Making Grades Irrelevant

Neil Brown
Dec 14, 2017 · 6 min read

JumpRope, a revolutionary edtech company, is changing education one student and one school at a time.

Does a B grade actually tell you what a student knows, or doesn’t know? Does that student have a good grasp on the subject or are they just good at following instructions and turning in assignments on time? As we shift to a knowledge-based economy, grades are no longer the most effective, nor telling, measurement of student achievement.

JumpRope supports a model of mastery-based education. It was founded by a teacher so that he could track his student’s success. His peers caught on to this innovative assessment tool, and wanted to use it as well. In short order, that teacher joined forces with a long-time friend, and the two started a revolutionary edtech company to change the way teachers teach.

We talk with Justin Meyer, Co-Founder and COO of JumpRope, to learn more about how they are making grades irrelevant in the classroom.

Public education has experienced a significant amount of innovation over the last decade. JumpRope is trying to make grades irrelevant. Why is this important and how does it impact the future of education as we know it?

Probably the easiest way to answer is to contrast the models for grading. The most common way is built on a manufacturing model where you have a certain amount of time for receiving instruction. It’s easy to deliver education in the current way that we give grades to students. But the reality is, it doesn’t give us good information about what students know and don’t know.

As we move into a knowledge-based economy, what you know is what’s important. Grades don’t really tell us much about a B-student: Is that somebody who’s really smart but doesn’t always turn their homework in? Or is that somebody who is struggling in a particular area? Or somebody who generally grasps all their concepts?

JumpRope is a gradebook that supports a model of mastery-based grading, proficiency-based grading, or competency-based grading — where the feedback that’s given to students is specific to the learning goals for the class. The teacher identifies these learning goals. They build assessments around developing and demonstrating them. All the feedback given to the students is based on their performance against these learning goals. And teachers can report this information in really meaningful ways.

How does this affect teachers?
It shifts the role of the teacher. They aren’t just distributing information and grades, they’re partnering with students to look at the learning goals and find out how students can find their own path toward demonstrating they understand them. It changes the complete dynamic of the classroom.

Since student grades are increasingly irrelevant, how is the concept of mastery better?

What mastery allows the teacher to do is to walk into a classroom with 30 kids in 30 different places and really be able to know where each student is so they can deliver instruction and content that’s relevant to each student. In that way, the student is going to have a much better chance for succeeding, versus if there’s just one kind of number associated with that student.

JumpRope’s co-founder Jesse Olsen was a teacher in New York City for a number of years. Tell us some about the frustration that he had with the lack of proper tools to track mastery and how that translated to the genesis of JumpRope as a company.

All of the curriculum that Jesse was being taught to develop and the way he was giving feedback to students was built around mastery-based learning. But the gradebooks he was given were based on traditional models. So he started building Excel spreadsheets for himself to track this information and to give this data to his students. Other teachers became interested in these Excel spreadsheets. There became a need to have them be able to communicate information to students who are going from one classroom to the next.

Jesse reached the limit of what Excel could do and applied his background in computer engineering to build what eventually became JumpRope. Throughout the school year, he would go teach, work on JumpRope, get feedback from teachers, then come home at night and make changes to the program. There was a quick feedback cycle that really developed into a great, teacher-centric approach to our software.

How do you test that the teacher and student are at the center of your experience and of your design?

Our gradebook is built around the philosophy that the data the teacher collects needs to be useful to them. We’re very protective about the meaningfulness of our data, because that’s what sets us apart from traditional grades. So we keep that in mind with every conversation we have and every new feature that we design.

JumpRope has worked with countless teachers and administrators in some of the most demanding school environments in the country. What are some of the common challenges you’ve recognized over the past five years and how are you addressing them?

One of the biggest ones is leadership. Transforming a school system from traditional to mastery-based grades is very difficult. There are structures in place around traditional grades, things like valedictorian, that are focused around recognition and not really on learning. We want to help administrators dissemble these old structures so they can put new ones in place.

That’s challenging because in education, software companies don’t traditionally play the role of both software provider and consultant. Most researchers will tell you to develop your model and then find software that fits. Very few people say, “Hey, I’m going to find a piece of software that fits my model and work with them to develop that.” So usually we’re coming in at the tail end of the process and trying to help people clean up the mess.

But as we grow and become more recognized for our work in this area, people are more willing to work with us. We’ve built a model for implementing standards-based grading with 10 benchmarks and we’re starting to see success with that.

You have a vision for JumpRope to more broadly serve teachers, students, and administrators. So what’s on the road map for the next two years?

We’ve got a lot of new software and features coming out. And some exciting things are happening in the New England states. For example, Maine is getting close to graduating students with proficiency diplomas and proficiency transcripts. And we’re working very closely with our districts there to support that work and figure out exactly what it’s going to look like. To send students to college with proficiency-based transcripts, that’s really exciting for us. It’s something that is brand new in this work.

Neil Brown

Written by

I bring ideas to life. For more than fifteen years, my work has thrived at the intersection of creativity and entrepreneurship catalyzing transformation.

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