Imagining a college without grades

According to Inside Higher Ed today, at the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ (the AAC&U) Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington, the topic of how we grade, and whether it works, was discussed. As would be expected there were differing opinions on this topic. Some talked about how it would be “politically impossible” to get rid of grades (interesting… wonder why campus politics trumps an approximation of an accurate means of assessment, but I digress) and others spoke about their positive experiences eliminating A’s and F’s.

And notably, they heard from colleges offering evidence that the elimination of grades — if they are replaced with narrative evaluations, rubrics, and clear learning goals — results in more accountability and better ways for a colleges to measure the success not only of students but of its academic programs

I loved this quote from the article: ““Grades create a façade of coherence.” Well indeed they do. As a colleague of mine likes to say, ‘what really IS the difference between a B+ and an A- anyway?’ Why do teachers struggle and toil to make numerical equivalents of things that are so difficult to calibrate, such as ones ability to communicate in a language? How do you put a number, a letter a grade on that… and how do you make a grading system coherent and uniform and yet consider individual learners’ styles, their prior knowledge and experience, etc???

We can all admit that there is rampant grade inflation, and that the grading system currently in place is broken. So why aren’t schools jumping all over themselves to change the way we grade?

Why? because grading holistically, grading longitudinally is HARD work. It takes time to think about what you want to measure and how you want to measure it. It takes even longer if you ask your students to participate in that process as well. Another quote: “Ending grades can mean much more work for both students and faculty members. Done right… eliminating grades promotes rigor.”

Uh huh. Ding ding ding. A class can be rigorous not only because of the content that is studied or because of the requirements imposed by a teacher. Rigor can also come from asking our students to wrestle (along with us) in the hard work of identifying and explaining what learning looks like and how do we measure that. Students don’t generally like to do this, it is true…and many has been the time that I have been told by them that this is my job and not theirs. And yet, students come to class with specific objectives, intentions, hopes, aspirations…so why not create a grading system that somehow ties the content of the course with the students’ ability to move through that content and towards his/her intended personal learning outcomes for the class?

Which brings me back again to HISP 205, my Spanish conversation class that starts up next month.

One of the first things we are going to talk about when we get together is assessment, grading, and the incredibly arbitrary nature of the current, 87-89 = a B+ system. I need for them to see how the current system doesn’t work (for them, for anyone) and we have to create a better way to measure their linguistic accomplishments and growth over time. I will need their help to come up with a tool that actually works for this class. I will need for them to be honest and open about what they hope to accomplish in this class, as well as totally candid with themselves and others as to whether they met or missed those academic goals.

More on this later. Indeed.

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Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!


  1. Laura · January 23, 2009 Reply

    I haven’t read the article yet, but my colleague and I are not grading in our class. As we explained it, you don’t get grades in life, why should you now. And we talked about wrestling with ideas and really trying to learn something vs. performing for the teacher.

    • Barbara · January 23, 2009 Reply

      Oh wonderful…so what was your students’ response to that? And when the Registrar hounds you for -something- to put in their transcripts, how are you going to come up with that letter or number or symbol?

  2. Trip · January 23, 2009 Reply

    Why does it have to be either-or? Could you not keep a running traditional grade throughout the course based on work output (even dropping fractional grades, perhaps) but also have a proficiency assessment at the end?* Or some other hybrid model? If different students are motivated in different ways, why not evaluate them in multiple ways so that more students’ Motivation buttons are pressed? IANATeacher, but it seems to me that a rich evaluation/assessment would include quant data as well as qualitative so that it is meaningful to a range of audiences.

    *To say nothing of having a proficiency assessment at the beginning and at the end.

    • Barbara · January 23, 2009 Reply

      Indeed, there’s probably a happy medium in there somewhere. In my old age I have softened … I have been even heard to utter things like “Blackboard and blogging tools can co-exist” because of course they accomplish different things and meet different needs. Shocking, I know. But it is true.

      My problem with grading as it stands right now is the lack of -thought- that we put into the process of grading. I am all for multiple ways of assessment, provided that the assessment mechanism matches the learning that is being measured. So sure, A’s and B’s are fine. For some things.

      But more than anything I just want grading to be a transparent process, for students and for teachers, with no mystery, no power struggles, no agendas… so that we can get on to the important stuff: learning from each other.

      Does that make sense?

      • Trip · January 23, 2009 Reply

        It makes perfect sense to want to focus on learning from each other, but there are always going to be multiple audiences for assessment. Students, parents, scholarship agencies, athletics, parole officers. And when you get that many people in the mix, someone will raise the cry of Standardization (sometimes just a facade for I-don’t-want-to-have-to-read-a-narrative-assessment). Further, the more language you use in assessment, the greater the likelihood of introducing uncertainty.

        In other words, I’m not so sure your desire for thoughtful assessing and assessments that reflect that thought is not in conflict for your desire for transparency. My inclination is that quantitative (or symbolic) assessment is highly communicative and therefore high-transparency.* Though I am interested in richer assessment, adding narration does not equal lifting aside the curtain. See also: government writing. Without having examined it, I have some curiosity about the CEFR and assessment based on it. (CEFR Self-Assessment document translations) Like quant or symbolic grading, you’re reduced to very simple communication: yes or no for each box, perhaps with some degree of nuance. However, behind each outcome statement (can/can’t) is a clearly stated ability goal. That is, there’s more squish than pure quant/symbols because the ability could be variably interpreted, but the narrative itself is static across users.

        I’m starting to get in over my head, so I’ll end this comment here.

        * Leaving aside that we layer meaning over letter grades based on the learner’s social background, athletic status, educational institution, and so on. But don’t we do this with narrative assessment also?

        • Barbara · January 24, 2009 Reply


          Well no, you are not getting over your head and I -realllly- appreciate you providing the link to CEFR information. Even though, as you point out, the answers are either yes or no or can or can’t, that would be (I believe) an excellent self-assessment tool for students to complete and then discuss.

          I am not for a moment even trying to imply there is a perfect way of doing assessment… Lord knows there is no one size fits all. But that should not mean that we (including our students) cannot make ourselves more attentive to all of the variables that go into creating a grade, and become more cognizant of all of the stuff that influences grades.

          We recently had a speaker come and talk about assessment at Our Fair College, and what I loved about what she had to say was that there really is no one, true, comprehensive way of quantifying knowledge… that the best we can do is take snapshots along the way and then stand back and look at them and see what patterns, growth, challenges emerge.

          One thing I don’t think I made clear (and thank you helping me see that I had not done so): I believe that when we do evaluations in class, that everybody should get a chance to express his/her views on a person’s performance… not just the teacher. In that way, I think, I hope, and by having multiple people filling out the same rubric, we will have a more comprehensive snapshot (and again, its one snapshot in time) of a person’s movement toward a goal vs one person’s subjective view.

          Does that make things seem more transparent in your mind? I welcome your opinions 🙂

  3. Trip · January 23, 2009 Reply

    PS: Comments display in reverse chronology? Huh?

  4. Colleen · January 30, 2009 Reply

    I appreciated this post and trip’s comments. I am up to my eyeballs in students having more interest in their number than what they have actually learned or how close they have come to their objectives. I can hardly blame them… they have been conditioned to be so number focused, so many pressures, scholarships, honors, cost of education, AP credits depend on numbers. The registrar’s office isn’t asking them what they learned in so many words. I really think we need to, and my experience is that they are very hungry to discuss the process, enlightened by their own participation in it. But how do we make it work when students are going to med school or have scholarships and are pressured for numbers not learning processes, or competencies?

    • bsawhill · February 3, 2009 Reply


      I agree. And initiatives like No Child Left Behind certainly exacerbate our fixation with numbers. We seem to be hell-bent on trying to quantify at one precise moment what should actually be seen as an event in the context of a many other events, moments, explorations.

      I explain to my students that learning is a never ending process. That assessments are only as good as the assessments that preceded and followed them. It’s about connecting the dots and seeing the patterns they make…not just fixating on the dots.

      Thank you for your comments!


  5. Trip Kirkpatrick · March 30, 2009 Reply

    An article on the New York Times site today brought this conversation back to me and highlighted some of the difficulties in transitioning from letters to something else (grade level, parental sophistication, reward structures at home).

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