What happens when I replace letter grades with assessments grounded in core growth areas?
Students, parents, and teachers view grades as an integral part of school culture, a belief that is reinforced by the use of grades to evaluate and compare students for college acceptance. But what are the underlying consequences of using letters grades as the primary result of assessment? External rewards such as grades can negatively affect student performance (Deci, 1995), reduce intrinsic motivation (Deci, 1975), and limit student thinking and determination (Kohn, 1999). My study looks at what happens when letter grades in a 12th grade engineering classroom are replaced with a system based on reflection in eight Core Growth Areas, a set of broad competencies grounded in 21st century skills (e.g., collaboration, creativity, curiosity). With my team of 46 students at High Tech High Chula Vista—a project-based school in Southern California—I examined student work, collected surveys, and held interviews to determine how students were affected when assessment relied on self-assessment, reflection, and qualitative feedback. I used data from whole class experiences and interviews with two focus students to examine the effects of grades on motivation, self-perception, and performance. I found that assessments based on Core Growth Areas highlighted student strengths, leading to motivation to produce quality work rather than achieving a grade. Moreover, without grades, these assessments focused on individual growth, rather than on comparisons among students. This meant that high achieving students could not breeze by and students labelled as “struggling” had the opportunity to flourish. I also found that reflection in self-assessment must be structured to allow for freedom in reflection while also providing support to develop skills necessary for depth. These findings indicate that qualitative assessments can avoid the dangers associated with traditional grades while also better aligning assessment with the learning goals of a classroom.