The No Mark System

Post date: May 9, 2017 5:29:59 PM

I teach at a school founded on a strong learning culture. Amongst our cultural "pillars" of "Be the Best," and "Do No Harm," is the pillar of "Never Too Late To Learn." This pillar has become a mantra here at Del Lago Academy. The principle of this pillar is simple: no matter your learning ability, no matter what obstacles life may throw at you, you will always have the opportunity to succeed. Here is what the pillar looks like in practice:

  • Del Lago Academy utilizes a competency-based grading system. Scholars show their competency on a wide range of academic skills specific to different areas of study, but may also overlap across disciplines.
  • Upon the completion of a competency, the scholar will be assigned a grade on a 4-point scale. A 2.5 is needed to pass. The scores combine for a class subtotal that can be assigned an A, B, C, or NM (No Mark). Individual competencies may also be assigned as NM if they do not meet the competency criteria.
  • Once a scholar has been given a NM, the "Never Too Late To Learn" policy kicks in. Scholars have two terms to "clear" these grades by refining their work until it satisfies the competency criteria. (For example, if a scholar has a NM in a class in the Fall, they have the Spring and Summer terms to improve their work.)

The rationale behind this system was also pretty strait-forward: some kids simply need more time and opportunity to complete what a demanding curriculum asks of them. The system recognizes the diverse background of all of our scholars and hopes to compensate for life's many obstacles. Ideologically, this seems fantastic.

In practice, we have encountered some unforeseen consequences.

Many of my high-achieving scholars seem to take advantage of the NM system. While we do maintain deadlines on all of our work, there are no penalties for turning in competencies late. Accordingly, my on-time completion rates average around 25%. I have discussed this with several scholars, who have shared that without the pressure of deadlines that hurt your grade, there is little motivation to complete work until it is absolutely necessary.

Does this have any significant impact on learning? I believe overall, that remains to be seen. Several of my seniors from last year have reported the pace and demand of college courses to be very challenging, and that the lax deadlines at Del Lago certainly did little in the way of preparing them. However, they have all, from what I can tell, fought hard to be successful within their post-secondary education sites.

In a more general sense, I wonder if this grading system fosters bad habits beyond school work. In any job, if you show up late or submit your work beyond an expected deadline, you are given a stern warning, if not fired on the spot. I have my concerns that the No Mark system may encourage laziness and reduce overall drive.

Of course, I have to end by explaining what a godsend this policy is for many more of my scholars. Del Lago gives so many kids the chance to succeed, whereas they might have failed in a traditional, comprehensive high school setting. I hesitate to offer any more criticism of our system, because we are still quite young in the development of our special school and its culture. I look forward to revisiting this policy in another 4-5 years to see what changes have been made, or perhaps need to be made.