Step Nine, Part Two: My Finalized Grade Agreement with My Students for this Year

As a follow up to a previous post about the process my students and I went through to craft our grade agreement for this year, I wanted to share the finalized grade agreement we ended up with.

Here it is.

The contrast between this grade agreement and the ones I’ve had for the last two years reveals some ways that I hadn’t totally made the shift away from grades as usual when it came to determining the semester grade. What I had before was much more like a checklist, a rubric, a list of things students had to achieve. The semester grade was based on how much of those things they achieved. Here’s that list from last year’s grade agreement:

  • Do your best and put in the work required toward the purpose of learning something new (as seen in your documentation of growth toward three of the standards you chose for this semester).
  • Work authentically (no B.S.) in all areas of the course (reading, writing, research).
  • All weekly drafts and thorough revisions in and complete (ANY missing drafts/revisions will result in an INCOMPLETE grade for the semester).
  • No other assignments missing or incomplete.
  • Very few late assignments.
  • Follow instructions.
  • Complete the semester punch list.
  • Post on the relevant standards pages in your google site portfolio links to your work and reflections on how you’re doing toward those particular standards.
  • Read 2-3 hours per week outside of class consistently.
  • Be a positive community member: provide helpful feedback on writing, engage in effective conversation in class, help others, navigate our classroom with kindness, and do not distract others.
  • Do meaningful work for all end-of-semester projects (having an impact, final exam task)

Whereas this list of things to achieve was really easy to evaluate and the grade became clear pretty quickly (do all of this for an A, do most of this for a B, do some of this for a C…), I remember a sneaking feeling last year that this list wasn’t about learning but rather compliance. The only item in the list that is really about learning is the first one. But it gets swamped by all the other list items that are school as usual: compliance to get a grade. (You can see last year’s full grade agreement here.) 

The new grade agreement is really different. It’s a set of learning goals that students identified themselves as most meaningful, as goals that would inspire them to do useful work for themselves. Here are the goals they came up with that ended up on the grade agreement:

  • Improve your reading and writing ability by working for you, not for the teacher, not for a grade.
  • Utilize peer feedback to revise your writing and help others to do so.
  • Manage your time and get your assignments done.
  • Help prepare us for the future WOOOOO!!
  • Develop your own style of writing.
  • Become self-aware and proactive.
  • Read more.
  • Take risks.

These learning goals different from what made up last year’s grade agreement because they are written by my students and then chosen by my students (out of a list of about 30 that they came up with) as the most meaningful. They are not checklist items, tasks to complete. These goals are much more about learning, and they reflect the learning that my students want to do.

I’m a little nervous about this grade agreement to be honest with you. It feels… squishy. What we came up with eventually was that basic competence for the course was being able to show evidence of meeting the top three goals (the first three in the list up there). This would be a C. For a B, students would choose one more goal to provide evidence for. For an A, students will choose two more goals to to provide evidence for.

I hope this isn’t too onerous for them that it isn’t meaningful. I want the work that they do to pull together their evidence for their grade requests to be useful, for them to learn something from the process, for them to see the task as worth their time. The grade agreement does list possible sources of evidence to examine for each goal–it’s the qualitative gradebook data I’ve been collecting for them (including my notes on conference conversations and my notes about what they work on from revision to revision), it’s the body of work they’ve each produced, it’s the reflection they’ve done in their writer’s memos on every single piece of writing. My hope is that looking over the evidence with these learning goals as a lens will help them to see clearly what they’ve learned and where they’ve grown and what more they want to focus on for next semester.

But what about the curriculum standards? Where are they? Shouldn’t the grade ultimately reflect how well students achieve toward those standards? Yes, it should, and it will. The standards are everywhere–I plan with them to be sure the course asks students to do work the work outlined in the standards and my required curriculum over the course of the semester. I ask students to examine the standards and choose their own set of them as their focus for their work (more about this in the next post). Students identify a standard to guide the revision work they need to do on each thorough revision and write about how they targeted the standard with the revision work that they did in the piece. So we are working with the standards–they just aren’t immediately visible in the learning goals for our grade agreement.

If students are going to really own their learning and drive it, then the standards belong in the background. They are my job. They are not for my students. It is my job to make sure my course gets students doing the work outlined by the standards. And it is my job to make sure my students make progress toward them. But in the end, if I want my students to really own their reading and writing work and growth, why not have them work toward goals they wrote, goals they chose, goals that matter to them as they look over their work for the semester to determine what grade best reflects what they learned?

If I do my job well of crafting a course that is based on the required standards, then the learning goals my students write themselves after they’ve been doing the work of the course for a while should reflect those standards.

At the heart of all of this is a value on putting students at the center in all aspects of my classroom, from making individual decisions about the focus and direction of their work to what the final semester grade will be based on. I build scaffolds to structure their work toward our required curriculum and standards, but they are merely scaffolds. Students need to build their own learning upon them. They do the learning, the live it, they decide how to fill in the scaffolds I create.

This is paradigm shift–student centered, student ownership, de-centering the teacher. Students’ goals in their words, not the teacher’s. By shifting the locus of control surrounding what makes for semester grades and by keeping the conversation and work focused on learning rather than compliance, hopefully my students really learn and grown and do work that matters to them. I want them to be readers and writers, not point collectors, not checklist finishers. Especially when it comes to the semester grade. That’s the only grade we deal with, and it’s the last piece of the course that can show students that my classroom really is about their learning more than it is about me or the curriculum seemingly imposed on them by unknown adults who wrote it.

I can see now that my last two grade agreements weren’t really focused on my students’ learning–they were focused on my students’ compliance. I want my classroom to be more than that, more than grades per usual. In our efforts to make grades “objective,” quantifiable, and overtly tied to a set of external standards, the whole process becomes too complex and less about student learning than it is about accountability.

I want more for my classroom.

I want to harness the one grade I must record for my students, the one data point from my class that “counts” on their transcripts, as an opportunity for meaningful learning and reflection based on learning goals that my students care about because they wrote them. 


This is the fourteenth post in a series about not grading in the high school language arts classroom.

You can read other posts in the series here.  Start with the first post, “The English Teacher’s Holy Grail: #StopGrading” to read about how this series came to be.

This blog series will chronicle my journey through the 2016 fall semester using non-traditional approaches to grading, the thinking process I go through with my students, the steps we take along the way. I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons–I want to capture it as clearly as I can, which will make it all work better for my students and me. I hope that being along for the journey will help you think about your classroom too.

Please check out this folder –it already contains some of the key documents about non traditional grading out of my classroom, and this is where I will store any documents I create or revise during this semester’s journey.

Check out this folder if you’d like to share your gradeless classroom resources with each other (and with me!) and/or enter into more conversation by joining the Google Group a reader set up. 

This entry was posted in #StopGrading, assessment, blog series, CCSS, fall 2016 blog series, grading, making change, not grading, workshop teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

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