Abolishing Grading Is The First Step To Better Assessment in Mathematics

Sunil Singh
Feb 18 · 7 min read

Grades have been an unhealthy obsession in school since, well, since when school began. All supposed healthy pursuits of learning end up getting encased in the claustrophobic and contentious confines of two-digit numbers and the letters A, B, C, D, and F. It’s a ridiculous distillate to still have in education.

It’s actually the most embarrassing to have it in mathematics.

That’s because there is a whole branch of mathematics, Statistics, which must be doing constant face-palms with the mathematical violations that take place in the bizzaro universe of grades and percentages. This is the pureed mash that results when you throw a laundry list of assumptions/errors/misappropriation/choices made in constructing quizzes/tests/assignments/etc.

I seriously don’t have the brain capacity as to figure out how/why so much energy is devoted to how questions are chosen, marks assigned/marks given, and weights attributed to these assessments. And yet, everyday, we more or less announce that we have no idea what the hell we are doing when we give out a course breakdown like this:

One, notice that everything ends with either a “0” or “5”? Is that a coincidence that precise/accurate measurement of students’ mathematical ability ends with these numbers or, is it, that we just need “friendly” numbers to add up to 100, wing it, but pass it all off as science — also known as horrible math.

But, everyday, we gloss over this, paradoxically and hypocritically championing the importance of mathematics, while supporting an evaluation system that would be seen in the art world as splatter painting. How many tests should we have? 3 or 11? Should this question be out of 4 or 6? Should students get 30 minutes or 1 hour?

All the mathematical stability of a game of Jenga…

When I was a high school teacher — some days I think I quit because marking drove me bananas — I used to bring up at math meetings why Knowledge, for example, can’t be 28% instead. Everyone looked at me like I had two heads. But then these same people would have heated debates about not bumping up the grades of kids two percent…

Hollywood couldn’t make up better irony as a script for educational horror/malpractice.

All my tests were, if possible, even for senior grades, one 8 x 14, double-sided piece of paper — to help disarm/lower their anxiety. I always had remakes/retests/redo’s/etc. All my tests were generally out of 40. For the final exam, I would tell kids that anyone who gets a higher mark on the exam, that would be their final mark.

That kind of thinking isn’t revolutionary. It’s like common sense. Shouldn’t a mark — as error-filled as it is — attempt to be as up to date as possible? If a student got 66 on a test on fractions and then gets 83, you shouldn’t average them — the 83 represents current understanding. And even with all my allowances, I knew that their final grade would be an incorrect way to punctuate their course. Even if they got a 95, it would give a false sense that they are closing in on knowing everything in math.

Nothing could be further from the truth…

I am a pretty good cook now, but I don’t “average” my cooking ability with when I was burning toast. It’s all about what I am able to do now…

But, let’s not try to save grading/marks. It’s a dog’s breakfast when it comes to assessing and evaluating our students. Assessment should be to improve learning, give rich feedback, provide a course of action, etc. WITHOUT the demoralizing and carrot-driven effects of grading.

The most egregious display of statistical tomfoolery is the final exam, with a weighting of usually 25 to 30%. You know, a 5 to 15 page final hurdle to punctuate the spiritless trek through mathematics. But, it wouldn’t be interesting if the final exam didn’t go out in a blaze of pedagogical contradictions.

So, let’s get this straight. Students spend 8 months doing 70% of the coursework, but then, all of a sudden, the remaining percentage gets finished off in 90 minutes, like on a game show or something. And it’s not like the exam questions are generally unique/innovative. No. They are a greatest hits/retread of questions already asked.

In 2002, I taught one of the brightest math classes in my career. In early May, I started to do a geometry problem that seemed a little off the beaten path, and someone quickly asked, “Will this be on the exam”. I said “No”. You could see the collective attention drift away from what I was doing on the board.

Even the best, most ambitious math students were not interested in learning something that wasn’t going to be graded…

The absurdity of all of this still seems to march on. How can we be this sloppy with grades/assessment and yet demand mathematical precision on the very same tests that scream complete mathematical and pedagogical failure??????

This madness is a function of a broader madness where assessment is valued over learning. I am still learning since I left school. Haven’t stopped. No one’s quizzing me.

Evaluation needs Learning. Learning doesn’t need Evaluation. Let’s try and get the horse in the correct position this century.

(Takes a breath…)

Even if it all added up, grades are dehumanizing and limiting. Students start defining their abilities through these things. My own kids, if wasn’t for me reminding them over and over and over and over and over again that “I DON’T CARE ABOUT GRADES”, would have been demoralized and indoctrinated into the whole grade-chasing game of school.

In grade 3, my daughter got 2.5 out of 4 on a quiz, and the teacher wrote a big, fat “C” as well. She was upset for two days thinking that she wasn’t good at math. A meaningless quiz/exit ticket that has RED C. How do you think a child is going to internalize that? How much energy do you think would be required to get them off that damaging pillar?

It’s more than than the 20 seconds it took to “score” some random act of numerical/grade assessment. It’s a scar that doesn’t get easily removed. A tattoo is easier.

So yes, my anger is personal. Both from my experiences as a teacher and that off a parent.

Instead of grades, we should have students earn Badges for demonstrating mastery in math topics. There should be no time limit, or at least, time limits which are more human than the ones that most students have to grasp topics. Once they have demonstrated all the proficiency required of that Badge, they are awarded that Badge.

Badges don’t resonate with false quantification of skills, and seem more equitable ways of assessing students.

But, I am not forgetting the pink elephant in the room. That our society is performance-driven, results-driven, numbers-driven, competition-driven, class-driven, sorting-out-driven, academic goals-driven, you-need-exams-to-prepare-for-university-driven, etc.

Sure, let’s keep doing things because that is just the way things have always been done. “I will take “Poor Excuses” for $1000, Alex…”

I rarely go to Defcon 1 or draw my sword out in math education, but when it comes to grades/marks, I have over 20 years experience. And, because of my own kids, regrettably counting…

Yeah. I am ready to die on this hill. But, from my vantage point, so are many others now. We just have to keep fighting. Why? Because if we have any interest in nurturing a lifetime interest/curiosity in mathematics, then the first step begins with the unapologetic abolition of grades. We have to love what we love and get ready to die for it, right?

It is the unchecked albatross that hangs around all our necks as passionate math educators. We will be able to do better for our students when we are relieved of this burden and blight.

Gradeless learning. I am setting my dials there, and ready to go all-in(shout to Chris McNutt for inspiring that idea)!

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Sunil Singh is a Mathematics Learning Specialist at Buzzmath and the author of Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics and Math Recess: Playful Learning in The Age of Disruption.


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