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To Grade or Not to Grade? That is the question.

What is the difference between photosynthesis and respiration? As an eight year old student, I could not remember the answer and therefore left that question blank on a science test. Never mind that I had studied for hours for a 15 minute test. This lapse in memory resulted in the only B letter grade of my academic career - the rest were all As. Yet 28 years later, I can still vividly recall the feeling of seeing that “B” in the science section on my report card. Sweaty palms, knotted stomach, and achy head. How can one simple letter produce such anxiety and disappointment in children? We all know the answer to this one: an outdated system that rewards children with traditional, meaningless letter grades. 

Most parents and students accept letter grades as an objective measure of academic knowledge and success. We believe that this cannot be farther from the truth. What do letter grades actually communicate? They certainly do not tell us about a child’s learning process. Amongst many other problems, points-based grading limits authentic learning, tends to reward cheating, trains learners to avoid challenging work since they need to remember the answers to predetermined questions, and teaches children that getting the much coveted “A” is more valuable than obtaining authentic knowledge. 

Authentic learning, real progress and the best efforts cannot be represented by a single letter grade. Therefore, we do not give grades. Instead, we measure milestones of learning several times within each school year through portfolios, exhibitions in front of an audience, and badges which showcase the accomplishment of complex challenges. These are personalized for every learner to maintain a comprehensive documentation of their learning. This portfolio contains documented “learning stories,” photos, videos, and tracking of progress made for every Session (we have seven Sessions for each academic year). This portfolio provides a detailed overview which letter grades simply cannot give; it allows parents and learners to access relevant, in-depth, real-time, and visible representation and greater understanding of how a learner is progressing. 

For our team here at River Oak Academy, the debate over grades versus no grades is a “no brainer” - we choose the latter because we not only value a learner's academic performance but also their character traits such as integrity, enthusiasm, grit and perseverance. The heart is both a driving engine and a compass. This why we have chosen a learning model grounded in the narrative of a Hero’s Journey. Why? To call up the deep longing we all have in our hearts to find our gifts and use them to make a difference in the world. Learners need a powerful "why" if they are going to be able to endure any "how". In nurturing the whole child, our Guides empower all learners to take charge of their education in a way that results in mastery of subjects with powerful stories and challenges to give them an opportunity to discover their passions and gifts.  Going beyond grades is what we want for all our learners. In addition to learning the core disciplines of a fine education, they are figuring out what they really want to be in this rapidly-changing world. We wait in anticipation to witness where their road will lead them.

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