A recent article in The Atlantic detailed the results of a teacher's experiment with eliminating grades from her classroom. Her principal had approved for her to create a six week window without quantitative assessments for her students. What were the results?
The teacher reported that "...during the six-week period when my students were freed from the pressures of grades and instead focused on being learners, engagement, enthusiasm, motivation, and determination drastically increased. If only I could have measured those skills and shown them to my students’ parents in a way that resonated with them."
And therein lies one of the biggest barriers to a "gradeless" classroom. Because most adults were reared in an "A to F" classroom, there is often a disconnect with qualitative assessments, as opposed to quantitative assessments, such as letter grades, with which parents are most familiar. Qualitative analysis requires a level of trust in the teacher and school, as well as in the method. A gradeless classroom doesn't mean the teacher will simply say "Your child has really improved his writing this year," and leave it at that. There will be samples of his or her writing, examples of varied sentence structures, thesis statements, revisions, references, word choices, fluidity, etc.
If a writer reads another writer's novel and loves the craft, he or she doesn't tell friends the book gets an A. Invariably, the discussion will revolve around the finer points of the book, the plot, the beauty of description, the character development, etc. The same could be said of an engineer discussing another engineer's work, or a doctor's analysis of another physician's practice. In real life we stay away from absolute, quantitative assessemets, and instead rely on anecdotal, personal analysis based on our own expertise. The same can be said of teachers. They see dozens and dozens of children every year, and they have developed their own metrics as to what to expect from children of the age they teach. Along with rubrics from training centers or peers, those teachers are uniquely capable of giving a detailed discussion about a child's progress, without relying on a number or letter to define such development.
So, if motivation and performance go up without grades, why are we not implementing a more qualitative method across the educational spectrum? As The Atlantic article hints at, it's not because teachers or administrators lack the ability to think outside the box. Rather, it's primarily because our current American system is so embedded in the past experiences of adults, that to throw grades out would cause a level of change (aka chaos) no one is really interested in handling. In many ways, it was far easier for Dr. Maria Montessori to start her method from scratch than to modify what was already in play; there were no parents or administrators to please. All who joined her had already seen the limitations of the present system and were ready to throw off the chains. It is astonishing to realize that the most important rubric Montessori consistently utilized was a child's happiness. That was, and remains, the true north in the compass of correct educational practice and assessment.