Is a Flower Worth More than a Frog?

Via this week’s NCTE Inbox, I read an article about an experiment in assessment that English teacher John O’Connor tried.

After spending 15 hours carefully crafting comments on a class set of papers, there’s nothing more depressing than to see those papers parachute, unread,  into the recycling bin at the end of class.

This past school year, I swore, would be different: I would give no grades.  I figured this would force students to read, absorb, and appreciate all the attention I had given their work, rather than just rely on a grade at the end of the paper.

O’Connor left cute stamps instead of grades on student work.  Of course, they still tried to see what the value of each stamp was — “Is a flower worth more than a frog?”  Parents worried.  “[T]his was cute and all, but try explaining to a college that her son has a ‘raccoon’ in senior English.”  Indeed.

Ultimately, such a system is very hard, if not impossible to defend, particularly in a school that does assign grades to students. I cannot imagine how an administrator could back up a teacher who tried such a system and then (as is likely) was challenged by a parent or student.

I wish there was a way we could eliminate grades as a means of communicating progress and rely instead on narrative and comments, but grades are very entrenched in our schools, and O’Connor’s system would only work if the entire school was behind the idea of eliminating grades.  Many schools who use other means of assessment exist, and colleges do indeed accept these students.

Like O’Connor, I wish students would read the comments.  I am frustrated when I spend a long time with a student’s work, giving what I feel is copious feedback, only to have the student turn to the grade and ask “Why’d I get a B?”  At least students understand letter grades, and even if, as O’Connor insists, he and the student generally knew what the student’s letter grade was, I can’t imagine how I’d address the question “Why’d I get a frog?  What is a frog, anyway?”

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