What is the difference between a B+ or an A-, anyways?

Industrial Age systems, from which traditional grading emerged

Well, to some kids and parents, quite a lot. Kids don’t just receive grades, they become them. “I’m an A student,” they say confidently. “I’m an C student,” they say while trying to become invisible. A student’s entire identity and self-worth can be built around their GPA. But what do those letters say about learning? Nothing.

To “assess” etymologically means “to sit beside.” As Regan Galvan and I co-wrote in Independent School Magazine “The teacher’s role is to… Determine what each individual student needs and appropriately differentiate instruction; sit beside each child, encouragingly and with care, and provide the precise experience that will catalyze the learning for that child,” (Winter 2019). Schools, however, have lost an understanding of what assessment truly means.

Assessment has become proxy for sorting. Sorting kids into As through Fs. Into “smart”, “kind of smart”, and “hopeless.” It is imperative that we interrogate grades, the culture grades create, and the system itself. Why? Because rich learning and transformational experiences cannot be reduced to a single letter. How might we change the conversation from improving one’s grade to improving one’s learning? How might our assessment incorporate a focus on growth mindset?

The answer is to change the system. Embracing a competency-based system “motivates continuous learning, fostering a growth mindset along the way, as it allows us to shift student thinking from “How did I do then?” to “What should I do next?” Students are motivated to learn from mistakes because they know they get another chance to demonstrate mastery” (Independent School Magazine, Winter 2019). Competency-based assessment focuses on learning as an iterative process, naturally allowing the classroom to be differentiated; it forces teachers to be intentional in curriculum and instruction; it provides students with frameworks for becoming lifelong learners.

It’s time we move from A to mastery.