Schools have traditionally measured students’ academic performance by assigning them a place on a letter or number grade scale. But educational research has established that this does not ensure academic success — in fact, it can endanger a student’s ability to succeed. Unnecessary competition for validation through grades can create a high level of stress, which can manifest in physiological, behavioral, and cognitive ways.

In the last four years, a growing movement of schools across the globe have begun choosing alternative assessment methods. One local school, Carolina Friends School, has taken a more holistic approach since its founding in the early 1960s.

Learning is a Pathway

Shifting the focus away from the reward or punishment that comes with traditional grading and toward feedback and encouragement — to dig deeper and reach higher — allows students to focus on the depth of their knowledge and understanding. It also allows them to explore their curiosities without fear of failure and to experience learning with joy. Mastery of concepts and skills is the goal, and each child takes their own unique pathway. Our growing understanding of the range of cognitive and neurodiversity reveals that our minds flourish in thousands of individual ways. 

It is human nature to examine the product and not the process. Parents evaluating children’s learning are no exception, but Brad Kershner, Head Teacher of Carolina Friends School’s Chapel Hill Early School, argues that “attention to outcomes can distort, reduce, and negatively impact the process of education.”

More Data, Not Less

The approach to student assessment at Carolina Friends School uses multiple data points, including teacher observations as well as a variety of testing techniques and demonstrations of knowledge: from quizzes to podcasts, in-class games to group projects and written assignments. Students receive continual feedback, encouraging new ways of looking at problems as they arise. While the teachers at Carolina Friends School collect this information to share with parents, the student is seen as a partner and co-creator, empowering them to recognize good work, identify areas for growth, and set a high bar of excellence for themselves. 

Aiming for Equity

Assessing student progress in a holistic way also helps to reduce the role of bias in grading. Each individual learning style is informed, in part, by their experiences. Personal identities of gender, race, religion, culture, and socio-economic status are just a few of the facets that shape not only a child’s lived experience but a teacher’s. Providing a variety of ways to evaluate  students’ learning creates more opportunity for them to demonstrate knowledge development, and eliminates being identified as an “A” or “C” student. Each child is encouraged in a way that allows them to be their best.