as part of a conversation.”
Furthermore, with this new reporting practise, these schools have found that,
“their students are often more motivated and proficient learners, thus better prepared for college, than their counterparts at traditional schools who have been preoccupied with grades.”
While I would love our current system to be like the one described in this article, that is not the case. I will have to give letter grades to my students. As one way to mitigate the difficulties associated with giving students letter grades, Kohn says that
“although teachers may be required to submit a final grade, there’s no requirement for them to decide unilaterally what that grade will be. Thus, students can be invited to participate in that process either as a negotiation (such that the teacher has the final say) or by simply permitting students to grade themselves.”
What an interesting concept. I could have the students themselves grade their proficiency in the prescribed learning outcomes for the term. I wonder how accurately they would assess themselves. I wonder how parents would react? I wonder how the other teachers would respond?

Do you have experience having to give grades, not wanting to, and then finding another alternative? If so, what alternative have you used?


  1. I think you and the students could do conferences to decide on a final grade together if you have to. I think they would be very honest and accurate on how they assess themselves. I also think that the majority of parents would like it because their student would be able to explain why they received the grade they received. I think you could face push-back from a variety of areas but I applaud you for your efforts!

  2. Hi Joe,
    I, too, must commend you on spreading the message.
    Here is how I see it. As long as post-secondary institutions are accepting students based on grades, we are stuck giving students grades.
    We have had many conversations at our school (and district) about assessment and grading and it always seems to come back to the necessity of reporting grades.
    How else is a kid going to get into university. On what criteria will a kid get a Rutherford scholarship?

  3. Yeah I think the only way to create change would be to get an entire province on board, which would force the other istitutions to accept an alternative to grades.

    I'm having my first experience with no grades this year, since I'm not a classroom teacher anymore. I'm keeping a lot of narrative notes. It still seems weird to me not to be keeping grades, but the sky hasn't caved in...

  4. In the Granite District School Board they use real world techniques. It's not how smart you are, it's how smart you look. But then again they use dogs as Guidance Counselors. Check out Granite and Chalk, a novel at


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