Report Cards Don’t Adequately Communicate Learning

Written By: Starr Sackstein

As an ardent advocate for learning divorced from grades, the continuing growth of the practice in a variety of places gives me hope that perhaps assessment in education can be changed.

Since I started writing and blogging about assessment to document my own shift away from traditional grading practices, it has been an honor and pleasure to work with teachers around the world to do the same. It never ceases to amaze me how far my reach has gone and I’m continually humbled by those brilliant educators and their students who share their stories of success after being inspired to change their practices after reading something I wrote or attending a presentation I share.

Andi Jackson, a member of PLN and an eighth-grade English teacher in California shared with me the following argument essay written by one of her students. It moved me so much, I asked both her and her student Sophia W., if they would mind if I shared it with my readers.

Below you will find Sophia’s essay. Educators, think about Sophia’s argument and see where you fall on the spectrum in terms of your beliefs about grading.

What do grades mean to you and what alternatives are there for assessing student learning?

                                                           Final Draft for Argument Essay The Report Card by Sophia W. Grades.

The whole idea is integrated into our minds by design. Every parent who had their child apply for college knows that grades are one of the most important factors in entering college. Straight A’s spell out the best students. However, efforts on research and achieving greater feats are accelerating over the years with improving technologies. So does targeting one’s focus so much on grades really benefit students with the research advancements and the social aspect of society as competition rises? Grades have always been the report of how well a student has been performing. However, many students and experts argue that grades do not accurately show students’ performances. As Eva Ren (2017), a senior in high school, puts it: “We, as young people, are taught to memorize information found in a textbook, only to regurgitate it onto next week’s test, before forgetting all about it. ‘Oh, you don’t need to know that for a test’ or ‘that’s way beyond the curriculum’ are usually some teachers’ responses to an insightful question or an original comment that a student has made.” Students only study the bare minimum that is needed to hopefully receive a high grade. They cram the material into their heads so when the day of the test comes, they pour out all their knowledge onto the page. In this case, do they really retain the knowledge? A lot of students don’t remember the key concepts of the test, but the score in which they received. This idea that grades define students is built in our heads. Eva Ren, however, is not an expert in education, she is only a high school student. What she talks about and her perspective should not be overlooked, though. An American psychologist, James Deese agrees saying, “… Some students who make straight A’s concentrate too much on getting them that they really miss out their education” (du Plessis 2017). Grades are supposed to show what students have learned. However, many students get too caught up in trying to achieve the letter A on their report cards that they don’t retain any knowledge after completing tasks given. In addition, according to OEDb, Open Education Database (2016), a poll done at Fordham University reveals that cheaters boast an GPA of 3.41 on average, while students who don’t cheat have an average GPA of 2.85. The gap between them is from a B- up to a B+. Students often feel as though they must cheat in order to accomplish tasks, but cheaters do not really thoroughly understand the concepts because they just need to dictate whatever notes they brought to class. A cheater ends up with a GPA of 3.41, while a student who tries to learn ends up with 2.85. The student overall may learn more than the cheater, but the grades fail to showcase that. Nevertheless, many students feel the need to cheat or cram due to the pressure that grades are one of the most important factors into entering college. Grades are one of the most significant factors for colleges to determine whether or not a student is a good pick, says Engelmyer (2017). College is very important because students will get their degrees then graduate and find a good job. What this argument fails to acknowledge is that colleges do not only look at one’s grades. Colleges look for the applicants who they think will help build onto their college community. Those include other aspects, not only grades. Harvard states that they also look for extracurricular programs taken by students and their character. These aspects makes an applicant stand out of the ocean of tens of thousands of applicants with 4.0 GPAs. If a student has good study habits and studies well, they will surely achieve As, so students don’t need to pressure themselves into cheating for a good GPA. In addition to the lack of information grades provide us with, they also act as a barrier to most students. Students acknowledge that there is a grade attached to tasks given by the teacher. They understand that if they do not do well on those assignments, their grades are on the line. Du Plessis (2017) quotes Alfie Kohn, an education expert, “The research quite clearly shows that kids who are graded – and have been encouraged to try to improve their grades – tend to lose interest in the learning itself, avoid challenging tasks whenever possible (in order to maximize the chance of getting an A), and think less deeply than kids who aren’t graded.” Challenging tasks stretch the minds of students, forcing them to think more critically on topics. Students often take the easier task knowing that if they cannot execute these challenging tasks well, they are at risk of lowering their GPA. Grades don’t encourage students to learn more about a topic. So if teachers remove grades from their classroom, what will be the outcome of it? According to Tomar, Starr Sackstein conducted a 3-week experiment where she removed grades from the classroom. Tomar continues to describe how students had to adjust to the new environment, and once they did, they were able to learn for the sake of learning itself. That, in the long run, is rewarding. One of Sackstein’s high school students, Markella Giannakopoulos explained that “It feels really weird. I am used to finishing an assignment and then getting a grade so that I know how well or bad I did on the assignment. Without the grades, I don’t have that ability to get the grade but I believe I get better feedback” (Tomar). Students in the past were not studying more than what was necessary to get a good score on an assignment, but without grades, how will one know what is the minimum? The students researched more to understand the concepts better and still having the standard in mind without fearing that their grades were going to drop. Some people argue that without grades, how will colleges be able to know which students are good choices. After all, most colleges and business corporations rely on grades to tell how great a person is for the position.What is flawed in this argument is that grades don’t necessarily dictate a student’s performance. Starr Sackstein threw out grades completely and notes, “I took a risk to throw out grades and I’ll never go back. Students are engaged in learning, pushing boundaries and articulating growth in ways that most teenagers didn’t know they could. They know the standards and the content and have bought into the experience. And it’s not just in my classroom anymore. The word is out and people who are frustrated now have a solution too. And they see what my kids are doing because I had to share it” (Sackstein 2016). She further explains that if a grade is necessary, then the teacher should use the system but in a way that reflects off what they learn, and not what the numbers say. The teachers can adjust the grades to reflect off their observations of the students’ performance. It can be done. Students don’t need grades to learn, they can learn for the sake of learning.

Works Cited du Plessis, Susan.

“5 Reasons Why Grades Are Important.” Edublox Online Tutor, 2 Dec. 2017, Engelmyer, Lynell.

“What Colleges Look for From Students.” College Raptor Blog, 11 Oct. 2017,

“What We Look For.” Harvard College, process/what-we-look. Long, Cindy.

“Are Letter Grades Failing Our Students?” NEA Today, 19 Aug. 2015,

Ren, Eva. What Your Grades Really Mean | Eva Ren | TEDxEdenHighSchool. TEDx Talks, 19 Apr. 2017,

Sackstein, Starr.A Recovering Perfectionist’s Journey To Give Up Grades | Starr Sackstein | TEDxYouth@BHS. TEDx Talks, 2 June 2016,

Tait, Peter. “‘Intelligence Cannot Be Defined by Exams’.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 17 June 2015,

Tomar, David A. “Eliminating the Grading System in College: The Pros and Cons.” The Best Schools,

“8 Astonishing Stats on Academic Cheating.”, OEDb, 31 Mar. 2016,

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