Is It Time for a National Conversation About Eliminating Letter Grades?


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As Joshua Eyler was researching a book on what brain science tells us about how to improve teaching, one issue kept coming up as an underlying problem: The way schools and colleges grade student work is at odds with effective teaching.

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The science says kids need to feel free to try things and fail, and that the deepest learning comes when failure happens and the student figures out how to course-correct, Eyler says. Our system of letter grades and the emphasis on keeping a high GPA to win educational opportunities like scholarships and slots in the best colleges, however, discourages moments of failure. And the online gradebooks that instantly alert family members to any low grade have made the downsides of letter grades even worse, he argues.

“It’s always felt like the elephant in the room, the one that it’s hard to talk about because grading is so much a part of the foundation of everything we do in education that it felt to me too big to tackle at first,” says Eyler, who directs the teaching center at the University of Mississippi.

In fact, many schools that have taken on reforming their grading systems have faced passionate objections from parents, who worry that their children will miss out on opportunities, or lose their motivation to turn in work, if they aren’t striving to win high marks in the traditional grading game.

Eyler decided to take on the topic head-on in his latest book, due out this summer, called “Failing Our Future: How Grades Harm Students, and What We Can Do About It.” He says his hope is to start a national conversation about reforming grading in schools and colleges — to include not just teachers, but also parents, students and policy leaders.

“Because what I have noticed is that most of this conversation happens in distinct corners,” he says. “And what we need to do, if we want to make changes, is we all need to come together to talk about it. And that means being on the same page as to where we are in that conversation.”

He promotes alternatives to letter grades such as standards-based grading, and says that such moves have been proven to be more equitable because they give students who might not be as prepared more time to revise work and show what they know.

But the track record for such reforms is mixed. “It was an unmitigated disaster in Maine,” Eyler admits, referring to a 2012 state law mandated that schools move to “proficiency-based” grading (a flavor of standards-based grading). That law was later repealed, in favor of letting schools have local control of how to handle grading after complaints about the new system and what reports later found was an uneven rollout of the new practices.

Meanwhile, some schools have successfully made the switch, such as Santa Fe Public Schools.

Reforming grading requires a big shift in how people perceive the purpose of assessing students, moving from the idea of ranking ability to instead getting as many students as possible to master key concepts. So success will require a broader effort to educate parents and students, he argues.

EdSurge sat down with Eyler to talk about his new book, and his response to parents and students who are skeptical about ditching letter grades.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, YouTube or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.

Correction: This article originally misstated Joshua Eyler’s title.

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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