Going Gradeless

For the last couple of years, Mr. S and Mr. B have been moving away from grading writing in their classes and instead focusing on feedback and conferencing instead. It’s been a slow process–starting with simply taking the numbers off of the IB rubrics they were using to respond to writing and moving toward where they are now, at full-on portfolio assessment where the grade for the course comes at the end.

As I’ve watched their evolution away from grades, I’ve thought about my own classroom but figured that I just couldn’t go gradeless. My students were less motivated (not IB students) and they needed that grade on more things to do them, I thought. I had to have grades to figure out which students had the option to attend or not on flexible attendance days, I thought. There were more reasons, and I wrote about them in this blog. (Go here to see our conversation about grading as it has unfolded in this blog). 

And then we went to NCTE in Boston last November. Alfie Kohn spoke at a session about grading. These are the notes I wrote as I listened to him speak:

Three effects of using grades:

  • students who are graded are less engaged and less motivated to learn
  • teachers who grade students create students who tend to choose the easiest path to the grade–they avoid intellectual risk whenever possible
  • the quality/retention of learning is lower in students who are graded–grading undermines the depth of their learning

None of this changes if we use standards-based grading, grades on line, or rubrics.

With grades, it’s not about what the students learn but about how teachers think students are doing.

Stop grading.

You have to put a grade at the end but  never put a grade on any individual assignment.

Conference instead.

Avoid in culpability of degrading learning.

Settle a grade in negotiation with student.

Kids tend to rise to the trust and respect we show them.

It was at this moment that it all came crashing together for me, all the conversations with the other Paper Graders, all the moments with my students when I saw them caring more about the grade than the work and what they were learning, all the emails and phone calls I’ve had from parents and students asking me to round up a grade, all the things I’ve read about grading and its effects (including Alfie Kohn’s works), all the times it felt so wrong to be putting a number on a piece of writing, all the moments it felt like I was paying my students to do their work, all the “revisions” I’ve gotten from students who simply fixed commas rather than rigorously revising just to bring up a grade. All of it came together in that conference center ballroom with Alfie Kohn himself telling me to STOP GRADING.

And I was done. At that moment. Done.

I came back to finish out the semester without changing anything about the grading because it would not be fair to change the game at the end of the semester. But I let it all percolate in my mind to figure out how I would approach it with my students at the start of second semester. The truth is that my class was mostly gradeless already. Many of the things I asked my students to complete never got a grade upon them–simply a “yes” or “missing” in Infinite Campus to build a record for me and my students about how much of the work I had asked of them they had chosen to complete. The critical difference would be with the major papers. Those are the only single assignments I have put grades on for a while now. But now I will not.

Instead of grading their writing, I will ask all students to complete full rough drafts, to which I will provide focused feedback and require a rigorous revision from everyone. In my record keeping (no longer the “grade book”), I will record “yes” for revisions completed with rigor and “missing” for revisions that I don’t have or that are minimal attempts to engage in the revision process. We will still use rubrics, but they will not have scores on them. They will be our resources for defining what the goal is with the writing–for defining what strong writing looks like. We will use them as the centerpiece of our conversations about their writing.

I cannot keep Infinite Campus from boiling everything down to a percentage that equals a grade on a scale determined by the district, but I can train my students and their parents to look at the IC grade as a percentage of the work completed by a student. And at the end of the semester, I’ll put in a new grade category “final grade” that will be weighted 100% (thus making the record of work completed for the semester not a part of the grade calculation). That “final grade” will be determined via a conference between each student and me.

Of course in that final grade conversation my students and I will need to have some set of learning objectives to use to determine a grade. We’ll be using the Common Core State Standards for 12th grade. So that there are no surprises in that final conversation, my students will be looking at those standards throughout this semester. Those standards will be on the individual rubrics for papers so that we talk about them as we confer on their writing. Those standards will be the basis of their individual e-portfolios–they’ll post hyperlinks to their work that serves as evidence toward individual standards.

On the first day of the semester, I shared with my students my journey toward not wanting to grade anymore. We looked at Kohn’s “The Case Against Grades.” I made a proposal for how we could approach things. We talked it out. They voiced some concerns. I asked them to vote individually to let me know if they thought we should try it or not.

They were unanimous. “Let’s go for it!” they said.

I wrote up an explanation of grades for second semester and posted it on my website so that students could refer to it and direct their parents to it as well. And here we go.

So far nothing is different from last semester. We’re reading short stories and discussing them. I’m asking students to write blog posts and bring in books to read and write in their writer’s notebooks, and I’m recording in Infinite Campus whether or not they’re doing those things–same as last semester. It won’t be noticeably different until we’re dealing with our first paper in a couple of weeks.

My hope is that our new approach to grades will lead to my students doing the work for themselves, not for me. My hope is that my students will know well how they are doing and what they are learning. My hope is that my students will do the kind of rigorous revision that leads to real growth in their writing. My hope is that there will be fewer conversations about points and grades and rounding up.

I agree with what Kohn said at NCTE:

Kids tend to rise to the trust and respect we show them.

My hope is that going gradeless shows them trust and respect as individual human beings and that they will rise to it.

I’ll keep you posted.

This entry was posted in 21st century teaching and learning, assessment, CCSS, engagement, first gradeless series 2013-2014, grading, making change, not grading, teaching writing. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Going Gradeless

  1. Pingback: Promoting Growth by Ditching Traditional Grades: Part 2 – How Did I Do It? | Musings in a Post-Postmodern Milieu

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  3. Pingback: Going Gradeless and Getting Better Writing Conferences! | The Paper Graders

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