Is the Letter Grade System an Outdated Educational Technology?

Educators know that “it isn’t about the technology.”  There are plenty of past and present examples where we managed to ignore this fact with unpleasant results. Larry Cuban’s 2003 book, Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom, logs instances where the promise of adding new hardware to schools fell short of claims and expectations. Well before Cuban’s book, thoughtful and informed educators, even those who made heavy use of educational technology, often talked about the fact that it is not ultimately about the technology.  It is about student learning.

And yet, there is something a bit too simplistic about this statement.  In reality, technology has shaped and reshaped portions of the education enterprise countless times.  The problem is that many of us also have a narrow understanding of “technology.”  Technology is more than hardware and software.  “Technology” is simply the use of systematic or scientific knowledge for practical purposes ..using knowledge to create, design, and construct things (tangible or conceptual, concrete or abstract). Consider this thoughtful description of “technology.” Note the quote at the end of the paragraph, “As Walter Ong puts it, ‘Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness.’”

This last statement draws our attention to the fact that technologies have a way of changing the internal life.  Cuban gave examples of technologies that were “underused.”  That is one way to keep the technology from shaping the learning experience.  However, the moment that a technology starts to be used, it also transforms aspects of the learning experience, sometimes in small ways.  Other times, the impact can be quite transformational.

So what does any of this have to do with the title of my article, Is the Letter Grade System an Outdated Educational Technology?  Consider the two paragraphs above as justification and explanation of an assumption in the title of my post, namely that letter grades are an educational technology.  More specifically, the letter grade system is an assessment technology, a tool for assigning certain values to student performance on a single assignment, a unit of instruction, or an entire course.

With that said, is this the best assessment technology for a 21st century education?  Today we see many alternatives.  There are plenty of learning environments that do not use letter grades.  Letter grades remain rare in preschool classrooms, and there are entire Universities that choose to use something other than letter grades for documenting student growth and development.  Furthermore, there are many alternatives and emerging technologies that give us new options.  I list a variety of such alternatives in my December 2012 article about 15 Online Resources to Challenge Our Thinking About Grading.

The more that I study learning organizations, the more I come to think that the letter grade system holds many schools back from fully pursuing their emerging visions for teaching and learning in the 21st century.  While a growing number of schools are finding ways to move beyond letter grades, it is not an easy task.  If you are a high school, what does that do to the transcripts that colleges review?  If you are a University, how does this impact a graduate’s efforts to get into a graduate program?  We have an entire educational system that continues to speak the “letter grade language,” so switching languages overnight is not realistic for many.  There would likely be resistance from almost every type of stakeholder (teachers, parents, board members, as well as some students).

As an administrator, educator, and consultant; I live in the world of letter grades most of the time.  And yet, as I become more familiar with the alternatives and I see them it action, those experiences prompt me to ask the question that is in the title of this article.  Standards-based feedback, narrative reports, electronic portfolios, and competency-based badges all offer alternatives to a straightforward letter grade system.  As we at least consider these options, I believe that more of us will find ourselves asking if letter grades are the best educational technology for the job at hand.

While the topic of letter grades is not nearly as high interest as things like gamification, project-based, problem-based learning, and digital portfolios; the letter grade system is a technology that shapes and limits possibilities in some learning organizations.  It is for this reason that I am excited to host my second MOOC in October entitled, Learning Beyond Letter Grades.  This will be an online community dedicated to exploring emerging learning environments as well as alternatives to traditional letter grade systems.  In addition to the MOOC, I plan to launch an additional online presence that will focus specifically on this conversation of “Learning Beyond Letter Grades.”  BeyondLetterGrades.com (to officially launch in October) will officially launch on October 7, in parallel with the start of the MOOC.  If you are interested in getting informed about the possibilities and joining the conversation, registration for the MOOC will open at Canvas.net in late July.  Also, through BeyondLetterGrades.com I will be launching a weekly newsletter that will run throughout the year, providing new insights about learning beyond letter grades, sharing results of interviews with experts in the field of alternative assessments, and sharing success stories of schools and students who are experiencing learning beyond letter grades.  While the course and newsletter does not start until October 7, you are more than welcome to sign up for the newsletter right away.

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  1. [...] Educators know that "it isn't about the technology." There are plenty of past and present examples where we managed to ignore this fact with unpleasant results. Larry Cuban's 2003 book, Oversold a…  [...]