Evergreen State: College Without Grades

Evergreen State College.

There are a number of surprising facts about Evergreen State College, which is located outside of Olympia, Washington between Portland and Seattle. First, Evergreen is a mid-size liberal arts college, but it is a public (state) school. Second, students don’t earn grades at Evergreen; they are evaluated with a narrative of their progress. It is a one-of-a-kind school. When I think of state schools, I think of the big public universities with tens of thousands of students, well-known football teams, and large lecture style classes for freshman. Evergreen State is just the opposite. The college has 4500 students and classes are taught with a 23 to 1 student to teacher ratio. The Geoducks (yes, their mascot is a large clam) don’t play intercollegiate football, but have soccer, basketball, track, volleyball, and cross country teams. It is truly a liberal arts college, but at public school prices. Probably the most surprising fact is that no grades are given at Evergreen State. Most of us are so bounded by letter grades, class rank, and scores that a school without grades sounds a little odd. But think about it. Grades don’t really describe the learning that has taken place. Two students can take a statistics class. “Mr. Math” who is a naturally gifted test taker can sleep through class, show little effort or interest and walk in on exam day and ace the test. “Struggling Sue” who wants to learn statistics can come to every class, actively participates in discussion, complete all the homework, engage with the material, work hard and still make a 67 on the exam. At many universities Mr. Math walks away with an A and Struggling Sue fails the class, but the narrative evaluations at Evergreen can explain that test taking is not Sue’s strength, but she has earned her credit for statistics through her understanding demonstrated through class discussion and homework. The narratives give a better picture of the knowledge and process for each student. Grading is unique at Evergreen State and so is learning. There are no required courses. Students create their own requirements known as academic pathways. They work independently to identify what they want to study; of course, students are encouraged to collaborate with faculty and career center advisors. There are no majors, but students who earn 45 credits in one subject area are said to have an “area of emphasis”. Evergreen students embrace this approach. They are eager to dive into specific subjects freshman year instead of having to slog through two years of “the basics” which is what most students have to look forward to at public universities. If the grading and requirements are unique, you can expect the learning environment to be distinctive at Evergreen State. Classes are designed to be interactive and creative. Academic programs are team-taught and combine disciplines to examine the real word relationships among different subjects. Dancing Molecules examines dance and the biology and physiology that make movement possible. Music, Math, and Motion explores the relation of acoustics, mathematics, and the physics that connect them. Other current academic programs include Sustainable Design: Designing a New Organic Farm Building, Animal Behavior & Zoology, and Ready Camera One. Some academic programs last longer than a quarter and new programs are constantly rotated with others that are offered annually or biannually. With such a unique approach to a liberal arts education, Evergreen State College is not for everyone. Students who want to come to class, take lecture notes, and prove their learning on a test don’t fit in and neither do those who want to sit back unnoticed and just skate by or those who need to validate their work with a high GPA. Evergreen appeals to a wide range of students, including many who transfer from other schools or go back to college after time in the work force. Yokiko Hayashi, the representative I met with, said “actively engaged” is the term that best describes the Evergreen student. Here are some additional facts about the school:
  • Evergreen State is listed as one of the “Colleges That Change Lives” and is recognized for how closely the faculty value and know each student.
  • 30% of students come from outside of Washington and out-of-state students are encouraged to apply and attend.
  • During 2011-2012 2,677 students received some form of financial aid and the average award was $13,306.
  • The average live expectancy of a geoduck is 146 years.
  • The Evergreen campus includes more than 1000 acres of evergreen forest and 3300 feet of beach on Puget Sound.
  • 85% of Evergreen students get into their first or second choice school for graduate and professional programs. The narrative evaluation transcripts make it very clear how a student would fit into a particular graduate program.
  • It snows three to five times a year, but rains all the time!
  • U.S. News has ranked Evergreen as a “Top College for Learning Communities” and “First-Year Experiences for Freshmen.”
  • For fall 2011, 96% of applicants were admitted with an average SAT scores of 550 in Reading and Math.
  • Evergreen has a five acre organic farm on campus that is used to study agricultural and ecological topics.
Evergreen State College is a hidden gem among public colleges.]]>

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