A Case for Narrative Grading: Assessing Students Classically

By Craig Hefner, Ph.D. | Head of School

The ways in which a student is assessed uncovers a whole set of assumptions regarding the role of education and the subsequent ideal of the purpose of a teacher. When we peel back the standards of modern assessment, examining the numerical and letter grading system, we find a set of values and assumptions that sit uncomfortably with the ideals of a classical Christian education.

At Covenant School we have undertaken the process of evaluating and rethinking our approach to assessment in light of our distinct mission, a mission that values the formation of the heart, mind, and soul.

So as we look to the beginning of a new school year, I want to make a case that an emphasis on narrative and qualitative feedback better serves our mission as a classical Christian school far more than the modern system of academic assessment. Under a narrative system, students receive an increase in qualitative and narrative feedback with little to no numerical grades.

Imagine two students: one has straight A’s, but puts in almost no effort. She is the kind of student who just intuitively memorizes and learns new information. But overtime she becomes apathetic, content with receiving her easy A’s with minimum effort. Now compare this student with another student who earns straight B’s, but who struggles and works diligently for each point. Which student will flourish in the long run? The first student might have a more natural gift for learning, but apathy is too strong of a force for even the most gifted mind. Eventually, when class or career or other life-circumstances gets too hard, it is the person who possesses the habits of diligence, courage, and patience who ultimately flourishes.

A narrative grading system would benefit both of these students. It discourages apathy from the straight A student because a narrative grade shows that there is always more to be learned. For the student who struggles, a narrative grade provides more helpful direction and feedback. And it prevents the struggling student from giving up and embracing their identity as a ‘B’ student, giving vision for future success. With narrative grades, the teacher can speak more directly to the heart and loves of the individual student.

It comes down to two very different images pertaining to the role of education: the image of the school as a kind of factory, prioritizing efficiency and streamlined communication, a scalable business model. Or the school as a place of apprenticeship, a relational environment emphasizing coaching and mentoring from a master of craft. The modern letter grade system serves the purposes of the former, allowing for clean, easy, and simple communication to parents (‘Your student has a B’) and the transference of assessment as a kind of academic currency. An apprenticeship model is far less industrial. A letter grade would be inappropriate under this system, even counter-productive.

As most of us have experienced from good mentors and coaches, the measurement of learning and even the reporting of failure is communicated primarily through words and in the form of a narrative. Here are three simple reasons why we at Covenant School have chosen the alternative narrative model in assessing our lower school students:

#1: Letter Grades are reductive

 Children and the learning process are irreducibly complex, so why should we use a grading system that reduces this process to a single letter? Some students receive As with great ease, while others struggle to earn adequate grades. And so, in any given class, two students might receive the same grade, but the story behind this grade is very different. The letter grade system forces the teacher to reduce this story to a single number or letter, while a narrative grading system allows the full story to be told.

#2: Letter Grades emphasize the external motivations for learning, leading to academic apathy

 By contrast, narrative grading fosters an intrinsic love for learning (‘I learn because I delight in the discovery and mastery of skills’). An all too familiar scene in the classroom: a teacher explains an assignment, and then a hand goes up: ‘Is this for a grade?’ ‘How many points is it worth?’ The letter grading system encourages external motivations for learning. Learning is valuable only for the sake of external reward (‘I learn in order to get an A’ or ‘I learn in order to get into college’). The problem with external motivations is that they are always short-sighted. Intrinsic motivation, rather, is far more valuable. We all know from experience and a number of studies that the best leaders and innovators are driven from an internal and intrinsic motivation. The same is true of learning. At Covenant, our mission is to form life-long learners who delight in the discovery and mastery of skills. We desire to form students who continue to read and learn without the external motivation of grades far beyond their graduation, and we believe that our grading system should reflect this goal.

#3: Letter Grades fail to address matters of the heart

Classical educators have taken seriously the insight that students, and humans in general, are driven primarily by their heart, that is to say by their character and by what they love. We all know this intuitively. A student who loves science tends to learn and perform well in their science classes. But the letter grade system fails to address such matters of the heart. By contrast, a narrative feedback enables the teacher to speak to the heart of the student and to shape that student’s heart in the love of learning.

 We could look at more reasons in favor of a narrative system, but these reasons alone demand that classical Christian educators do something different. From a historical point of view, the concept of letter grades does not originate from within rich the history and tradition of classical education. The system is a recent and modern invention over which the classical educator should pause and raise serious objections.

At Covenant School, we are therefore committed to providing our students and parents with more holistic, narrative feedback and less quantitative reporting. Consequently, our report cards and academic assessments will appropriately reflect this balance. We are committed to evaluating our students as apprentices of craft rather than products of a factory. We want to form hearts who delight in virtue, Christian faithfulness, and learning, and we believe that a narrative grading system better serves our distinct mission and vision as a classical Christian school.

Dr. Craig Hefner has a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Wheaton College, an M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a B.A. in pre-seminary with a minor in Greek from Cedarville University. Prior to coming to Covenant, Craig taught at the collegiate level and worked in church and campus ministries. He lives in Huntington with his wife, Rachel, and his newborn son, Elliott. In his free-time, Craig enjoys reading great books, CrossFit, playing piano, and walking his dog. 

Contact Dr. Hefner at craig.hefner@covenantschoolwv.org

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