One School’s Conversation About Open Gradebook

In the fast pace of what we do in our schools every day, every week, and every year, it is increasingly difficult to carve out time to research or even reflect on any change of policy that may be heading down the pike. We often hear or read about an educational trend or what another school is doing, or we may hear from a few parents that we should do [insert latest trend], too. At Harpeth Hall School (TN), we talk to faculty and to students, if appropriate, and take the time to consider what we think is best for our students within our school culture. Then we make a recommendation whether to change a policy. 

In our wonderfully diverse coalition of girls’ schools, we espouse many different paths to reaching the summit of engaging, educating, inspiring, supporting, and mentoring our girls and young women. It comes as no surprise that the mention of an open gradebook—giving each student and parent online access to all of a student’s grades in a teacher’s gradebook, all of the time—is concerning to some girls’ school administrators. To others, it is something they incorporated years ago and are now off to consider newer trends and best practices. This topic was a clear fork in the road for us.

As one of only two girls’ schools in Nashville, with a robust community of independent, magnet, charter, and public co-ed schools, Harpeth Hall may be the only school that doesn’t have an open gradebook. We believe that considering this question within the context of our mission as an all-girls school is essential and a decision not to be taken lightly. 

The Pros and Cons of Total Transparency

On the surface, a system that provides both students and parents uninhibited access and feedback on a student’s letter grade would appear to be an improvement. Students can keep track of their assessments and can easily see each grade and whether they have any missing or late assignments. There are no report card surprises; rather, the parent and student can always be aware of the student’s average and take action accordingly. An open gradebook allows for conversations between parents and students, and gives both parties an up-to-date view of the student’s achievements in each class.  

Such ease of access and total transparency mirror the 24/7 online world that we live in. An apt parallel might be online banking: Log on anytime to learn your balance. The critical difference is that at Harpeth Hall, and most likely any all-girls school, we know a student’s numeric average at any given moment will never provide the whole picture of her educational journey. We have many high-achieving students, and we must consider whether such a system would best serve our particular community, or whether it would undermine our goals as an institution.

For the student who experiences anxiety about any uncertainty with regard to her grades, an open gradebook will allow for a superficial level of control via constant transparency. What might be the cost of this transparency? Right now, teachers are aware of their students’ specific anxieties because of the one-on-one conversations that happen around grades. Students can already ask for their average, grade, or test result at any time and be accommodated. More importantly, when students ask teachers directly, critical face-to-face conversations often reveal nuances for a teacher about how a student is processing an experience or developing in a class. The current system, while technically old-fashioned, preserves the teacher-student relationship and still allows students to have ownership. At this time, we can find no research showing that open gradebooks have improved students’ grades or helped teachers know their students better.

Minding the Confidence Gap

We do, however, have plenty of research on girls and confidence. Over the past four years, our school has focused on this research, namely the disconcerting truth that girls and young women who perform well in school do not always meet with the same success in the workplace. In order to address this confidence gap, we have identified several primary inhibitors we see in our students. Three of these five inhibitors could be exacerbated by an open gradebook.

Perfectionism: High-achieving students with perfectionist tendencies are more likely to equate their self-worth with their grades. Grades become powerful extrinsic motivators for these students, who begin to value successful performance over learning. Over time, the joy of learning diminishes as they focus narrowly on the numbers and improving the numbers. We are concerned that an open platform will drive students’ focus further toward numbers. At Harpeth Hall, we never want a student to define herself by a number.

Comparison: Equally concerning is the possibility of promoting an obsessive-compulsive behavior focused on results. Teenage girls are already online all the time, checking the number of likes on Facebook and Instagram. Refreshing the open gradebook page is an added reality for many girls across the country today, and we might spare our students from this option by giving them the space to think about something more than their grades. Tendencies toward perfectionism exist without an open gradebook, and we think they would worsen without the intervention of teachers should we go to an open system.  

Fear of failure: Research shows that girls are especially prone to the fear of failure because of “good girl” conditioning. Girls avoid risks and value image over learning, and this avoidance diminishes confidence. Yet we are learning that college admission is becoming increasingly more interested in a prospective student’s ability to handle disappointment, adversity, and struggle rather than just seeing a grade point average. Girls who develop perseverance, tenacity, and a healthy sense of risk-taking are less vulnerable to depression and anxiety. This leads to a more successful experience in college and beyond. We hope our girls will have healthy, successful life experiences, and thus we want them to take safe risks in our classrooms, to have an opportunity to experience and recover from failure, and to develop skills that allow them to persevere.  

Every day our faculty members are on the frontlines of our students’ emotional health and well-being. Harpeth Hall remains a progressive school with innovative teachers, and yet we hesitate to adopt the latest open gradebook trend. Based on our research and experience teaching girls, we question how an open gradebook would benefit our students’ well-being and emotional health or increase their ability to own their successes and failures, take risks, or succeed dramatically better in the classroom or more importantly, at life.  
Author
Adam Wilsman
Adam Wilsman

Adam Wilsman is an Upper School History Teacher at at Harpeth Hall School (TN).

Armistead Lemon
Armistead Lemon

Armistead Lemon is the Director of the Upper School at Harpeth Hall School (TN).

 

Buffy Baker
Buffy Baker

Buffy Baker is an Upper School Wellness Teacher and Varsity Tennis Coach at Harpeth Hall School (TN).

 

Jenny Jervis
Jenny Jervis

Jenny Jervis an the Upper School French Teacher and Varsity Cross Country Coach at Harpeth Hall School (TN).

 

Jess Hill
Jess Hill

Jess Hill is the Interim Head of School at Harpeth Hall School (TN).

 

Maddie Waud
Maddie Waud

Maddie Waud is an Upper School Math Teacher at Harpeth Hall School (TN).

 

Comments

Adam Wilsman
10/9/2018 11:39:01 AM
Dear Chris and Others,

If you would like to get a look at the eight-page white paper that our group wrote on the topic of open gradebooks, please email me at adam.wilsman@harpethhall.org. I would be delighted to share it with you.

Thanks,
AW

Jon Butcher
10/9/2018 10:18:26 AM
Interesting, but we've arrived at a different conclusion and set of options.
We are an all-boy's school and certainly the three categories of Perfectionism, Comparison, and Fear-of-failure also apply, in varying degrees, to boys, along with the perhaps more commonly male tendency to overestimate their abilities and overstate their achievements. (Parent: "How did your math test go?" 15 year-old boy: "Great" :-) Open Gradebooks are a good way to provide an objective assessment of performance. As a boarding school, our parents really value the ability to see their son's work and the teacher feedback, something they would otherwise not get.
We have had open Gradebooks from grades 5-12 for 6 years now, but - thanks to the level of control our Edsby LMS gives us, we have refined how and when marks are displayed:
Marks and teacher comments/feedback on individual assignments are always visible, however, no overall course marks are shown until after the November report card at which point we display course marks as letter grades (the November report also only uses letter grades). This is because early marks can cause a course mark to fluctuate dramatically until all weighting categories have assessments (i.e. A student gets perfect on the first quiz and has 100% in the course... its all downhill from there!), so we want students and parents to focus on the teacher feedback and individual assessment marks, not some possibly invalid overall mark.
Just before our mid-year report cards (February) we change the display of course averages to percentages (the mid-year report card also shows percentages) for grades 7-12. Grades 5 & 6 use letter grades all year - these "buckets" help reduce mark comparison issues.
These two choices seem to have significantly reduced the "mark update anxiety" some students experience. By February course marks are much more stable since individual assessments have less impact on the overall average.
Along with these choices we've tried to educate our parents on their role and the meaning of "marks". Our LMS has a fantastic way of displaying marks and weightings graphically, differentiating formative vs summative assessments, and breaking out category marking for each assessment. In the end the feedback to parent and students is richer, enables more enlightened discussions between all parties, and is now a welcome part of our school culture. And, if the choice is between a student checking social media or their LMS app, perhaps we should encourage them to choose the latter? :-)

Tom Lengel
10/8/2018 12:03:30 PM
Bravo! I couldn't agree with you more, and your reasoning is impeccable. Although it is not easy, as educators we must give our students and their families what they need-not necessarily what they want.

Doing so takes courage of one's convictions, which you all clearly have. There is already enough anxiety about grades and achievement and like you, I believe that open gradebooks add to the anxiety level, rather than decreasing it.

Chris O'Hara
10/4/2018 10:01:18 AM
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and observations! I really enjoyed reading this. As I work to establish discussion around this topic at my own school, I was wondering if you could point me/us in the direction of some of the research you mentioned?

Dr. Joey Richards
10/3/2018 6:03:46 PM
Thank you for the succinct statement of the issue. Perhaps there is a middle ground option? Offer open access to the gradebook and allow families to opt in or out based on the emotional health and understandings of their child. Young people call for technology that is customizable and a large percentage of your student population expect to be able to access files and data around the clock, so why not gradebooks? In a way, the data belongs to the student. In my school community (Southwest Christian School, Fort Worth, Texas) we do have online access available, but we have the option to limit access if access proves to be detrimental to the student. I don’t believe that limiting access for all students is the answer, when you have a large population of students who can appropriately handle having ubiquitous access to their performance. Thanks again to the team at Harpeth Hall for considering the topic, well done.

Steve Nelson
10/3/2018 10:47:02 AM
How about not having grades at all?

Liz Perry
10/3/2018 9:59:00 AM
Great article. Thank you. At St. Luke's School (CT), which is co-ed, we had a similar discussion and shifted a few years ago to an online grade book in grades 9-12 that is open to students and advisors, but not to parents. No one solution is right for every school. What persuaded us to try this approach is understanding grades as a form of feedback for the learner. The more we can emphasize that in talking with students, the more we can mitigate the negative potential effects caused by perfectionism, comparison, and fear of failure. When advisors or teachers notice that a student is hyper-vigilant in monitoring their online grade book, it creates a great occasion for conversation. We can also temporarily turn off a student's access to the grade book if a pause is what's best for them right now. Thanks again for examining this issue from so many angles.

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