Great Hearts Irving’s beliefs about the human person and our philosophy of education demand an approach to evaluating our students’ academic progress which is uncommon these days. It is an old-fashioned and holistic approach to evaluation rooted in our belief that the goal of education is much more than test scores, a college scholarship, or even knowledge and skills. Because at Great Hearts Irving we believe that the goal of education is the cultivation of human excellence in our students—intellectual excellence, moral excellence, and physical excellence—our philosophy of student evaluation speaks to all these areas of personal development.

Grades, Objectivity, and Qualitative Judgment

The evaluation of students by their teachers is an essential part of formal schooling. This ongoing process of evaluation informs the teacher about what a student has mastered, where he/she is struggling, and what he/she should learn next. Evaluation and timely academic feedback are also necessary for the student’s self-understanding and self-management as a learner, particularly as children mature. Finally, evaluation and academic updates are crucial for parents if they are successfully to support and oversee the education of their children. While older students are more capable of receiving direct feedback from their teachers through written evaluations and quarter or semester grades, parents play the essential role in conveying to younger children what they need to know about their own progress and growth, since the report cards are written for the parents and not for the students.

A Great Hearts classical, liberal arts education calls upon teachers, students, and families to place their primary attention upon learning and growth, not upon the mere letter or number grades which are assigned as shorthand summaries of student progress. In the context of a classical education, “What grade am I/is my child getting?” is not the right question to ask; instead, the focus should be on specific areas of success, growth/progress, and struggles/ opportunities for improvement. When students are young, this is a conversation between parent and teacher: “My child usually does well on math tests, but I see that the last one she brought home was a 62—what went wrong? was there a pattern to her mistakes? Is he participating more? What’s one thing he can do to improve his participation in class? Did she miss any homework assignments last week? Why are his quiz scores so low? How can she better prepare for her vocabulary tests?”

But as children transition into adolescence, this conversation should increasingly take place between student and teacher, with parental support and guidance where needed, and only with the purpose of helping the student to become fully independent. By the time students have entered high school, the training wheels should be completely off, and both parents and teachers should expect the student to be the active, autonomous, self-regulating, primary agent of his or her own learning and progress.

In the classical, liberal arts tradition of education, the work of assigning numerical and/or letter grades to student learning is understood to be an act of qualitative human judgment, aided by but not reducible to the impersonal quantifiable results of a system, a calculation, or a set of spreadsheet formulas. But by “human judgment” we do not mean “subjective”, for the rigorous, qualitative evaluation of student learning is not mere sentiment or an expression of a teacher’s arbitrary likes and dislikes.

Our way of viewing grades is increasingly out of fashion in a world shaped by purely quantitative thinking and by digital tools of information management, from the Fitbit to banking apps to the invisible systems of “big data” that give business and government unprecedented knowledge and power to influence human behavior. Indeed, such digital tools have increasingly become part of what is accurately now called “the education industry”, and the widespread use of these platforms for quantitative grade monitoring has made it increasingly difficult for 21st-century parents and teachers alike to think about learning in its qualitative essence. As the proverb of the telecommunications age has it, the medium is the message, and the medium of the digital grade platform, well suited to tracking quantitative data, silently and relentlessly conveys the message that the entire process of education is about measurable outcomes—the numbers, the results, the score, the return-on-investment. Classical, liberal arts education categorically rejects this view.

And because of the apparent ease and convenience of such digital systems, the greater good of academic conversation between parent and teacher, student and teacher, and even between parent and student, is bypassed in favor of the lesser good of instant information. Students who don’t have to talk to their teachers or their parents about how they did on the last test, whether they turned in their missing homework, or whether they’ve been improving their participation, do not develop into autonomous, self-regulated learners.

For these reasons—because of our focus upon the qualitative, upon conversation, upon the process of learning, and upon the development of student autonomy, Great Hearts does not employ an on-line system or portal to enable parents to check on real-time, daily/weekly student grades.

Special Categories of Student Evaluation:
Depth of Inquiry, Sense of Wonder, and Participation

A Great Hearts approach to student evaluation includes the discrete and quantitative: numerical scores on quizzes and tests, scores on projects, homework grades for completion and/or accuracy. But a classical, liberal arts education aims at developing not only basic skills and subject matter knowledge, but also habits of understanding, imagination, and analysis. The evaluative categories of depth of inquiry, sense of wonder, and participation describe some of these higher habits. They are fundamentally qualitative categories of evaluation, best expressed in narrative and not in quantitative scores. They are also objective and not subjective, for they reflect real acts and habits of the student, not the teacher’s feelings or vague, personal impressions.

When the teacher evaluates a student’s depth of inquiry, he/she gives answers to questions such as does the student ask questions in class? What kinds of questions does she ask? Do his questions rise above the pursuit of right answers to seeking causes and reasons why? Does she seek to make connections between what is at hand and what was learned earlier in the course, or even with other subjects? Does the student get beyond rules and formulas? Can the he/she construct questions that are more specific than “I don’t get it”? Is the student limited to “what do I need to know for the test?”, or does he/she have a genuine desire to know? How does the student express depth of inquiry—is it in class discussions? On assignments, projects, or exams?

When the teacher evaluates a student’s sense of wonder, he/she answers questions such as is the student interested by the subject matter’s mysteries, problems, or puzzles? Or does he “shut down” in the face of the difficult or the unknown? Does the student demonstrate curiosity? Does she ask relevant “what if…?” questions? Has the student had any “aha!” or “wow!” moments? Does the student demonstrate engagement? How? Again, it is not only in overtly expressive classroom actions that wonder can be demonstrated; often, what a student writes or how he/she completes an assignment or a project can demonstrate this habit.

It is a mistake to think that participation is a measure only of a student’s active, self-initiated volunteering in the classroom. While this is part of participation, a teacher’s evaluation in this category answers a range of questions including how does the student respond when the teacher calls upon him/her? Does he speak too much in class or too little? Is her participation self-centered, or is it mindful of others? Does the student listen well? Does she ‘track the speaker’? Does the student take notes or annotate readings, either in class or when working at home? Does he speak about the topic, or does he say whatever is on her mind regardless of relevance? Does she engage productively with others? Is he polite and courteous to classmates? Does she make distractingly silly or glib comments, or does she bring appropriate humor and playfulness to the classroom? Does he stay on task during independent or group work?

It is also a mistake to think that students’ wonder, depth, and participation are just reflections of fixed, innate dispositions in students: that a certain kind of gregarious, talkative, and socially uninhibited student gets an A for participation every year simply by showing up; that a student who is more naturally introverted will never be a strong participant and will never get more than a B; that certain students are just inquisitive and that’s that. Nothing could be further from the truth. Students’ natural dispositions are not evaluated; their actions and habits of learning are, and actions and habits are voluntary and can thus be altered through intention and effort. Some students will find certain habits of learning easier to develop than others, but intention and effort are still required. Teachers guide and encourage all students to develop all aspects of learning and give them the practice they need to grow where they need to grow, just like a good coach of young athletes, or a beginners’ piano instructor.


A liberal arts education requires a special kind of written evaluation—one that offers a prose discussion of the student’s sense of wonder, depth of inquiry, specific areas of mastery and needs for improvement, and attitudes toward learning and toward others. The narrative treats students in a fundamentally human way, not by neglecting numerical scores, but by situating those numbers as one part of fuller, more nuanced picture of the student’s progress in a given course.

Academic Notices: Midway through each quarter, academic notices are emailed out to the parents of students who are currently not passing. These notices are intended to prompt students to make necessary changes and improve their academic standing before the end of the quarter.

Reports: At the end of each quarter, parents will receive a report that indicates student performance in each subject area. At other reporting periods, teachers may write a narrative report for each student. These reports provide parents with specific feedback on a student’s strengths and weaknesses within a given class. In addition to narrative commentary, these reports include student grades in various categories of assessment along with an overall letter grade for the semester.

Parent-Teacher Conferences: At a specific point in the year, parents meet with the team of their student’s teachers to discuss the first quarter and overall student progress in greater depth. Parents will be encouraged to read the grade reports prepared for the student prior to this conference, and to come equipped with questions for the team of teachers present.

State Testing: Students will also be assessed according to state requirements. Please review appendix for list of state standardized exams. All tests will be conducted during the school year and the results will be mailed directly to families.

The above information is taken directly from our Family Handbooks.

A Note on Quizzes and Tests in the Lower School

Because quizzes and tests measure what students are able to achieve independently, they are an important component in forming a holistic picture of students’ academic growth. Quizzes and tests in the Lower School are designed as benchmark assessments for the teacher’s benefit, not as “high-stakes” examinations, and should be seen as just another kind of classroom activity, albeit one completed independently. While students receive developmentally-appropriate credit for their performance on tests, even in 5th Grade, formal exams and quizzes make up a relatively small portion of their overall subject averages. The overwhelming emphasis of our academic program in both our classrooms and the gradebook is on participation, discussion, and our students’ ability to engage deeply with our rich curriculum.

As a result, we do not ordinarily announce tests in advance. This is a deliberate strategy. Not pre-announcing the dates of quizzes and tests:

  1. Helps to alleviate the anxiety many students feel about any kind of examination,
  2. Gives our teachers flexibility to use their judgment of class progress and the best time to administer a test, which may not always be predictable in advance,
  3. Prevents students from spending time “cramming,” which not only skews the ability of our tests to accurately reflect how well students are retaining what they are experiencing in class, but is also not the best use of our scholars’ time in the afternoons and evenings.