Why We Don’t Use Grades

Our commitment to eschew formal grades and to use instead detailed narrative reports and other means to comment on the work of our students has been one of the distinguishing characteristics of Saint Ann’s School since our founding in 1965. The vast majority of educational institutions in this country and abroad employ grades as a means of evaluation and assessment, and each can mount a cogent argument for why they do so. We choose a different path, creating a place where intelligent and passionate teachers engage and instruct children who participate actively and take intellectual risks unencumbered by letter or number grades.

We do this for many reasons. We believe that grades distract from the joy of learning. They reduce what should be complex responses to challenging intellectual problems to rightwrong, or perhaps half-right or half-wrong. Grades are reductive symbols and a shortcut around the hard work of responding individually to the work of our students, celebrating what they have achieved, and explaining to each student how his or her work can continue to progress and develop.

Grades introduce an ethic of competitiveness into an activity that has nothing to do with winning or losing. The classroom is not a tournament but a laboratory where we introduce new ideas and original interpretations, in which the work of individual or collective discovery deserves careful mentoring and nuanced responses, in which we challenge students to devote themselves fully to the task of realizing their potential. For us, the classroom is where students and teachers study and critique information, and where new and exciting connections are made, where we respond to each student’s challenges and accomplishments in ways appropriate to that child in that moment, without resorting to comparisons between the ability of one child versus another.

Grades introduce an authoritarian element into the classroom. Teachers at Saint Ann’s earn the respect of students by their knowledge, passion, energy, and creativity, not by their ability to reward and punish. We endeavor in every act as teachers to demonstrate concretely the value we place on self-motivated students and to make learning a shared journey of intellectual and artistic discovery.

Grades assume that there is a set amount of knowledge to be gained from interaction about material presented in a classroom, and can create the illusion of objectivity in a process that is inherently subjective, even in those disciplines and activities where we would agree that certain answers are right and others are wrong. Grades also tend to encourage a misguided adjudication of assessment: “Why did I receive a B when I deserved a B+?”

Rejecting grades as a meaningful form of assessment at Saint Ann’s does not mean that we do anything less than constantly strive to draw the best from our students, celebrate their achievements, and guide them in achieving mastery of the skills and concepts of every discipline and form of expression that we teach. Asking less of our students than all that they can summon up as writers and poets, mathematicians and scientists, historians and actors, painters and linguists, is to depart from the essence of who we are as a school. We do not substitute low expectations in place of grades. Instead we give ourselves to the quest for knowledge and for excellence, because that journey is what matters.

Vincent Tompkins
Head of School