As a child walking home from school, I remember feeling anxious on those days when I was accompanied by a sealed manila envelope meant only for my parents’ eyes. Folded inside, a report card listed a range of subjects and learning skills along the left margin. Along the right side, was a list of handwritten letters that twice each year would announce my scholastic achievements.
Made up of rectangular boxes aligned on rectangular sheets of paper, the hallmark of the report card is that list of grades. Numbers or letters are intended to represent the achievement of a young person, who too often sits at a rectangular desk in a rectangular room, and provides evidence of learning by making pencil scrapings upon rectangular pieces of paper.
Today, I have in my possession a range of historic and very rectangular artifacts of my own learning. On my Kindergarten report, there are three levels of achievement neatly written into the squares. My report included thirteen satisfactory ‘S’s; and one limited ‘L’ for “expresses himself well in creative activities”. The only comment provided by the teacher on the report card is “Sometimes, Rodd gets into mischief.”
My Grade 1 report card, was the first to officially include grades. I had three As, nine Bs and three Cs. As proof that I was egocentric as a six-year-old, my takeaway comment was “Rodd is quite confident now in expressing his ideas. He could develop more interest in the ideas of others.”
By the time my Grade 6 report card arrived, my grades had become a straight VG student on a scale that ranged from ‘needs improvement’ to ‘very good’. I was “A very conscientious boy. A joy to teach.” But the squares on my report card failed to capture the fact that I truly loved to learn; or to recognize that my teachers so fully engaged me that I couldn’t imagine doing anything but stay in school forever.
In later years, I joined my classmates in tearing open our report cards on the way home for summer. We ritually counted our VGs and Gs as the most efficient way to compare our reports with those of our classmates. But such feedback only confirmed what we already knew, that some of us did school well, and others did not.
This ranking and scoring of learning has been with us for many years. In “Technopoly”, Neil Postman credits William Farish, a tutor at Cambridge University in 1792, for being the first to suggest assigning numerical values to student work. Since that time, the concept of grading has been widely adopted, and most accept it as normal and completely logical. I think it’s time we begin to at least question the practice.
Though much of the daily work of the teacher is focused on finding ways to assess learning and to justify grades, these marks are commonly an end point to learning, rather than a directional tool that might suggest individualized learning goals and apt teaching strategies. Whether using letters or numbers to assign grades, I think that the very measurement of something as abstract as “learning” is worth a rethink.
Academic assessment has brought us to a place where teachers routinely watch children cry their way through high stakes tests, where the only feedback the learner might receive is a one-digit number. Learning should be a lifelong human experience, not a snapshot-in-time statistical experience. Surely we can value and celebrate learning without attaching a score.
Would you ever consider digitally assessing your love of a new compact disk? Would you grade the degree to which you’re a fan of a haircut or ball gown? Can a score accurately reflect your ability to repair a dripping faucet or your skill at re-introducing yourself to an acquaintance? Or is it even possible to calculate the percentage grade you’d receive for being an informed and engaged citizen?
The most memorable moments of learning are those when we break free from the rectangles, where it becomes impossible for any variable to truly capture an experience or achievement. How does one assess the day a Grade 8 student brought her horse to school to share her observations about the intelligence of her pets; the day my students figured out for themselves what dirt was made of; the day we hiked through the amazingly ice cold waterfall on the edge of Quebec City; the day our first classroom constitution was drafted and ratified; the night we hosted a ‘Council of all Beings’ campfire summit on the edge of Lake Erie?
Former students regularly give me the most meaningful feedback on my classroom work, and they do it in the form of words spoken face to face. Not one has ever thanked me for introducing them to rectangular pieces of paper, or for filling in a box on a report card. Let’s give students more of the qualitative learning experiences that don’t fit so tidily into rectangles. That’s what they’ll remember.