Public Schools Try Ditching A-to-F Letter Grades

No Grades
Robert Daniels wanted his kids to attend Winnetka public schools because of its progressive education. From left to right, Taylor Daniels, Emma Daniels, Carter Daniels and Robert Daniels. Susie An / WBEZ
No Grades
Robert Daniels wanted his kids to attend Winnetka public schools because of its progressive education. From left to right, Taylor Daniels, Emma Daniels, Carter Daniels and Robert Daniels. Susie An / WBEZ

Public Schools Try Ditching A-to-F Letter Grades

Getting a report card with letter grades A-to-F is such an ingrained part of American schooling it’s hard for many people to imagine school without it. But at the same time, schools are increasingly looking for ways to focus school more on learning — and not on simply getting an A.

Enter the grade-less report card. An idea long associated with progressive schools, the movement is growing in traditional public schools, education experts say.

“The focus is more on learning for learning’s sake because you want to learn the material and you’re actually interested in it,” said 17-year-old Taylor Daniels, who grew up going to Winnetka Public Schools District 36, which doesn’t give letter grades until mid-year 7th grade. “Teachers are able to teach more to engage the student than teaching to a test.”

Schools like Winnekta instead use something called standards-based grading, which shows where a student is developing in a certain skill, whether they’re mastering it or need extra help. Report cards also include detailed comments by the teachers.

Barry Rodgers is the director of innovation, teaching and learning for the district. He says the A to F system doesn’t necessarily give a clear picture of how well a student is learning. He experienced this himself when he started off as a science teacher under the traditional grading model. Rodgers sometimes felt conflicted when grading his students because it could feel like a game of points.

“You knew you’re giving that student a C,” Rodgers said. “But you also knew in your heart of hearts, that student actually had a stronger grasp of the material than maybe some student you were actually giving an A to because the other student who was getting an A learned how to play the academic game.”

Instead, schools in the standards-based model might use a 1 to 4 grading rubric or a series of goal checkboxes. Additionally, teachers give written feedback on everything from where a kid is specifically falling short in learning fractions to how a student is participating in class.

“A lot of this feedback is given as seen on a continuum,” Rodgers said. “So if I’m seen as developing, I know I’m making progress in that area, and I know I just have to work harder. Again, I think that helps to promote that growth mindset.”

“Don’t rush it”

That’s one reason why more public schools in the area are trying this out, but there has been pushback. A few years ago, schools in Downers Grove tried to get rid of letter grades but the district compromised after parents didn’t fully buy in.

Kevin Russell, superintendent of Downers Grove School District 58, said they settled on a hybrid model. The district still wanted to provide more thorough information on how students were learning. It introduces letter grades in fourth grade, and includes detailed comments from teachers in the report card.

Out in west suburban Elmwood Park, schools are preparing to do away with letter grades. Leah Gauthier, director for curriculum and instruction with Elmwood Park District 401, said they’ve learned from other districts.

“The biggest thing we heard is communication,” she said. “Communication and don’t rush it.”

The district is doing a pilot in some classrooms this year, and plans to do a full rollout for kindergarten to 5th grade next year.

Gauthier said scores can sometimes have outside influences like extra credit assignments.

“What good does bringing in that extra box of Kleenex [or] canned goods [so] I got additional points? How does that tell you how I am in math?” she said.

The district thinks standards-based grading is a more accurate look at student performance, and it aligns with the state’s Common Core standards.

Jennifer Olson is a clinical assistant professor with the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She said ditching letter grades can be hard for parents because it’s typically not what they experienced in school or some see it as coddling kids. She said it helps parents to know that letter grades can be quite subjective.

“Teachers merge so many different scores. So students take exams and assignments and homework and quizzes,” she said. “Then teachers include other factors like whether the assignment was turned in on time or class participation or even effort.”

Olson said it’s not just about dropping the letters. It’s about putting the emphasis on learning. For example, if a student is still struggling with fractions by the end of the math chapter, that doesn’t mean failure.

“Students take a test. And on a specific day, if they haven’t learned it by that deadline, they have the opportunity to relearn it, rethink about it,” she said.

Standards-based grading is more often found in K-8 grades than at the high school level since most colleges look for grade point averages for admissions.

Olson said the standards-based approach is more work for teachers, and districts need to allow for more time and training. It’s difficult to see how this way of grading could become widespread, especially in large districts where a teacher might have 30 or more kids in a classroom.

Changing how students think about school

In Winnetka, parent Robert Daniels said he likes that standards-based grading helps him understand how to better support his kids.

His two older daughters, including Taylor, are at New Trier High School where they receive letter grades. The stakes are higher for them, and the grades add to that. He said it’s changed the way they talk about school.

“The first report that they provide to us as parents is ‘I got an A on this test, or I got a B on this test.’ Often times, that’s the only information I get,” he said.

In elementary school, Daniels said his daughters were excited to talk about the lessons of the day. Part of that is simply getting older, but he thinks the grades were part of that, too.

His youngest child Carter is in fifth grade. He said he can see how his teachers are looking out for him, not just academically but how he’s engaging in class and working with others.

“It’s good to know the teachers care about not just ‘can you solve 5 math problems,’” Carter said. “[They] care about if you make friends. I think that’s really cool.”

The lessons are still rigorous, but Carter said he actually enjoys learning them.

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.