Why Some Schools are Rethinking Grading and Evaluation

Why Some Schools are Rethinking Grading and Evaluation
The Editorial Team February 3, 2015

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Most schools follow standard grading systems, with a letter scale of A through F, and a corresponding numerical value used to calculate students’ grade point averages. Although this system helps us to understand and track student performance on a universal scale, there are some drawbacks to the method.

Some critics argue that assigning numerical or letter values to student performance can actually be damaging to students. As a possible solution to the problem, some educators are looking to alternative practices to foster positive student development without the “F is for Failure” stigma.

Critics of traditional grading systems

Montessori schools

One of the most widely-known systems in opposition to the A through F grading scale is the Montessori approach, created by Maria Montessori in 1907. Her disruptive brand of pedagogy emphasizes the growth of the students from themselves, rather than something to be imposed upon them. The American Montessori Society explains the distinction, “Grades, like other external rewards, have little lasting effect on a child’s efforts or achievements. The Montessori approach nurtures the motivation that comes from within, kindling the child’s natural desire to learn. A self-motivated learner also learns to be self-sufficient, without needing reinforcement from outside. In the classroom, of course, the teacher is always available to provide students with guidance and support.”

Student performance and self-esteem

Other critics of traditional grading methods look to issues with student self-esteem which can stem from negative reinforcement and lead to a lack of motivation in the future. Receiving consistent negative assessment scores without a consciously supportive backing can be damaging to the student. In fact, research from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research indicates up to 80 percent of students base their self-worth on academic performance. Researchers also found that the students deriving their self-worth on outside sources reported “more stress, anger, academic problems, relationship conflicts and had higher levels of drug and alcohol use and symptoms of eating disorders.”

Creativity and self-expression

Additionally, constant grading has the potential to limit acceptable forms of performance to relatively narrow standards. It can constrain rather than foster creative growth and forms of self-expression for students. Looking back to grade-free Montessori schools, there is a visible improvement in creativity and community-building as compared to graded schools. An article about Milwaukee Montessori students in Slate explains, “students performed better than grade-based students at reading and math; they also ‘wrote more creative essays with more complex sentence structures, selected more positive responses to social dilemmas and reported feeling more of a sense of community at their school.’”

Alternative grading strategies

Inspired to solve some of these dilemmas, educators have developed other strategies to evaluate students from a place of positivity and encouragement to incorporate into the classroom. While these don’t necessarily need to replace traditional grading methods in their entirety, they can serve as valuable tools and resources for teachers seeking new solutions where others may have failed in the past. Here are just a few of the possible alternatives currently being used in schools.

Teacher feedback and live commentary

By giving students feedback and constructive criticism on their work, as they work, teachers guide their students along a more collaboratively-focused development, rather than judging their performance as a final result. This encourages growth in accordance with students’ individual needs, rather than punishing them with negative grades for taking longer to master the material.


By giving students the reins in their education, you’re teaching them responsibility and self-motivation. Asking students how they thought they performed or how much effort they exerted puts them in a position of reflection and inspiration to live up to their own high standards.

Select highlights and areas for improvement

Rather than assigning students a numerical grade on their assessment, it can be far more beneficial to select some highlights of areas in which they excel, and point out some areas which could use further development. By then supplying them with some advice for how to improve in the future, the student goes home with a focus on positive growth for the future, rather than feelings of guilt or futility from negative criticism.

Take cues from gaming

Gamification has proven to be a successful strategies for software programs and other consumer products, and the same can be applied to education. By setting up systems for students to earn specific distinctions for reaching their goals, they’re inspired to do well, and have fun doing so.

There are plenty of ways to encourage students in the classroom, and while traditional grades are unlikely to disappear anytime soon, we can all be a little more cognizant of how they are actually affecting the students who receive them.

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