Slate’s Michael Thomsen wants to convince us that grades are unnecessary, discouraging, and biased against the lower-class.  Instead of grading kids on an A-F scale, Thomsen argues, we should instead focus on creativity, self-direction, and student engagement.  Thomsen claims that “fear of negative outcomes has been repeatedly shown to be a major impediment to learning.” 

I suspect this is true only for certain personality types.  But even if it is true for everyone, Thomsen would still need to prove that removing the possibility of failure (in the form of tests, grades, and evaluations) would not also impede the learning process.   

A survey of students at the University of Cape Town found that stress and fear of failing tests led to ‘classic symptoms of procrastination and avoidance,’ confusion and low self-esteem.  ‘…[I]t's one of those things where if I have to fail a test, I'm Like, ‘Oh my goodness, I can't fail a test.’ It's like a really serious strain,’ one subject reported.  Another showed the classic habit of grade-weighted failure leading to disengagement: ‘But I just didn’t like the fact that I had failed, so I just moved on to something else.’

Everyone experiences grade and test anxiety at some point in their school years.  No doubt the majority of students would vote to never be graded or tested again.  But kids ought to be encouraged to handle criticism, grades, and test scores in a constructive manner, rather than to wilt under the strain of any type of assessment.  The fact is that life is full of evaluations: job performance reviews, deadlines, projects, and the like.  Michael Thomsen is sympathetic to children who quit in the face of one or two bad tests, but bosses (and spouses) won’t be.

Thomsen makes the rather sloppy assertion that small Montessori-type schools outperform public schools because they do not test and grade.  First of all, one can’t possibly know whether such a school is outperforming anyone.  Gauging performance requires some kind of ranking device.  Secondly, Montessori schools can choose to accept or decline their students, and they often have a much better student-to-teacher ratio.  Third, and perhaps most important, the type of parents who are willing and able to pay for private school are also much more likely to be actively engaged in the child’s education, which is one of the leading factors of student success. 

What about the kids who aren’t blessed with involved, nurturing parents?  It is true that these children are more likely to fail tests and receive bad grades.  The obvious solution is to teach them and help them overcome their troubles, not to remove standards.  Thomsen dreams of a school system that never asks children to prove that they have learned something.  Frankly, this sounds like a way for all of the adults involved in the public school system to avoid assessment.  After all, if no grades or tests are given, it is much easier for public school administrators to keep their incompetence hidden from the public eye.