This is the perfect time of year to consider this question. My own children just received their report cards last week and I'll be completing report cards for my students next week. I was thrilled with my children's report cards. My son is a sophomore in high school who is taking all honors classes. All As and Bs for him...even in geometry and chemistry. My daughter is in eighth grade. She takes all honors classes too. She was recently inducted into the Junior National Honor Society. She received all As on her report card. Good grades are important to me and I've put some pressure on my kids to get good grades. So, my response to Will Richardson's recent tweet about grades might be surprising.
Good grades do NOT necessarily equal a good education. Higher grades do not mean that a student has learned more or knows more. High grades mean that the student has acquired some soft skills, like organization, time management, and perseverance. High grades say that he or she takes school seriously. High grades indicate that a student can use self-control and has developed the ability to make responsible decisions. Good grades, in my mind, actually say little to nothing about learning. Good grades say that a kid has figured out how to "do" school.
However, despite the grade-grubbing culture at my son's high school, I witnessed a beautiful thing happen in his honors English class. It is an ungraded class. This is not to say that he doesn't get a grade at the end of the term, it just means that pieces of his work are not graded throughout the term. Instead, he submits work throughout the term and receives actionable feedback from his teacher. At mid-term, they conferenced and discussed his progress toward his goals. His goals were revised and his work continued. At one point he came home and, in an intense way, said that he had to up his game in English. I asked why. He explained that he had peer-conferenced with a girl from his class and her writing blew him away. She had given him some helpful feedback. However, it was her writing that motivated him. It was refreshing to see my son motivated by the talent of his classmate versus her grades. I hear so many parents, when we talk about the importance of learning versus grades, talk about competition and how motivating and healthy it is. I couldn't agree less. Just knowing that someone is getting better grades than you is not motivational. But for my son, seeing an example of quality writing and receiving some feedback from a peer was helpful, motivational, and inspirational. Inspired learning is what I desire for my kids. I don't want them to be competitive grade grubbers.
So the quick answer: grades have nothing to do with learning. As teachers, we need to concern ourselves deeply with providing rich learning opportunities and then figure out how to measure that learning. I'm fairly certain that the way we measure learning today is actually having a detrimental impact on learning. We certainly have our work cut out for us!