How We’re Getting to Semester Grades in My Gradeless Classroom

There are only eight weeks of classes left for this semester. I’m not sure how quickly we got to this mid-semester point, but we did.

And much has happened on the gradeless front in my classroom.

Last spring, I felt somewhat unmoored in the grade conferences I had with my students. We hadn’t made any agreements ahead of time about what the grades would be based on. I wanted to make some changes for this year in order to feel a bit more grounded in those grade conferences at the end of the semester. You can read here about my reflections over all of that and the changes I hoped to make for this year.

Step one was narrowing down the too-many CCSS for 11th/12th grade. If I wanted my classroom to be clearly focused on these targets, I wanted a reasonable number of them so we could all keep them present in our thinking. I called my list of 22 (plus 4 “successful student habit” standards) our Super Standards. Here they are:

  1. Provide an objective summary of a text, including themes/central ideas. What is the text’s overall purpose or argument? Point to specific evidence/detail from the text to explain the text’s overall purpose or argument. (Reading)
  2. Analyze how an author’s choices concerning the structure of specific parts of a text contribute to its overall meaning as well as its aesthetic impact. (Reading)
  3. Determine an author’s point of view (nonfiction) or speaker’s point of view (literature) and analyze the impact of that point of view on the meaning of the text. (Reading)
  4. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning (warrant) and relevant and sufficient evidence (data). (Writing)
  5. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content. (Writing)
  6. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences. (Writing)
  7. Words: Use precise words, phrases, domain-specific vocabulary, and/or specific vivid details to develop an argument, to convey information or explain, or to pull the reader into a narrative. (Writing)
  8. Connections: Use words, phrases, and clauses as well as varied syntax to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships between concepts, between events of a narrative, or between claims/data/warrants. (Writing)
  9. Structure: Organize complex ideas, concepts, claims, and/or events of a narrative so that each new element builds on that which it precedes it to create a unified whole, including an effective concluding statement or section. (Writing)
  10. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Writing)
  11. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, seeking feedback, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience. (Writing)
  12. Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences. (Writing)
  13. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation. (Research)
  14. Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print (literary and/or informational) and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the strengths and limitations of each source in terms of the task, purpose, and audience; avoid plagiarism and overreliance on any one source and follow a standard format for citation. (Research)
  15. Come to small group and large group discussions prepared, having read and researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from texts and other research on the topic or issue to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas. (Speaking and Listening)
  16. Work collaboratively with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making, set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles as needed. (Speaking and Listening)
  17. Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives. (Speaking and Listening)
  18. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence, conveying a clear and distinct perspective, such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, alternative or opposing perspectives are addressed, and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and a range of formal and informal tasks. (Speaking and Listening)
  19. Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest. (Speaking and Listening)
  20. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar, usage, and mechanics when writing or speaking. (Language)
  21. Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues or consulting reference materials. (Language)
  22. Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings. (Language)
  23. Follow instructions; pay attention to details. Read assignment instructions carefully to make sure you are taking care of business. Don’t let Doc Z have to remind you again and again about missing components of a task. (Successful Student Habits)
  24. Manage time effectively to meet deadlines. Communicate with teacher ahead of time if more time is needed on a specific task. Show that you know that deadlines matter and manage your time effectively to meet them. (Successful Student Habits)
  25. Monitor one’s own learning toward the standards. Collect evidence to demonstrate mastery of said standards. (Successful Student Habits)
  26. Use digital tools to learn, collaborate, and reflect over your learning in this class. (Successful Student Habits)

I presented this list to my students on the first day of school (here’s my lesson plan) and engaged them in conversation surrounding some excerpts from “The Case Against Grades” by Alfie Kohn. I had initially planned that day to start the conversation about what makes an A, B, C, etc., but we didn’t have time (and I don’t think it would have been a very productive conversation so early on). So I scheduled that conversation for a few weeks later, once they had worked a bit with the super standards and gotten used to how the class works.

The next step was to set up a way for students to track their progress toward the standards. Toward that, I built the “Super Standard Student Tracker,” a google spreadsheet. They each made a copy of it to personalize and store in their folder in Drive for the class and began filling out the self evaluation column for September 2014.

Once they had a bit of time to reflect on how they were doing toward the standards individually, I opened up the conversation about grades. I asked them what our metric should be to determine a grade for each person at the end of the semester. How many standards should each person have to address? And should we be going for mastery?

There was some real consensus between all three classes. For one, my students wanted things to be differentiated. They wanted to choose individually the focus of their work for their grade for the semester, but there was some disagreement about how many standards students should have to focus on. Some argued that for an A, a student should focus on all of them (this felt like it would become a much too onerous task). Some argued that for an A, a student should have to focus on two thirds or half of them–this also felt too onerous. I didn’t want the act of tracking their learning to get in the way of actually doing the learning. Also, they wanted the grade to focus on growth, not mastery. I asked them if it would be okay for all students to have to focus on the four successful student habit standards, since I think those skills are foundational to broader success in the class. All three classes were okay with that.

So a few days later, I gave them a proposal. In short, it says that for an A, students need to work well toward the four successful student habit standards and track their learning toward five or more of the other standards, providing evidence of significant growth in each one. Students seemed okay with this, and they also asked for the ability to write their own standard to work toward if what they wanted to focus on isn’t represented in the list of super standards. I loved this suggestion and made space for it. The truth is that as I narrowed the CCSS to my list of 22, I lost some detail. And students were identifying some specific skills they wanted to target that they didn’t see in the list of Super Standards.

super standard selections
This bar graph shows how many of my students chose each super standard as one of their five that they will focus on for their grade for this semester.

I built a google form for them to let me know what grade they were going for and which standards they were going to focus on. The results of their choices for standards are here in this bar graph. I found it interesting that so many students want to focus on narrative. This may be because we happened to be working on personal narratives as we had this discussion and the work was familiar to them. That may also be why there were fewer students who chose to focus on research-related standards. We really haven’t discussed those much. But we will soon as we launch into our big research persuasive paper for this semester.

I shared the semester grade proposal with one of my administrators, and she pointed out to me that this approach is actually very similar to how our district is approaching teacher evaluation this year. There’s a set of standards for teachers in our state, and we all had to assess ourselves toward each of them here at the start of the year. But then we chose three that we want to zero in on for our individual teacher evaluation. Same exact plan my students and I came up with.

I should also say that even though we’re technically gradeless until that semester grade that each student and I will negotiate together, there is still a lot of information in my gradebook. I am keeping track of every task I’ve asked of students, from paper drafts to revisions to weekly reading check-ins. For each task, I enter either “complete” or “partial” or “review instructions” or “missing.” And the grade book still boils all of this down to a number, because I have to be able to exist within a school community that pulls students’ grades every week for eligibility and files progress grades every six weeks. But in the end, all of that information about what work students have completed or not just becomes data, part of the conversation between each student and me about what his/her semester grade will be.

So we’ll see how it goes. I’m hoping this will give my students and me more guidance in those end-of-semester conferences.

And I also know now what grades they are all shooting for:

grade goals
The “others” were two B’s and one “A for Awesome” and one 98.32 from one of my more math-inclined students.

Let’s hope they all get there!

This entry was posted in assessment, first gradeless series 2013-2014, grading, not grading. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to How We’re Getting to Semester Grades in My Gradeless Classroom

  1. After receiving a link to your blog by a coworker who felt my philosophy of teaching matched well with your mission and reading through only 1 post, I felt the need to make contact and propose a potential collaborative experiment…but more on that later.

    I was particularly struck by your reference to the connection between teacher evaluation and student growth. In an attempt to shift the flawed educational cultural norm of equating grades to proof of skills, I have asked my students to focus more on self-awareness of their skill level. If your district is at all similar to mine than your success is measured in a simple 4 tier scale- unsatisfactory, basic, proficient and distinguished. After several weeks of tying to get my students passed the hurdle of associating percentages/grade to a 4 point scale, I have seen huge leaps in their desire and effort to move up the scale through actual hard work and revision, something 9th graders are often reluctant to do if it does not mean a clear jump in their overall grade.

    I am not naive enough to believe that the majority of their effort is still not centered on increasing their grade but, our conversations have shifted. Now we talk about the evidence of improvement as they relate to our standards.

    And now, my proposal.

    I would love to have the opportunity to hear your students – seniors and juniors – share their insights into the grade-less classroom with my freshmen. I think it would be beneficial for my students to see that there is a better way to learn, to be inspired to improve and, ultimately, to take more ownership of their progress as writers and thinkers.

    Please let me know if this is at all possible and keep blazing new trails.

    Brian McCormick
    LA 9 Honors & Academic Instructor
    Course Lead
    Natural Helpers Adviser

  2. Pingback: Student Feedback: How my class helped them as writers | The Paper Graders

  3. Brittany Roper says:

    I was just researching standards based grading for my own classroom. I attempted it last year, and had some successes but failures as well. I’m looking forward to a new year that I can try new things! I’d love to hear a little bit more about your tracking progress and what that entailed. I have tried being very heavy on rubrics, but it never felt like it covered enough. Could we chat?

    • Sarah M. Zerwin says:

      Hi Brittany! Thanks for reading the blog. I have not been using rubrics. I’ve been using google forms to collect data on the standards that students are addressing with particular assignments and what they are saying about their growth/learning/work connected to those standards. I use this information in formative ways–to see how students are doing along the way and to plan my instruction. It’s my students’ responsibility moreso to be ready at semester’s end to make a argument about their growth toward a handful of standards. At something like 65 standards for 11th/12th grade in the CCSS, I’m just not interested in tracking/assessing every single student on every single standard. It’s too much. But students can zero in on a few and be ready to demonstrate their learning toward them. I know I’m engaging students in all the standards because I plan with them. But I don’t think it’s necessary (or useful or even possible to accomplish meaningfully for 150 students) to make sure I have data on every standard for every student or to make every student self-assess toward every standard. We can certainly chat more–you can email me at sarah dot zerwin at bvsd dot org. I’d love to hear more about what you’ve done and how it works and what you’re hoping to do differently. Thanks!

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