Grading without Grading

report card

A few months into my first year at an Upper Manhattan private school, I have finished my first round of report cards. Actually, at my new school we don’t call them report cards; we just call them “comments.” Why? Well, because that’s what they are: comments. Words. Not a single number on the page.

In other words, my students do not receive grades—or at least grades as they are commonly understood in the world of education. There is no number or letter designated to represent their academic performance. There is no top or bottom 10 percent. At a school where New York’s elite and powerful fight to get their children admitted, student progress is not measured quantitatively or competitively.*

To be honest, I’m still wrapping my head around this. After teaching in the public schools, where quantitative assessments determine student success and school funding, I’m still trying to figure out how the lack of conventional grades alters a school environment. For now, I simply think it’s worth noting that one of the most selective, respected schools in New York City relies entirely on qualitative assessments until its students reach their teens. As the Department of Education pushes scantron tests on students too young to hold their pencils, this seems, at the very least, worth our consideration.

*This is true through elementary and into middle school. From late middle school into high school, the students are graded. I teach sixth grade, so I only write comments.

Quote of the Day: Smilla’s Sense of Evaluation

Last week, I began re-reading Peter Hoeg’s great novel, Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Smilla, the narrator, is a Greenlander. When she’s not investigating the murder of a dear friend, Smilla muses about the European tradition of demeaning Greenlanders in the name of scientific progress. The last time I read this book I was not a teacher, so the following quote didn’t grab me the way it does today. (Note that Smilla is arguing against “grading” people and cultures, not grading in general.):

“Any race of people that allows itself to be graded on a scale designed by European science will appear to be a culture of higher primates.

Any grading system is meaningless. Every attempt to compare cultures with the intention of determining which is the most developed will never be anything more than another bullshit projection of Western culture’s hatred of its own shadows.

There is one way to understand another culture. Living it. Move into it, ask to be tolerated as a guest, learn the language. At some point understanding may come. It will always be wordless. The moment you grasp what is foreign, you will lose the urge to explain it. To explain a phenomenon is to distance yourself from it.”

Sound advice for all those who are so quick to judge and criticize the work that teachers and students do every day. You can’t understand the classroom until you’ve lived it.