“Oh, we don’t give grades.”
It’s a remark that continues to raise eyebrows among parents and even educators. And understandably so: letter-grades are so entrenched in American schools as the measure of achievement that a school without them can seem lax or even negligent, as though it has no interest in assessing its learners’ progress.
But at Long-View, nothing could be further from the truth.
Much has been written on the shortcomings of the traditional letter-grade system, starting with its arbitrariness and unreliability. An “A student” at one school may be a “C student” at another school. Indeed, letter grades –and the bare-bones report cards that showcase them– while convenient, ultimately reveal little about a child’s actual strengths and weaknesses in a given subject area, and even less about his or her learning patterns, thinking skills, and areas where support may be needed. But perhaps most importantly, a letter-grade system produces the “A student” / “C student” culture: students are labeled and classified (by schools, and ultimately, by the students themselves) based on how they perform on a scale that has no transferability to the real-life competencies and mindsets that they’ll need in order to succeed and contribute as adults. In other words, children can grow to value the wrong skills, base their sense of self-worth on the wrong criteria, and aim for the wrong goals.
Our approach at Long-View is different. The major criteria on which we assess learners are four fundamental intellectual and social abilities that will serve them for the rest of their lives. We refer to these as the 4 Cs: critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration.
We gather and analyze data on student progress within these areas on a practically daily basis. In a shared spreadsheet, teachers keep a running record of anecdotal notes on important intellectual contributions, logical leaps, and moments demonstrating personal growth for each learner at school. Often, we include direct quotes from learners’ discussions in class. In addition, teachers regularly take video recordings of learners explaining their thinking to the class or engaged in collaborative problem-solving exercises. (Several teachers are often present in a room at a given moment, so that one can be documenting learners’ work while another teaches.) These video clips are an incomparable source of information on learners’ conceptual understanding, critical reasoning, and communication skills.
Of course, on top of this, each academic subject uses its own tailored assessments of student progress that are authentic to that discipline. Science assessments often take the form of “argument boards,” in which learners communicate (verbally and graphically) the findings of their experiments, offer explanations for their results, and justify their conclusions. Coding challenges as well as problems on written math assessments stress deep conceptual understanding, encourage diverging and creative approaches, and prioritize the demonstration of thinking. In Literacy, assessments are often long-term high-investment writing projects of varying forms (ranging from fictional stories to year-long dissertations), and in addition, we keep track of student growth using the rich, multilayered measuring systems devised by the Columbia Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.
Twice a year, we synthesize all of this data –anecdotal information, photo and video documentation, and a vast assortment of written work– into a comprehensive qualitative assessment of a learner’s progress. We refer to these lengthy (generally 8-12 page) reports as narratives.
Narratives are collaboratively written by all of a learner’s teachers. They begin with an overview of the child’s personality, social interactions, and ongoing growth as a learner and individual. The rest of the narrative is divided into four sections– one for each of the 4 Cs. Within each section, artifacts (photos, screenshots, links to video clips, excerpts from student writing or code, etc.) and extensive explanation highlight the learner’s skills and achievements and provide insights into any social or intellectual hurdles they are facing. These narratives provide the backbone for parent-teacher conferences, which also occur twice a year, and are similarly comprehensive. At a conference, parents sit down with 2-4 of their child’s teachers and discuss everything about their child’s academic and developmental progress over 40-45 minutes, with much of the child’s work on hand for reference.
At Long-View, we take assessment this seriously in part because we view it as a critical teaching tool: we need rigorous assessment in order to make sure we are doing our jobs right. Tracking learners’ growth in measurable ways is an essential part of successful teaching, both because we –as teachers committed to constantly learning and improving ourselves– need clear evidence about the success or failure of particular methods or lessons, and because we need to understand each individual learner’s progress so we know how to help that learner best. But perhaps even more importantly, the criteria for assessment –the scales used for measuring– send a crucial message to learners: these are the goals of your education. We don’t want our learners to pin their ambitions on a straight-A report card. We want them to dream much bigger, aim much higher, and consciously build the skills they will need to thrive for the rest of their lives.
That’s why we don’t give grades.