At the beginning of this school year, my colleagues and I decided to avoid giving the sophomores in our English classes any grades for six weeks. Research shows that providing students with a number or letter in addition to quality comments prevents them from authentically reflecting. Quantitative grades also diminish student interest in learning, reduce academic risk taking, and decrease the quality of thinking. But beyond academics, as teachers, we saw the negative impact grades made on our students’ mental and emotional health. In fact, though a bit outdated, a 2002 study conducted by a psychologist at the University of Michigan showed 80 percent of students based their self worth on their academic success, leading to low self-esteem and other mental-health issues. In a highly academic setting, here was an opportunity to catalyze our students’ broader motivations for learning—a quality with macro-benefits in an environment obsessed with single Scantron marks.
Ours is the type of school that when I input grades into our electronic gradebook system, it is usually a matter of minutes before students knock on my classroom door and parents send me emails questioning single points and marks. It is frustrating for me to have the work I do distilled down to a data point, so I was excited to try something new without the pressures of the gradebook. Our principal approved the plan and we sent a letter to families explaining the research and our reasoning for withholding grades. I also set up a closed Facebook group where I shared daily images, and I instituted weekly emails to keep parents abreast of the learning process.