Going Gradeless in Elementary – Part 1

As a class this past month, we have been learning about arguments and how to effectively write an argumentative essay.  From debating the importance of a digital detox to the role of social media in our lives, we’ve enjoyed arguing our positions on a variety of topics; understanding the importance of having supporting details to back up our positions. 

For one of our essays, students reflected on the idea of going gradeless in Elementary. After reading a couple of articles and watching a few videos, students were finally ready to pick their positions and set about organizing their ideas for their essays. Using a persuasion map, students reflected on the information presented and their own thoughts, ideas and experiences, and considered their 3 best reasons for their position. Once finished, they set about writing their essays and I was incredibly surprised by their positions. Many students actually supported the idea of keeping grades but suggested changes that should be made to render the grading system more effective. 

In this post, I will be sharing some of the insights of the students who believe that we should continue with grades in Elementary. In part 2, you’ll have the opportunity to hear the arguments from the other position. Hold on to your hats, these students had some incredible reasons either for or against our current grading system. 

Yes to Grades!

“Good grades lead to scholarships and opportunities for post secondary education.” 

When I hear young students – I teach 10- and 11-year-olds – talking about scholarships and post-secondary education, it always blows my mind. I think that there was always an expectation for me to go to University but I don’t think that I started to worry about grades until I was in Grade 10. It was then that one of my teachers suggested that I do something other than Sciences as I “wasn’t good at them”. I think it was at that moment that I decided that I was going to be a Scientist and I started paying attention to my grades and considering what courses I needed to take in order to prove that teacher wrong. 

While I know that the idea of “success” is drilled into us at an early age, it’s remarkable that these students are already equating their worth or their future employment outcomes based on grades they are yet to attain. I say yet to attain because I really wonder what marks in Grade 5 mean to students who are in Grade 11 or 12.  Many of my students claim that I am a hard marker and this statement alone suggests that grades have a certain level of subjectivity from one teacher to the next. 

Within this particular essay, the student reminds us that the requirements for entry into post-secondary education or for scholarships are directly related to marks and as such, getting rid of marks would require us to change the acceptance criteria for both. Unless we are willing to change the entire system, getting rid of grades at the Elementary level seems counterproductive. 

“School is a replica of life for youth, as stress and competition are present everywhere in the world. Grades are used to measure a student the same way that income is to an employee.”

The argument of school as a microcosm of the world. Those who succeed in the game of school will succeed in the game of life. If only this were true. While I believe that much of what we experience in our years in the education system certainly has an impact on future outcomes and experiences, there are many people who were not necessarily “good” at the game of school, and who have become quite successful in their own right, in the game of life.

This idea of better grades equating to a better job and in turn more money is one that is held by many of my students. It’s a narrative that they have learned along the way and begs for further inspection. I consider many people who are highly educated and still struggle to find jobs for a variety of reasons. I think of newcomers, those with differing abilities, and those who are racialized and face systemic racism. While these play a role in students’ experiences within school communities, the reality for adults who are newcomers, have differing abilities, and/or are racialized, tends to have different layers of impact. 

Do grades now really determine future success? Is managing the stress of grades equal to managing the stress of a job in the future? My students tend to think so. 

“Accountability. If you know you are getting marked you will actually do the work.”

Many students argued that when they are getting marked on something, they actually work harder, which makes me wonder about the intrinsic value of learning. Isn’t that the whole point of school in the first place? To have a desire to learn, rather than a desire to get a gold star? Wait…we do give out gold stars in school too.

During our discussions, students mentioned that if an activity or task was seen as being a practice for an upcoming culminating activity or test, they may not put in as much effort because they know that it’s just practice. On the other hand, for the final task itself, they would be sure to hand in better work because they know that the expectation is higher because this is something that the teacher sees as valuable and worthy of a mark. This made me wonder about my own methods of assessment and evaluation and what I value and in turn have imparted on my students as valuable. How have I contributed to this idea of getting the work done because there is a mark attached to it? Is it more important than the learning along the way?

So there you have it. These are just some of the reasons why my students say that we should keep grades in Elementary. I must admit that even among those who think we should keep grades, there was significant mention of teachers being able to justify the grades through feedback. So even when a grade is attached, feedback is still something that students want. In part 2, I share the other side of this argument.

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Updated: May 31, 2021 — 9:54 pm

The Author

Arianna Lambert

I'm a Grade 5 Teacher in the Toronto District School Board who loves integrating technology and mindfulness in the classroom. Through inquiry and design, I work with students who are engaged in meaningful learning opportunities; developing core competencies, while creating ways to make the world an even better place. I am the recipient of a TDSB Excellence Award for the co-creation of #tdsbEd, Twitter chats for educators. Through conversations on trends in Education from STEAM to Mindfulness, it has become an online community of educators dedicated to improving their practice to ensure greater student success, well-being and achievement.

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