photo credit: Ed Yourdon via photopin cc

photo credit: Ed Yourdon via photopin cc

As a school district administrator, I have the privilege of working with all of the teachers new to our schools during a weeklong program of induction and orientation. Monday, we treated this fabulous group of educators to lunch. As we headed back, the conversation turned to field trips.

“Would you like to hear my field trip rule-of-thumb?” I asked the small group of teachers riding in my car. Eager to seem interested in the administrator they just met, they humored me by saying yes.

“When I was a teacher, I figured that as long as I came back to school with at least 90% of the students, it was still an A.” Polite laughter all around.

Of course the idea that losing a tenth of your class is an “acceptable loss” is ridiculous. Anything less than a 100% return rate would result in panicked parents, anxious phone calls, and serious professional consequences.

So why do we believe that the traditional grading scale is somehow the infallible and inspired word of John Dewey?

I was part of an interesting conversation on Twitter last week about the importance (or lack thereof) of grades. Without getting deep into the details (you can read the whole conversation here), one participant, John Walkup, argued passionately against eliminating grades, using a premise that has been seen here before:

His point carries some weight: if colleges require GPAs on applications, and students want to get into college, aren’t we doing them a disservice if we eliminate grading in K-12 schools?

During the conversation I pointed out one school that I thought was a counterexample: MC2 High School in Cleveland, OH. This school uses mastery-based reports instead of traditional grades, and yet their graduates are accepted into some of the best colleges in the nation (see page 3 of this profile).

The problem, as Mark Barnes pointed out to me later, is that the school shifts to a traditional grade structure in grades 11 and 12. Mark has suggested that K-12 schools need to stop catering to the perceived needs of college admissions committees and start doing what is good for learners.

I agree, but the problem remains: how do we eliminate grades without unintentionally hampering kids’ chances of getting into college? Here’s my proposal: let’s just do it and see what happens. Call the colleges’ bluff. Send them a transcript without a GPA and see what they do.

I’m willing to bet that more schools will start taking the lead that one-third of the top colleges have taken by downplaying, or even downright ignoring, GPA in the admissions process.

[This post originally appeared August 20, 2014 at Brilliant or Insane. To comment, join the conversation there.]