Grades in Costume

In a few short days, little ones dressed in costume will overtake our streets. Some will go for that scary look whereas others will go for one that is cute and cuddly. My son for instance thinks his fire-breathing dragon will be scary but in reality a 2 year old trying to muster a roar will likely come across as adorable.

Just like our children at Halloween, we are also putting costumes on letter grades to give them a different look and feel. A’s are going as “Extending,” B’s are going as “Applying,” and C’s as “Developing.”  There is significant research that has shown that grades do not help students learn and in many cases hinder learning. My wonder is if scales of any kind, those containing letter grades or not, are the real problem.  Jesse Stommel wrote a great blog post recently “Why I don’t Grade” and his ideas really resonated with me. Here is one of his graphics:


There is a sweeping move to get rid of letter grades (which I believe in) yet in many cases we are replacing them with different scales. Rather than using A, B, C…we are using strength-based language like “Extending, Applying, Developing and Beginning.” I like these words to be honest and when I first started to see scales similar to these pop up I too hopped on the bandwagon. Why would we not want to move towards strength-based language? “Developing” takes on an entirely different tone than of a “C!”  Unfortunately, when I started to see these scales in action (including in my own class) it left me feeling underwhelmed. I heard of educators looking to build of scales with 6 strength-based descriptive words so they could translate it to the 6 levels of letter grades we currently have. Others were going so far as using ambiguous symbols and colours to make it difficult to understand where one actually was on the scale. This made me wonder what the real intent of these “new” scales were. Are they to deceive? Do we want students and parents not to focus on where they are at on the given scale? If so, it begs the question why bother with a scale at all? Moreover, if at the end of the day teachers, students, and parents are going to look at the language of our new scales and correlate it with letter grades then I would argue we are accomplishing nothing. We are simply putting lipstick on a pig (an impressive Halloween costume might I add).


In my experience scales of any type, ones with letter grades, ones with 4 points or 5 points, even those that have strength-based descriptive language tend to lead us down the same path. They are used to compare, they do not provide useful feedback and can demotivate. So, instead of dressing letter grades in costume I suggest we spend our time tailoring a “scaleless” approach that helps us all celebrate where students are at in their learning and helps them determine their next steps.

3 thoughts on “Grades in Costume

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