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Man with watering cans illustration by Nate Williams
Illustration: Nate Williams

Grading using letter grades to assess students doesn’t start on day one, when kids enter kindergarten. At most elementary

schools, “progress” is spelled out in a more drilled down way. Instead of As and Bs, it might include a numbered scale, with a 4 indicating a student demonstrates skills above grade level and a 1 indicating the student seldom understands the concepts. But what’s most useful in elementary report cards is the added information: “Can mentally add or subtract 10s and 100s” or “Takes notes with sources listed correctly.” After elementary school, these tangible specifics usually get replaced in middle school with just letter grades and maybe a drop-down menu of generic comments like “demonstrates enthusiasm for subject matter” that teachers can choose to include, or not. By high school, it’s often just letter grades.

“What we saw during the pandemic is that people became much more acutely aware of grading practices because grades had to be reassessed in light of remote learning and curriculum being redesigned and assessment being totally turned on its head,” says Grading for Equity author Joe Feldman. “That greater need to look at grading has created this much stronger curiosity and sense that that’s an aspect of teaching and learning that deserves more attention.”

At Melrose High School, several teachers were reading Feldman’s book prior to COVID and knew they had an opportunity to make changes. Once they were fully in the pandemic, they realized there were things that absolutely had to change. “The pandemic provided us with that kind of insight,” says Melanie Acevedo, the district’s director of instructional technology and personalized learning. “For educators nationwide, not just here in Melrose, the pandemic brought us forward in a lot of ways, but it also brought us back with a little bit of the work we had been doing — the universal design for learning and personalized learning work, for example. We were probably a few years behind where we were when we went out for the pandemic, which I would expect. We’re seeing a bounce back now.”

“We actually want students to make mistakes on homework, because if there’s any place that you should make mistakes in your learning, you should do it when you’re practicing, like on homework,” Grading for Equity author Joe Feldman said on the Harvard EdCast in 2019. But if “we include their performance on that homework in the grade, we’re telling them ‘make a lot of mistakes and we’re going to punish you for it,’ which is totally confusing and undermines our messaging.”

A recent story in The Hechinger Report focused on a growing movement by some colleges to “ungrade,” meaning they would stop assigning the traditional A through F letter grades, especially to first-year college students. “The idea,” writes Jon Marcus in The Hechinger Report, “is meant to ease the transition to higher education — especially for freshmen who are the first in their families to go to college or who weren’t well prepared for college-level work in high school and need more time to master it.” Other colleges, like MIT, use something called “ramp-up grading” — first-year students receive only a “pass” (or not pass) for each class during the first semester, no letter grade. Marcus notes that making big changes like this at the college level isn’t easy. “It’s how faculty themselves were largely judged as they went through college. Parents, high schools, and university admissions offices put a premium on grade-point averages — an even greater one as many institutions make the SAT and ACT optional. Even car insurance companies give ‘good-grades discounts’ to student-age drivers.”

Mention “earning a badge” to most people and they think of the scouts, where you collect sew-on patches for learning skills such as fire safety or how to play the trumpet. But Harvard Professor Danielle Allen and her team at the Democratic Knowledge Project think it’s time a similar “badging” approach be used in schools across the country to replace traditional letter grades. As they spell out in their white paper, A Call to More Equitable Learning: How Next-Generation Badging Improves Education for All, badging is a more accurate, equitable way to measure, record, and report K–12 student learning.

What elevates badging from the traditional letter grade system is what’s “behind” the badges, says David Kidd, the project’s chief assessment scientist and a research director at Project Zero.

“The badge itself is just a signifier. It signifies that a competency has been developed with pre-defined definitions,” he says. “Essentially, what we’re trying to do is make sure the badges have credibility that they’re backed by meaning.”

The project is piloting badges in civics and math with partner groups, including the XQ Institute. With math, they’ll “unbundle” algebra I, create a list of important competencies, and then develop related badges. Looking at civics, Allen says, “badges range from things like does a student understand the framework for thinking about rights and responsibilities in our legal system? You can badge that as an area of knowledge. Have they built up the skills, the actual practices and habits that support collaboration across lines of difference? That would be another kind of competency that you can badge.”

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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