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On Grades: A Requiem

Meeta Gaitonde, Director of Admission

I love PBS. That may not be news, but I do – as an employee, as an educator, and as a parent of a current student and an alum. I love the way we are always thinking about education and what is best for children at this age. I love that we are willing to dig deep, confront obstacles, and adjust as needed. And I love that we continuously grow and adapt – exactly what we ask of our students.

And as I came across a recent article on the Edutopia blog, I was yet again reassured about my love. Here’s the lede:

In the last decade, at least 15 state legislatures and boards of education have adopted policies incentivizing their public schools to prioritize measures other than grades when assessing students’ skills and competencies. And more recently, over 150 of the top private high schools in the U.S., including Phillips Exeter, Choate, and Dalton…have pledged to shift to new transcripts that provide more comprehensive, qualitative feedback on students…

That felt familiar because PBS traveled this road years ago, culminating in the decision to do away with grades entirely. True to our style, we made the decision only after consulting experts, gathering and poring over the latest research, and engaging in (sometimes lengthy) discussion and debate. Through it all, it became obvious that grades were getting in the way of communicating with our students and parents about how they were actually doing – the opposite of their intended purpose. We also decided that A–F grading was not in alignment with our philosophy nor reflective of what we believe to be best-practice. One educator quoted in the article sums it up well:

The grading system right now is demoralizing and is designed to produce winners and losers…The purpose of education is not to sort kids—it’s to grow kids. Teachers need to coach and mentor, but with grades, teachers turn into judges. I think we can show the unique abilities of kids without stratifying them. Scott Looney, head of the Hawken School in Cleveland

But what to replace traditional letter grades with? We consulted leading research-based educational standards. We dove into our own approach to learning and distilled down what was essential to each grade-level. We contacted the secondary schools our students apply to in 5th grade, to make sure we wouldn’t be putting our students at a competitive disadvantage. Ultimately, we arrived at a thorough, multi-page assessment with a section devoted to a personal narrative and a section for more formal skills-based standards.

We’ve iterated the progress reports a few times since that big change. (My colleagues’ article about parent–teacher conferences, published on Monday, describes very well our current progress report format.) This process of adjusting and improving incrementally over time is the PBS approach to all areas of our program. Feedback from parents has been extremely positive; families tell us that these reports reflect how truly well our teachers know each child. The skills-based standards help parents see the arc of progress and where the curriculum is expected to go, measured not against an arbitrary letter-grade standard but against a set of clear, well-defined benchmarks. They feel more objective, more authentic, and much more informative.

I’m excited that this debate over the merits of letter grades has made it to the mainstream. And I love that PBS has been on the forefront of this shift.

Meeta Gaitonde P’17 P’20, now in her second year as Director of Admission, has worn almost every hat at PBS except Head of School – so far, anyway. PBS has been her second home since 2002, when she started as a 3rd-grade assistant teacher. Since then, she’s been a lead teacher, a substitute teacher, a learning specialist, a long-term librarian substitute, and the educational technology and innovation specialist.

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