assessment, education reform, grades, Personalized Learning, student voice

Before You Give Letter Grades, Please Ask Your Students

I have had a problem with letters grades for a few years now.  I used to write about it all of the time, and then stopped because I felt like all of the words had been written.  But now, I am back facing having to give letter grades for the semester as my district transitions from them to standards based grades.  All of those old thoughts of why letter grades say so little about a students knowledge, effort, and accomplishment have been hounding me throughout my days as the deadline for giving them nears.  But then I remembered; I need to ask the students what grades they should get.

It is rather simple process.  As a class we discuss what makes an “A?” What should a child be able to do in class and out of it to get that elusive top grade?  What does “A” thinking, writing, reading, discussion, and doing overall look and sound like?  We go through each letter grade this way as a class and determine our definitions.  We publish them to our website so parents can see.  The standards based scores they have received are also part of it but they are not averaged and they are not the only component.

Once the students have created a group definition, they evaluate themselves.  On a small sheet of paper they are asked which grade they feel they deserve and why.  The why is important here as I need to see their thinking.

Once they have completed the sheet, we meet.  We have to have a face to face discussion of what grade they think they should receive, what my thoughts are, as well as the path forward.   Often I find I agree with a child, but if there is disagreement whether the grade should be lower or higher, it is of utmost importance to have a face to face discussion.

For too long students have felt they have little say over how they are assessed.  They feel that grades are done to them, rather than something they determine.  While we as teachers may think that students understand that their grade is a reflection of their effort, time and time again students have told me they don’t understand the relationship.

So if you have to give letter grades, or even just scores, I implore you to please involve your students.  Don’t just rely on an average.  Don’t just rely on your gut feeling.  Don’t just rely on tests, homework, or whatever other assignment that you have given.  Bring the students in.  Give them power over their learning, give them voice in how they are assessed.  They will thank you for it, or at the very least start to understand how they ended up with that B….

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

10 thoughts on “Before You Give Letter Grades, Please Ask Your Students”

  1. Your students are the luckiest ever! I’m thinking that this wonderful grading process is an absolute rarity….

  2. Thanks for bringing this conversation back to the forefront, Pernille, and reminding us that as we change the ways we (educators), students and parents think about assessment and evaluation, there are steps we can take to move toward something more authentic than the traditional grades based system, even if/while we are required to conform to them.

    It seems our careers have paralleled for as long as you have been blogging (or maybe BECAUSE I have been reading your blog) and we are grappling with many of the same things. One of the things that I really respect in what you write about is having the students involved in creating their education, and this is key to this post. Where I grapple with it, is when my expertise as a highly educated professional comes into stark contrast with student preference, passions or thinking. This is most evident for me in balancing higher order activities with the fundamental skills required to fully support them. In this case, you’ve described how you overcome the difference through conversation with the students to allow either of your thinking to be changed through that discussion, and might I add, demonstration or evidence. I think this is where portfolios fit very nicely… but that’s a discussion for another time.

    Thanks again for opening up your thoughts for the rest of us and sparking conversation!


  3. Don’t we all hate letter grades! Can’t believe we still have to write them on semester reports. Understand we need to grade students’ abilities. I teach Primary School – prefer assessing students on a continuum – much better and kinder. Wouldn’t a parent and child prefer to see ‘ not yet’ or ‘ getting there’ rather than a D or and E!!!! Both assessments mean the child has not yet grasped the learning. In the past, when we assessed on a continuum, we had happier, more accepting and understanding parents and students.
    We work so hard to build up a child’s sense of self esteem, encouraging them to have a go with support, making them believe in themselves and then we bring them right down when they see the D and E ( sometimes quite a few) glaring at them on their report!
    A touchy topic Pernille. Don’t mean to sound
    ‘negative’ but I cannot come to terms with what we are forced to do to our kids! Great the way you involve students in their own grading. This might ‘ease the pain’ of the letter grading process.

  4. Hey Pernille, this has been a problem area for a long time and something we discuss often on the Teachers Throwing Out Grades Facebook group. Nice timing; I’m going to share this with the TTOG group. Thanks.

  5. This is really good Pernile. In your approach the students are not just determining their own grade as one person advocates. You develop clear criteria for each grade and then have a discussion with students so you meet your professional responsibility of ensuring that the grade is accurate.

  6. This is exactly how I feel. My biggest focus for my development this year is opening up opportunities for student voice. Assessment and goal setting is such a huge part of their learning and yet it is often treated as ‘secret teacher business’. I look forward to working with my students in a similar way to what you have described. My principal has even suggested writing end of semester report at the beginning of the year with each student, kind of like a self fulfilling prophesy – supporting the, in indentifying their strengths in different subject areas as well as communicators, thinkers, researchers, collaborators and self managers, noticing goals they would like to work towards and discussing strategies that we can use together to support them in achieveing these goals. I’m excited to give it a go…as always, time will be the biggest constraint.

  7. Reblogged this on Teacher on Training Wheels and commented:
    A great post reminding us of something that is important to think about BEFORE we get to grading time… These conversations about success criteria are powerful ones to have during the learning process. Why do we feel we need to leave talking with kids about assessment until the end of the semester when it’s almost ‘too late’ for them to work on the things we are reporting on? Student-led formative assessment supports students in developing self-assessment skills as well as helping them to see purpose in their class work as they work towards goals that they have personally identified. I think my own blog post on this might need to happen in the not too distant future.

  8. I am so inspired by the level of conferencing that you do with your students. While I was never really in a position to give grades when I was teaching, I often think about how subjective they can be. Even reflecting on my own children’s grades, I am often unclear about WHY they got the grade they did, because it often just seems like a letter on the top of the paper.

    Instead, you are providing valuable feedback about how each student, individually, can learn and grow. They have power over their grades, because they know how to change them(if they want to), or maintain them (if the grade is what they are aiming for). Most importantly, each student is able to develop his or her own understanding of the growth he/she is making in your classroom.

    Thank you for helping me learn!

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