The Gradeless Experiment: Success!

The moment I knew I was getting somewhere was the day I tweeted this:

Today’s senioritis moment: “if I get you Starbucks, can I not have to revise this paper?”

Immediately after the student tried to bribe me with Starbucks, I asked her permission to tweet the moment out, she asked me to mention her in the tweet, we laughed together, and then we set a time for her to come in for some help on the revision. She had already revised it twice, but hadn’t quite hit the thinking work she needed to on the piece. I had asked her several times if she needed help with the revision and she assured me she was fine. But after the work session we had together (sitting side-by-side in the writing lab, each of us with her paper up as a shared google doc on our individual computer screen), looking over my comments and discussing them, talking over her intentions and thoughts with the piece, brainstorming approaches to making the piece stronger–and after a half hour or so I could see a light bulb go on in her. She had finally figured it out.

Pre-gradeless experiment, this student would have gotten a grade on the paper that she would have either been okay with or not. If she was not okay with it, she may have chosen to revise it but maybe by taking the shortest possible path to an improved grade (i.e., fixing mechanical errors only–addressing the least complex area of the rubric). Maybe she and I would have quibbled over rubric points, and in the process, she would have been focused on the grade rather than the writing.

In our gradeless microcosm, however, when talking about papers, students’ focus was not on the points attached to the rubric and what they could do easily to increase the grade on the paper. Instead, they had to look very carefully at my response to their work as a reader and think carefully about how they would rework their writing based on that response. They had to explain to me the changes they made and why they made them. They had to identify which standards from the rubric (in this case, the rubrics were simply a list of the Common Core State Standards relevant to the task) they focused on in their revision to strengthen their work. Their conversations with me really became about how to improve the writing so it better expressed their thinking rather than on how to increase the grade.

This is EXACTLY what I was hoping would happen if I stopped putting grades on individual papers and required everyone to revise each paper at least once (and continue until the paper was as successful as possible).

In my end-of-semester conferences with each student, again and again they told me that whereas they were annoyed at me for making them revise (and revise and revise in some cases), they know that their writing improved and they could tell me exactly how. They told me that the gradeless experiment should continue into the next school year.

Here are a few thoughts in my students’ words (from an end-of-the-year survey):

  • My writing in this class, I believe, has changed dramatically from last semester. Because we got time to revise and revise and revise. It was helpful that you made time for us and helped us with our writing.
  • The writing this semester has been more exciting because I can focus on what I really like to write about and enjoy doing it without any grade hanging on my shoulders. I have enjoyed the writing this semester way more than I did last semester.
  • My work was better and more experimental. It was fun to be able to play around and not get marked off for what I wanted to try. I know I could get an A if there was a set way I had to write like in all of the other L.A. classes, but I grew more as a writer this way.
  • I liked how we had to do thorough revision. It really helped me think about what I needed to work on in my writing and I think it improved my writing a lot.

So I will continue to be gradeless, but not without a few changes.

  1. The entire set of standards for 12th grade from the CCSS is TOO MUCH for my students and I to focus upon. There are about 65 individual statements of skills if we were to try to keep focused on every single one of them. I really want my students to be the ones focusing on the standards and how they are doing towards each of them, and 65 is too much. Hence, I’ll be narrowing/combining into a set of 10 super standards*. I want these to be clear, focused standards that my students can understand, work on, and collect evidence toward their learning toward them. They will do this via an electronic portfolio. I’ll build a google site template for them with all the resources they need embedded or linked to. They’ll use the site all year to collect evidence toward how they are doing and then in our semester grade conferences, they’ll have a body of work to point to as they talk about what grade they think they should have.
  2. And on that grade thing. My students will need to come to an agreement about what an A looks like, a B, a C, etc. When we do sit down to have the grade conference, what should we be looking for to determine the grade? How many standards mastered for an A? for a B? My students and I didn’t have this agreement and so when a student and I disagreed on the semester grade (this happened in only a handful of instances, by the way), we need something more objective to consult to help us come to an agreement.
  3. And I need data for those end-of-semester grade conferences. Last semester I had LOTS of data to look at (all of my students’ work was in individual google folders, and we had that to look at during the conference) but it wasn’t clearly organized around the standards to really help us to determine how the student had done. The e-portfolio will help. So will my own running record of student learning. I’ll do this with a very simple google form that I’ll have up when I’m responding to student work. I’ll make a record for each student when I look at his/her work with notes about how that student is doing toward individual standards. The resulting spreadsheet will be helpful data for end-of-year conferences or any time students want to sit down with me to review their progress before the end of the semester.
  4. I need to look for efficiencies wherever I can. I did the gradeless experiment with one class on seniors, 30 students. I have three sections of that class this year. That’s likely about 90 students. How will I achieve grade conferences with 90 students? Will I be able to provide the same level of writing feedback to all 90 of them that I did to 30 of them?

I’m totally converted. No more grades on writing. No more grades on any individual tasks. Feedback only. Keep students focused on the work and the learning and the process and not the grade. Enter one grade–the one that’s necessary for the transcript at the end of the semester, but negotiate with each student individually to determine what that will be. And that’s it.

Simple.

The grade game is difficult to step out of I know. The way teachers look at me sometimes when I tell them I’ve gone gradeless says it all. How will you get them to do anything? they ask. Going gradeless IS possible and critically important for our students. They want to learn. They want to become better writers, better readers, better thinkers. But when we make the focus of a classroom all about how to collect points (and how to avoid being punished by losing them), that is what they will focus on as well. Points, instead of learning. Grades, instead of thinking.

I want more for my classroom and for my students.

*A few hours after I initially wrote this post, I undertook the task of narrowing down the 65 CCSS standards for 12th grade into a set of super standards. It was impossible to get them down to 10. But I did achieve 22. To that I added on three additional standards about student habits for success (time management, following instructions, and keeping track of one’s learning toward the standards). So we will move forward with 25 total standards and the the e-portfolios will be based on those 25. 

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

6 Responses to The Gradeless Experiment: Success!

  1. Robert LaRue says:

    Please detail more of your success in convincing your administration that your gradeless process was possible and responsible teaching. What does the district have to say about it? Parents? Does this mean that you only enter one single grade for each grading period in IC? How well is the process working for your special needs students?

    • DocZ says:

      Hey Bob! Thanks for reading and for the questions. There are lots of things in Infinite Campus–every single task I give my students is listed there and I record either “yes” if it’s completed successfully, “partial” if it’s been submitted but there is work yet to complete (on required paper revisions), or missing if it’s missing. And IC boils all that down to a number (“yes” = 100% and “partial” = 80% and “missing” = 0%). But I train students to think of that number along the way of the semester as a reflection of how much of what I’ve asked them to complete they have completed and not the actual grade they’ll earn at the end. By using IC in this way as a record of what work students have actually completed means that even though I’m not putting traditional grades on writing anymore, parents have information, there is information for weekly athletic eligibility purposes… I didn’t get a single complaint during the semester about any of this. At the end of the semester, I change the settings on all of the above IC data so that those records do not calculate into the grade and I add one more “assignment” titled “semester grade agreed upon by student and teacher.” There I enter the grade that will be there for the purposes of the student’s transcript, the grade the student and I decided upon together. Again, not a single complaint from a student, parent, or administrator.

      Of course it did help that one of my administrators happened to be sitting next to me in the Alfie Kohn session at NCTE Boston last November when I made the decision that I could no longer put a grade on any piece of writing. Hence, she knew where I was coming from and had been part of the conversation.

      And I just updated my explanation on my course website for how all of this will work so that parents (or anyone else who cares to wonder) can see what we’re up to and why. You can take a look at that here: https://sites.google.com/a/bvsd.org/doc-z-s-slcc/home/grades

  2. codyjohk says:

    Please do a post detailing your super-standards. Great post.

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