De-Emphasize Grades? These Californians Deserve a D

De-Emphasize Grades? These Californians Deserve a D

I’m a teacher with serious misgivings about the wisdom of traditional grading systems. So my heart leaped a little when I learned that Los Angeles and San Diego are moving away from them.

On closer inspection, I’m not so hopeful. While I’ve long regarded grades as having the kind of toxic impact on student learning that petrochemicals have on the environment, the path taken by California’s two largest school districts risks dumbing down education and hurting the students it seeks to help.

The changes are fine in theory. They aim to give students an opportunity to revise their work and retake tests, ideas that have merit. Moreover, they come in response to a troubling increase in the number of D’s and F’s assigned in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and school closures; the traditional grading system, reformers reasonably argued, was widening educational inequities.

However, the most worrying aspect of California’s social-justice approach to grading is the directive to teachers that they not penalize students for “behavior, work habits and missed deadlines.”

There is a long, successful history of teaching without traditional grades, especially among progressive schools. But they are predicated on teachers and schools creating a culture of high student expectations, engagement and continuous improvement, as well as curriculums that tap into student interests.

For example, students in schools affiliated with the New York State Performance Standards Consortium, a group of about 40 schools that was allowed to replace most standardized tests with projects focused on writing, problem-solving and research, learn to conduct self-evaluations and to revise their work. Final evaluations are based on detailed standards of review, such as whether projects show “credible evidence,” “creativity” and “thorough understanding” of key concepts. The emphasis is on the process, not the grade.

This approach has proven successful with the kinds of students with social and educational disadvantages whom the California initiative is intended to help.

I teach at the City University of New York, a traditional grade-driven institution. But as a product — and admirer — of progressive education, I’ve developed an assessment system that judges students based on two key criteria: How much their work improves over the course of the semester and how well they’ve mastered class material. In my journalism courses, this typically means the ability to produce a feature-length article of publishable quality, one that is well written and backed by abundant research, data and expert interviews.

To minimize the focus on grades, I give numerous ungraded mini assignments, including rough drafts and research tasks, and I provide detailed feedback and guidance for these and the more ambitious class projects, which are graded. I rarely give an A on the first completed project — if students know enough to get an A on the first round, I explain, they probably don’t need to be in my class.

However, by the end of the semester, each student is positioned to receive, if not an A, then a substantially higher grade than she could have gotten at the beginning.

Most important, though, are the assignments. My greatest success in sparking students’ interest has been the immersive political-reporting class I teach every other year with my colleague, Vera Haller. The class, which coincides with upcoming elections, focuses on a key political problem — such the Texas-Mexico border crisis — and requires our students, many of them immigrants, to conduct on-the-ground reporting with experts, including border police, who work on the issues they are studying.

Student teams are responsible for developing dossiers on subjects like the Latino vote, immigration law and border history that the class relies on to complete their final projects. They also are learning to trust our feedback as they see how they are improving.

Such lessons require more preparation by teachers than the typical journalism class, including reaching out to experts and lining up guest speakers; gathering targeted readings, podcasts and videos; and organizing a weeklong reporting trip — in 2020, to the border between El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. Our students produce award-winning articles and multimedia, and many go on to win coveted internships and jobs.

I would eliminate traditional grades in a heartbeat for my nonfiction writing classes, which require the acquisition of nuanced skills and knowledge that defy appraisal by a single numeric grade; think of story organization, writing style and reporting ability.

But grades serve a crucial purpose for other kinds of classes. When my daughter’s progressive school phased out final exams, she lamented that for classes like chemistry and biology, end-of-semester exams are ideal for instilling the discipline needed to assimilate the complex concepts that she would need as she progressed to medical school.

Discipline, teamwork and organization are habits of mind crucial for all students — a lesson California’s reformers should take to heart. Without them it is impossible to overcome the challenge of teaching self-motivation and thus making traditional grading irrelevant.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform."

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