Home Feature ‘Teaching Without Grades’- Is It Possible?

‘Teaching Without Grades’- Is It Possible?

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By Roli S
Since the introduction of NEP 2020 and the search for ways to implement it, there is a clamour for revamping the assessment patterns in our schools and colleges.

The pandemic has brought to the fore many issues that plague the assessment patterns in our schools. After the cancelation of board examinations, it took quite an effort to formulate fair and just criteria to grade students.

Grading in education is the attempt to apply standardised measurements of varying levels of achievement. In India, different educational boards use different metrics in awarding grades to students, along with the marks obtained in most cases. The Central Board of Secondary Education follows a positional grading system where grades are given on the basis of the position of the student in the exam taken. If the student is in the top 1/8th rank, the grade is A1, next 1/8th – A2, next 1/8th – B1, and so on. This grading system is based on the relative position of the student rather than the actual marks. It compares marks of different students and then a grade is given.

One criticism is that grades are only short-term snapshots of how much a student has learned in a given period of time, which only partially reflect the actual performance and do not take sufficient account of the individual development of students. Likewise, poor grades over a longer period of time puts in danger the intrinsic motivation of every child to learn.

Students who only study for their grades have no reason to continue learning after they have achieved the best possible grade.In addition, poor grades represent destructive feedback for students, since they do not provide any constructive assistance, but only absolute key figures.

Another criticism is that, often, bad grades lead to poor future prospects, to perplexity, pressure and stress among parents and children. Students often do not learn for their future life or out of interest in the material, but only for the grades and the associated status, which promotes rote learning.

Most students in our schools know the drill. Some strive for all A1 grades, some for A2 or B2 grades, and some are happy with C1 grade and above. ‘Competing’ is what they are all working for and passing means ‘competing’. They are moved to the next grade. They are approved. But is this really the kind of competency one should be after?

These days, academicians and teachers have become increasingly aware of the flaws in using numbers to measure intellectual capabilities. The role of student data is encroaching upon old grade-tracking methods. Student-centered learning is changing the tone of classroom productivity today. Conversations are being carried out to replace the report cards. Teachers are coming out of the closet with their true feelings regarding traditional grading practices.

This brings us to the topic of discussion – is teaching without grades possible in our schools? With this alternative will come a range of reactions, most of which will be based in curiosity or confusion. How do you teach without grades? How do students stay motivated to study? Do students all become “the same”? How do you know when they are “performing well”?

In my capacity, I want to bring in some clarifying distinctions about the ‘teaching without grades’ idea.

Basically, in this type of teaching, teachers move away from traditional grading, and the majority of red pen percentages and numbers are replaced with communication of strengths and action steps for students, to navigate their academic journey. The purpose of this is to create a two-way street by collaborating, not reporting; guiding, not defining; and quality, not quantity or compliance.

This is the challenge for education systems, and in a way, this has remained the reason why traditional grading system exist in schools all over the world. But studies and learning, under traditional grading, typically become labour-based pay for most students. They just absorb requirements for getting marks, and then try to meet those requirements. Their inquiry tends to lean towards how to get good marks, rather than towards the subject matter they are working with. Knowledge-wise, they take very little from it. This is exactly why the criticism of traditional grading is reaching a peak.

With teaching without grades and individual feedback, students are more likely to practice thinking for themselves, ask questions, and learn.

And for the doubt that all students will be the same in gradeless teaching, the clarification is that gradeless teaching, if executed well, is actually the complete opposite. In classrooms, the use of marks is currently used more as an easy yardstick for students to “make it” or “not make it”. Therefore, naturally, if the goal for students is to just meet the standard, that is exactly what they all do. It is human nature. Consequently, with traditional grading, the success of students ends up looking exactly the same, since they have all met the same, uniform standards.

Whereas in the individual, personalised feedback, students are likely to begin knowing their capabilities and caring about improvement. They take more ownership of their performance, as they know it is individual to them. This model, if done well, actually raises the expectations of each student, allowing for more quality work and growth.

The goal of passing tests or grades will shift towards more personalised, individual feedback and students will be able to navigate their own education, and are more likely, with guidance, of course, to set goals for themselves that they actually want to achieve.

As a result, the end goal will become academic growth, instead of everyone meeting identical standards and, hopefully, landing in the passing or any other range. With this, classrooms will have more space for experimentation, innovation, creative discussion, intellectual exploration, and project-based activities. Thus, student production and not the test results will become the end goal.

Another concern that arises with the teaching without grades is how academic excellence will be measured? This is where the distinction between traditional grades and student data is important. Student data and the practice of tracking progress of students will always be helpful. The difference here is how data should be gathered. Most argue that multiple-choice tests and sit-down exams do not yield data as helpful as when students create, write, or innovate something.

Basically, ‘competing’ should not be the end goal if we expect “academic excellence” from students. When students are treated as though they all have the potential to be excellent, they, more than likely, will. Traditional grading does not always encourage this.

With the rise of student data’s role in the classroom, traditional grading will slowly but finally lose school and campus emphasis and will be used solely as a communication tool between families and teachers.

Student data collection should be the priority of schools and campuses now and should be treated differently from report cards. Thus, teachers will end up handling more information than before, and the opportunity is here for the two to become hybrid. This means less time on the report cards and more time put towards meaningful teaching and growth.
Teaching without grades is still a ‘golden dream’ to many but, once explored, I believe many would agree that the thought process has merit, and it is worth serious consideration, especially in the post NEP 2020 and post Pandemic era.

(Roli S is an Educator, Teacher-Trainer, Author and School Reviewer based in Thane)