The Mercury News: Educators set sights on eliminating A-F grading system
“The problem with grades is that they are widely inconsistent from one classroom to another,” said Sal Khan. Grades, he said, reinforce a “fixed mindset”: “It tells students, you are a C student or you are an A student.”
Originally published in The Mercury News on September 17, 2017. You can access the original article here.
Imagine high school without grades, transcripts without A’s, B’s or F’s, and college applications without grade-point averages.
It’s not a wild dream: It’s a goal more than 120 of the nation’s elite high schools have come together to achieve.
“The grading system is imploding on itself. When you get to the point where 75 percent of kids have a 4.0 grade-point average, that’s meaningless,” said Than Healy, head of Menlo School, a private college prep high school in Atherton. “All that tells the kids is that nothing but an A is acceptable.”
Students end up focusing more on the grade than on education, he said. “That’s all backward.”
In a region brimming with high-achieving students and mindful of the tragic toll of adolescent stress, several elite schools have signed on.
“The Bay Area is ground zero in stress and anxiety and self-harm” among students, Healy said. “This is a national conversation whose time has come.”
As a remedy, Menlo and other private schools from Danville to Palo Alto hope to dump grades and create a digital, annotated transcript that might reflect more than a student’s mastery of topics in math, science and reading. The transcript might also measure academic growth as well as various skills and traits like collaboration, entrepreneurship, empathy, honesty, and creativity.
Each transcript’s “home page” would be linked to examples of the student’s actual work and achievements. Just a few months old, the Mastery Transcript Consortium has lofty goals and a long timeline. It may take five to seven years to agree on a replacement for the five-letter grading system that was invented 123 years ago at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
“The problem with grades is that they are widely inconsistent from one classroom to another,” said Sal Khan, founder and CEO of Khan Academy, whose fledgling Khan Lab School in Mountain View is a consortium member. Grades, he said, reinforce a “fixed mindset”: “It tells students, you are a C student or you are an A student.” After a while of being labeled subpar, students check out.
Instead, he said the goal is to help them master content without judging them. Khan would like to replace the current education system that dictates a progression through grades by age with one that shows students achieving proficiency as they advance.
Students and teachers know that GPAs don’t reflect a student’s worth, and grades don’t convey the effort, growth and achievement in an assignment, class or semester. But some worry that the intensifying competition for college acceptance has forced kids to zero in on GPAs, however flawed a measure that may be.
“An A in Applied Engineering should carry a lot of weight,” said Menlo senior Laikh Tewari about one of his school’s most rigorous electives. But because it’s not an advanced-placement class, a grade from that class is not given extra weight in GPA calculation. “Some college reps understand that and some do not,” he said.
Consortium members hope to eliminate what they see as toxic hypercompetition among students — and the belief that only a string of A’s will earn them a ticket to their college of choice.
Grading “creates a false sense of objectivity and a false sense of precision that is demonstrably wrong,” said Scott Looney, founder and board chair of the Mastery Transcript Consortium. “Most people who spend their lives helping kids grow know there’s something wrong with pitting them against each other.”
That may be a head-scratcher for an adult world that only has known A to F, bell curves and class ranking.
But Looney said with the average high school grade near a B-plus, the five-point scale has been corrupted. “Now we have kids killing themselves in school over differences between an A-minus and an A. Frankly, for those of us who work with high school kids, it is completely insane,” said Looney, who is also head of Hawken School, near Cleveland, Ohio.
“Can we get colleges to look in a more textured way, to be able to understand students, beyond grades and test scores?” said Eric Niles, Athenian’s head of school.
Once the consortium paves the way, its members believe public schools will follow. At stake, advocates say, is the integrity of schools’ evaluation as well as student heath.
But can a multilayered evaluation embraced by a private school like Athenian, with average class sizes of 14 and an average teacher load of four classes, be manageable for public school teachers juggling 175 students in five classes?
Khan thinks so, possibly by involving peer review and electronic feedback. He noted that Khan Academy is helping teachers in developing countries manage very large classes of children at varying levels. The tools, he said, are available to make mastery learning and evaluation practical.
A number of progressive middle schools in the area already embrace mastery or alternative transcripts, such as the Nueva School in Hillsborough and the Girls’ Middle School in Palo Alto. The Khan school issues report cards for its 140 students, ages 5 to 15, that show five levels of mastery for every skill, objective and for character traits.
“Twenty years in the future,” Khan said, “I am confident when students apply to college, their transcripts will look a lot more like Khan Lab School or the Mastery Transcript Consortium than what they do now.”