No more letter grades for fifth-grade students at LJCDS


Lucy Jaffee, Editor-in-Chief

This academic year, fifth-grade teachers at La Jolla Country Day School are collectively piloting a new grading system: replacing traditional letter and percentage-based grades with a system for assessing students’ depth of understanding. This approach is designed to keep students focused on learning rather than obsessing over grades. 

In years prior to this switch, fifth-grade teachers, just as in other Middle and Upper School grades, evaluated student work in terms of letters, point-values, and percentages. An assessment marked a 24/30 or an essay with an emboldened A- across the top are no longer to be found. All assignments and students’ report cards are evaluated on a four-point scale in terms of students’  mastery of the content, a 4 symbolizing mastery and being “experienced” with the material and a 1 representing the beginning stages of understanding. Student and parent portals are updated continuously throughout the semester with this information. While grading looks different across subjects, there has been an overall shift towards assessing students in a manner that provides specific feedback so that students can build upon existing strengths and address weaknesses throughout the trajectory of the course.

Ms. Danice VonFeldt, a fifth-grade humanities teacher, shared her experience implementing this new system. In Ms. VonFeldt’s class, a creative writing assignment, for example, will be assessed according to a rubric outlining the multiple different components in which students are expected to show mastery. Each of these components represents a specific skill and receives a number describing whether the student is emerging, developing, capable, or experienced in a particular skill. This could be whether a student can properly formulate a topic sentence or whether they can provide specific evidence to support their claims. 

Mr. D’Avanzo, a fifth-grade math teacher, has organized “no-grades” grading into two components: testing students on year-long skills related to math practices, like developing a mathematical argument, and more discrete and defined skills, like adding and subtracting fractions with unlike denominators. He gives frequent assessments called  “Skill Checks” with two to three questions per skill. These involve no total points or overall percentage, but rather a 1-4 value per skill describing the student’s understanding. Moreover, they are written in the format of an “I Can” statement to develop confidence amongst students: an example being “I can convert decimals to fractions.” A summative assessment evaluated in the same way is given at the end of each “cycle” of “Skill Checks” on related topics.

According to both Ms. VonFeldt and Mr. D’Avanzo, this system has been in the works for a few years. It took spring break last year, a time when COVID-19 related learning shifts were being proposed, to finally develop and formalize this system for the current academic year. This transition was prompted by an interest in providing personalized feedback to students in a way that ensures they truly master the content, or at least progress steadily towards mastery. Teachers also wanted to ensure that fifth-grade students, most being 10 and 11-year olds and fresh out of the Lower School, continue their educational experience with curiosity, not prematurely stress over whether grades “matter” or not at this point in their lives. 

Ms. Von Feldt noted, “Oftentimes when you are given a letter grade, it’s about the A. It’s about mastering that material for a finite amount of time to be successful on a test or an answer. Although students acquire knowledge, the depth of understanding and student engagement can be limited. We want students to have a more active role in the learning process.” Teachers want students to truly learn the content, not just learn how to get A, or learn how to “game the system,” as Ms. VonFeldt described. “When we think about assessing on [a scale of] mastery progression, there’s a lot more space and openness for inquiry and developing specific habits. It’s not just ‘apply the procedure and move on,’” Mr. D’Avanzo said, highlighting the perks of this new approach. 

Ms. VonFeldt added that rubrics provide the students with the invaluable opportunity to “get feedback while they learn,” not just post-assessment. It normalizes having both strengths and weaknesses within a single subject and allowing an even playing field for all students to achieve mastery, regardless of their starting point. “The idea is that it’s okay to not get it the first five times,” reiterated Mr. D’Avanzo.

Removing letter grades and percentages is intended to result in less academic anxiety as well. “Kids come into fifth grade and they are already freaked out by math tests. There are kids that get testing anxiety and it’s like, ‘These kids are 10, they don’t need test anxiety. Let’s take that off their plate,’” D’Avanzo said. Middle school is a time for growth, as Ms. Vonfeldt notes that students are “just finding their voice, and finding their opinions, and mulling over what they’re learning. They are just beginning to gain this independence of thought.” Therefore, it’s important to instill a desire to learn and improve, rather than brew competition between and within the students themselves that earning subjectively high-achieving marks will irreparably impact their future. 

Both teachers noted, however, that through the perks of this new system, challenges have arisen: teachers, who are just beginning to adjust themselves, must heavily communicate with parents, all of whom are completely unfamiliar with this distinct method. Attempting to update student and parent portals through Blackbaud, the online application used to reflect grades, has proved to be difficult, as Blackbaud is not compatible with inputting student evaluations in this format. And, in addition to the tedious nature of actually inputting this data, parents may not know how to properly interpret the information they are viewing. Various “family” Zoom sessions have been held to educate parents and students. For example, a parent may see their child is “Developing” in a particular skill, and refrain from intervention under the assumption they will “Develop” towards mastery eventually. However, this actually flags the need for teacher or peer assistance in the subject area. Teachers may sometimes have to relate back to letter grades to translate, in a sense, to parents the meaning behind the skills and rubrics their child is being assessed. 

Challenges aside, the fifth grade plans to continue with this system into the 2021-2022 school year. When asked if “no-letter grade” grading would ever be incorporated into other grade levels, both teachers thought that sixth grade could transition to something similar, or perhaps function under rubric and skill-based evaluations internally, with report cards still showing A’s, B’s, etc. Since 7th and 8th grade serve as preparation years for the Upper School, which operates under a letter-grading system, both teachers seemed doubtful these grades would ever make the switch. Nonetheless, it has caused educators to reevaluate priorities in education, a discussion that spans schoolwide. 

Cover photo credit: Rachel Baxter