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What’s in an ‘A’?

Take this test and compare your answers with mine.


By Paul Barnwell

Fill in the blank:

1. Grades are a great way to ___

(a) provide meaningful feedback; (b) sort students by ability; (c) get them to complete work; (d) reward the good ones; (e) none of the above.

(e) none of the above. A grade at the top of a paper doesn’t say much. What does an “A” mean if a student didn’t learn anything? Bribing students to finish their work is an excuse to avoid creating learning tasks with intrinsic value. I don’t give many traditional grades because qualitative feedback, student self-assessment, and reflection work better to turn students into active learners.

2. If I don’t give out grades, students will ___

(a) stop working; (b) wonder if the sky is falling; (c) react positively to other feedback systems; (d) complain.

(c) Students work hard in an environment that deemphasizes grades and emphasizes engagement, self-reflection, and striving for improvement. My goal is never to hear, “Mr. Barnwell, is this for a grade?” Too many educators (including me, several years ago) fail to acknowledge that our brains are hardwired to seek out exciting learning experiences. If I create the right conditions, most students will learn for the sake of learning—although no system works with every student.

3. Many parents believe that grades ___

(a) are a good indicator of student learning; (b) are the be all and end all; (c) will lead to diplomas; (d) all of the above.

(d) Unfortunately, grades often dominate parent-teacher conferences. Parents aren’t well-versed in alternative assessments, largely because the grading tradition is so strong. But I try to discuss student engagement, improvement, and specific learning objectives with parents.

4. Struggling students often feel ___

(a) motivated by grades; (b) unmotivated by grades; (c) excited about their textbooks and tests; (d) eager to know where they stand compared to their peers.

(b) Students having difficulty with academic work often fail because they aren’t motivated by grades. They may respond if you threaten to fail them, but the fix doesn’t usually last.

True or false:

1. Teachers can deemphasize grades only if students are self-motivated.

False. It is my job to inspire students.

My first teaching job was at a high-poverty school rife with challenges, and I’ll admit I struggled to carry out my philosophy. But now in my fifth year, I ask myself: Why can’t high-risk students enjoy learning for learning’s sake?

My current school has 30 to 40 percent of students on free or reduced lunch and few affluent students. I find students from all backgrounds respond to an emphasis on engagement rather than grades.

2. It’s a good idea to give “zeroes” for missing work.

False. Zeroes skew data. If you have to give number grades, zeroes won’t help you measure learning accurately.

3. I can’t imagine school without traditional grades.

True. I have to give traditional grades, but I give them on only 12 to 15 assignments a year. Focusing on engagement lets me deemphasize grades.

4. I spend more time lesson planning than grading.

True. And I bet every teacher wants to!

5. I got an “A” on this test.

True. Give yourself an “A” if this task made you think about your own practice. That’s my goal, so give me an “A,” too!

Paul Barnwell teaches eighth grade in Shelbyville, Kentucky. His Web site is

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  • anc_dyn_linksOctober | November 2009
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