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Imbusch looks to de-emphasize grades

December 28, 2015

Walpole High School principal Stephen Imbusch appears to be in favor of de-emphasizing the practice of assigning letter grades to students, and instead wants to report broader information about each student’s proficiency level in class.

Starting on October 16, and continuing into December, Imbusch has been offering regular editorial commentary, in the school’s weekly email newsletter sent to parents and members of the school community, to actively advocate for what he directly refers to as “a reduced focus on grades and more of a focus on student learning.”

In the first email, sent on October 16, Imbusch asked parents, “How would your child’s life change if we did not have traditional grades?”

I know…I have heard all the arguments, some of which are listed here…
– “We have all been through school, and we all had to deal with grades.” True, but does that mean it is the best system?
– “Grades motivate students to learn.” Yes, sometimes they do, but not always. In fact, they often do the opposite!
– “Colleges require our kids to have grades.” Grades are only one of many factors that colleges look at, and they are far from an ideal indicator of success.
– “Without grades, there is no rigor.” From my observations the opposite is true.
– “Grades tell us who is working hard.” Unfortunately, cheating and plagiarism have never been so rampant in schools and colleges.
– “We need to compare our students to one another using grades.” No we don’t. We need to ensure that every child reaches proficiency in that particular area of study.
– “Grades show whether a child is learning or not.” Really? So that 82% that your child has in (pick a subject) tells you what about their learning? I would argue that it tells you very little. It certainly tells you nothing about the concepts your child is struggling with, or where they are finding success.

Is there a better way? I would suggest that there is. More on this as we move forward.

In an email sent October 23, Imbusch compared handing out letter grades to a “stamp of approval” in an assembly line, and said “our current grading system is a vestige of the past, and totally inadequate feedback for students today.”

In one email, Imbusch laments that students appear to be so grade-focused that they “don’t know what it means to learn for the sake of learning.” He also says that it has been his experience that “when grades are introduced, rigor disappears.”

He also said, “though some might argue that competition is good for students and keeps them working hard, for most students who are not at the top of the class, this is certainly not the case. On the contrary, it kills their motivation.”

In one email, Imbusch said that he felt the current grading model was potentially divisive:

Pitting students against one another in the classroom is destructive in so many ways; the winners strive to get the best grades at the expense of everyone else – learning only that to be successful implies beating their peers, while the losers lose all motivation to learn when all that seems to count is the ever-elusive grade. It’s hard to believe there are some schools that still calculate Class Rank!

Imbusch stressed that he is not in favor of eliminating grades altogether, because college admissions counselors consider grades in their consideration process. But he does argue that schools in general should provide more comprehensive information regarding students’ academic performance, and not just their letter grade.

Do grades count for anything? Sure they do, but they certainly do not paint the full picture. We have been working very hard at WHS over the past few years to ensure that the grade a student receives is a true reflection of their knowledge and skill. Whether a student completes their homework, whether they bring in tissues for the classroom, or whether it takes them twice as long to learn a particular concept as other students, should not affect their grade – either negatively or positively. Communicating with students their proficiency level on particular standards happens on a regular basis, and we will continue to work on reporting those indicators out.

What do you think? Should Walpole schools put less emphasis on letter grades? It is sure to be a controversial topic, but perhaps a topic worth discussing as a community and as a nation. You can see all of Imbusch’s emails to parents here, and consider them in context.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 10, 2017 7:12 AM

    This is an interesting issue. I tend to agree with Mr. Imbusch’s statements about grades in general. I do think employing a system that adds more information in addition to the standard grading schedule would be very beneficial.

    Mr. Imbusch, native to Ireland, was my tech teacher back in high school, the first year be started in Walpole. I found him to be among one of the best teachers I ever had before college. I have much respect for him and his reasoning.

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