Imagining a No-Grades Classroom

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girls runningThis image of kids with huge smiles, running down a city sidewalk, and waving their report cards is rather lovely. I can picture their parents a bit further down that sidewalk smiling with open arms to congratulate their children on all their hard work, ready to celebrate their A’s with an ice cream cone. “Show me your report card, dear. Let’s put that up on the fridge to show your brothers and sisters, and let’s call Nana to tell her all about it. Maybe she’ll send you a reward.” Nice.

Well, um, not exactly.

As a child who earned pretty good marks because I was incredibly compliant, I don’t remember a report card conversation about how I earned the A’s or what I knew or could do now that the A was on the fridge. I did what the teacher put in front of me to do and was celebrated for my obedience. And in a family of eleven, you’ll do almost anything for someone to celebrate you.

The most vivid memory from my K-12 schooling:  It is from 3rd grade when I was taking a spelling test. The word was “been,” and I panicked because I couldn’t remember how to spell it: cheeks warming, palms sweating, heart pounding, thoughts racing, doubt whispering. My body remembers that moment to this day. Every time I take a test or begin something competitive, my body responds the same way.

I was running out of time, so I spelled the word “bin,” and it was marked wrong (a big red slash). There were only five words on that test. I got one word wrong and my first B. The compliance, the pressure, the failure, the embarrassment. And for what? That letter meant my spelling test was not going on the fridge — thus, no celebration of Sarah.

I never wanted to become a teacher. I found my way here after a career as a social worker long after “been and the B.”  I am here because of your stories, our stories.

My teacher training at the University of Illinois, Chicago was progressive and humanistic. Todd DeStigter, David Schaafsma, and Kate Manski introduced me to narrative feedback and taught me to always put the student first; grades were a necessary part of schooling but not the purpose.

I brought narrative feedback to my middle schoolers, and for over a decade, I have tried to emphasize growth over grades.  For the most part,  students appreciate notes in their journals and comments on the blogs. However, when it comes to tests and final papers,  I have always added  grades or numbers to my feedback. And you know what I’ve noticed? When I add a letter or a number, students ignore my words and ask, “Do I need to keep this or can I recycle it?”

Now for a confession: When it comes to entering final grades, I find myself adjusting the numbers to get to the”right” letter. I drop assignments, remove zeros, and add a point here and there. I rethink how I weighted a skill, wonder if the child was even in school to learn a concept, and sometimes realize that I just didn’t teach something well. It all feels, well, yucky (though it kind of feels good to confess).

This last school year so many kids in our junior high were “targeted” because of their low GPAs. The time and energy spent in meetings and over emails talking about low-GPA students was staggering, and while the list lead to conversations about often-marginalized students, the conversations also pointed out problems with grading, zeros, homework, late work, rubrics, and absences.  The conversation, however, quieted as it usually does around teaching practices related to schooling systems, but I wondered what would happen if we eliminated grades:

  • What would motivate students?
  • What force would move them to “comply”?
  • Could we get them beyond compliance toward involvement?
  • How would they then celebrate and be celebrated?
  • What might they discover about themselves, learning, school, and the world?
  • How might the conversations among teachers and administrators change?

Clearly, these are broad questions, and a no-grades change is a great undertaking requiring cooperation from many teachers and administrators, but I asked my principal if I could give it a try and proposed a “no grade classroom” to pilot for the next school year to my principal. Of course, many teachers in our school already resist grades by not putting a grade on everything, by doing more conferencing, by weighting results over process in their grade book. I want to be more explicit about it, share with the students the rationale, get them involved in the shift, and see what emerges when we change the language of learning.

Begin by “Throwing Out Grades”

So not really; it doesn’t have to happen all at once. While this language is exciting, it is a bit scary for me, but Mark Barnes, his book  Assessment 3.o and his Facebook page Teachers Throwing Out Grades (TTOG) encourage you to get passionate about eliminating grades. In the final weeks of the school year, I searched for resources to help me work through the logistics of my plan. Assessment 3.0 offers many helpful suggestions and a strong argument for implementing a no-grades classroom and school (and then you feel like you can phase out, invalidate, eradicate, or “throw out” those grades).

Assessment 3.0 by Mark Barnes

Here is the argument of the book: “to convince educators and parents that eliminating traditional grades is not only possible but is, in fact, necessary if we are to evolve beyond the archaic measurements that stifle learning” (4). The Facebook page moderated by Mark Barnes and Star Sackstein shares teachers’ concerns, ideas, experiences, and resources related to “throwing out grades.”

Grades Stop Learning

Why do this when it is not school policy or when we still have to enter midterms and report card grades? Barnes says, “You just do it because our greatest responsibility is to kids” (6). Perhaps the teacher next door will use grades, and it is likely that the teacher in the next grade will use grades, but it is not a good enough reason to abandon what is “right” for the human beings with whom we are entrusted.

Barnes suggests grades “stunt” the growth of our students. Even if we provide narrative feedback, if we also assign a grade, “students ignore comments when marks are also given” (19), which is what I found in my own experiences.

According to Tomlinson and Moon (2013):

First, it misrepresents the learning process to students leading them to conclude that making errors is cause for punishment rather than an opportunity to improve. Second, it focuses students more on getting good grades than on learning. Third, it makes the classroom environment seem unsafe for many students — and would make it seem unsafe to more students if classwork were appropriately challenging for the full range of learners” (62).

Grades distract students from exploring what is valuable. Alfie Kohn suggests grades are invalid and unreliable in evaluating student learning. Daniel Pink in Drive says, “Good grades are a reward for compliance but don’t have much to do with learning. Meanwhile, students whose grades don’t measure up often see themselves as failures and give up trying to learn” (176). Pink’s TED talk on motivation offers further insight.

I am sure you’ve met a child or two who has given up, and yet, while some give up because they’ve fallen behind due to absences, others fall behind even when they show up every day because they struggle or because they don’t see the point. I kind of like the student who resists. She knows the compliance game, and she is not playing it.  We have to give her a reason to try or to inquire beyond “because this is school” or “because you’ll fail” or “because I’ll send you to the office.”

As a punishment or as a reward, the grade is extrinsic to learning. Don’t we want students to feel compelled, to be intrigued, to dare to imagine, to create? I am depending on these kids, our students, to fix the problems our generation has caused. I am counting on them to care about our world more than we did or at least better.

Formative Assessment is the Only Assessment

We have heard of formative assessment, and we know the importance of quizzes, anecdotal evidence, checking notebooks to assess learning in-progress so that we can adjust instruction. You may or may not assign grades to those formative assessments, but you likely assign grades to the end-of-unit assessments or final exams.

What about just one kind of assessment (not formative, not summative)? I learned it as a narrative feedback. It made sense with papers and portfolios to respond with notes to students about what I was noticing in their work and to respond to their own self assessment. Ultimately, however, I assigned a grade, usually with some rubric and points, which always felt a little wrong — to quantify something that was/is beyond measurement, more than a number.

Barnes suggests assessment based on one formula: SE2R, summarize, explain, redirect, resubmit . I don’t like the word formula in part because the letters remind me of grades, but it is easy to remember and apply.

SE2R: Feedback is an Ongoing Conversationteacher and student talking

When a student completes an assignment, but she has clearly missed a key component or can’t quite do the skill, what do we do (if we are using traditional grades)?  Subtract points, put a slash over the error, write a phrase like “awkward” or “do over.”  This doesn’t seem kind, helpful, or ethical, does it?

How many times are you “grading” and realize the problem was your instructions or that you didn’t teach them some skill they needed to do the activity? How many times is the reason the student did not do it is because he or she was absent or just needed it explained another way?

So, then, Barnes asks,  “What should I write or say that explains what was done and gives students a chance to improve, if their work doesn’t demonstrate understanding?”(34). Here is the SE2R explained with examples from Assessment 3.0 (35):

  • Summarize: provide a one or two sentence summary of what students have accomplished on an activity or project. “You wrote a 400-word blog post comparing the character Katniss Everdeen from the novel The Hunger Games to the character as portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence in the movie version.”
  • Explain: share detailed observations of what skills or concepts have been mastered based on the specific activity guidelines. “You clearly identified two similarities …you properly used the words savagery and eviscerate…provided an opinion…I didn’t notice any identified differences…This was item 3 on the guidelines.”
  • Redirect: indicate for students the lessons, presentations, or models that need to be reviewed in order to achieve understanding of concepts or skills –“Take a look at the poster in class about characters. Please return to the post and identify two differences…provide details that support these.”
  • Resubmit: encourage students to rework activities, after revisiting prior learning, and resubmit them for further feedback — “When you finish, let me know.”

Any teacher who uses a writing workshop approach recognizes components of this formula. When you conference with a student, you summarize what you heard, explain a strategy, suggest revisions, and then check-in to see the next draft. And if you have tried a reading workshop, then, you do this, too — especially if they are blogging or keeping a reading journal. You are teaching through conversation. You are treating your students as human beings capable of talking about their learning as something that is ongoing rather than “finished” at some arbitrary point. And when we assign a grade, we essentially end the conversation.

One way of reframing “grades” might be to say, “Yes,dear student, you have a ‘grade,’ but instead of one letter or a number, it is in the form of a few sentences and invites you to respond to deepen your learning. Do you have any ideas to make this more meaningful?”

There is Enough Time

I teach six classes of 25 to 30 students: 180. Now there is a number.  As I approach this endeavor, I am not really worried about finding the time for narrative assessment. The past few years, I have been assessing as students read and write in class.  Not all feedback (or better yet assessment) has to be written. Barnes’ book affirms this.  I keep a clipboard for me and the teachers with whom I co-teach to mark when we’ve conferenced with students about certain standards or concepts, and the blog holds all the written comments.

Report Cards are Also a Conversation

I sill have to contend with quarterly report cards even though my principal is supporting this pilot year.  The school district requires a letter grade at the end of the term.  Barnes suggests the final grade ought to be decided based on a “detailed assessment by both teacher and student of all that was or was not accomplished during a grading period” (5). My principal has agreed to conferencing final grades, but his concern is how to communicate this process to parents who, like students,  see the teacher as the authority.

For the grade conference, I imagine I will have students look through their projects, writing, notes, and feedback and then compose a report for the “grade” conference:

  • This learning period I completed x projects, x blogs, x books, x speeches, etc.
  • At the beginning of this learning period I feel this and this about reading because…
  • In completed these activities, I learned  (skills or concepts) as evidence by ….
  • My goals for the next learning period are.. because…
  • I’d say I earned a ___for the quarter grade because…

Of course, I plan to invite students to develop reflection questions and guidelines for our conferences. Sackstein’s students selected other methods of reflecting and representing their learning. I do conferences now, and I have found it helpful to show students a sample video and have them practice with each other so that our teacher-student conferences are meaningful and efficient. I suggest recruiting a  student to help you make a how-to video. If you have a class of 25 or 30, you will need to set aside a week for this, which means if you have a nine week quarter, you will spend the entire last week conferencing. Because you are conferring with students all quarter, you and your students will have a pretty good sense of where they stand, and you will have the student self- assessment report to inform your final grade reports. As Barnes shares, students who complete all the activities and rework skills or concepts will be in the A-B range, and students who don’t earn something lower.

me in 3rd grade

A small digression: Have you heard of Holographic Memory Resolution (HMR)?  It is a therapeutic technique to re-frame memories to heal the trauma. If I could go back to Sarah in third grade, what would I say to her to assuage her panic? I would say, “Dear Sarah, I see you finished your spelling test. You spelled all the word correctly. Did you know there is another spelling of ‘bin’ that has a different meaning? How about you look up ‘bin’ and ‘been’ to discover how these words work in context. Try writing sentence, a story, a cartoon with captions to capture their different meanings and spellings? When you finish, let me know, so that I can see what you created.”

I want my students to skip, to smile, and to celebrate their learning. For now, their learning will still be represented in a letter at the end of the quarter,  but I certainly want them to know they are more than a letter and hope that by involving them in this conversation about grades and learning that we can all be more conscious of how systems and institutions shape the way we see ourselves and our place in the world.

Many teachers are taking steps toward a no-grades classroom. I plan to write about my experiences here, but please check out Assessment 3.o and Teachers Throwing Out Grades. There are a lot of good resources there to support you (i.e., parent letters and technology tools). Just thinking about no grades will make you  feel like a rebel because you are, but you will not be alone.

4 Replies to “Imagining a No-Grades Classroom”

  1. It’s really a nice and helpful piece of information. I’m glad that you shared this helpful information with us. Please keep us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Sarah, I ran across your post this morning – can’t even remember now if it was on Twitter or the TTOG Facebook page – but it resonated with me because it mirrored what I drafted yesterday. We have some of the same friends and I think we should hang out. But seriously, you and I are on much the same track. I kept your blog up (currently one of 24 tabs) and went back to my draft to polish and try (oh, I tried) to cut it down some. I’m glad yours was a little lengthy, too. There is so much to say on this. Anyway, here is my own version, my own The Plan. Let me know what you think.

    1. Thanks, Lisa. Our posts are certainly in conversation, and as we push forward, we can follow each other and “talk” about how these changes are impacting our students, our practice, the parents, and also other teachers who are watching (maybe hoping).

      I see your blog has “journalism” in the title, so I will also be looking to you for help with this other project. I have a grant to teach students how to interview and elicit stories from within and beyond our school community. Right now, I am reading many books and developing the first phase of it — called bearing witness. Of course when doing this sort of work, letter grades or points get in the way of the purpose, which is to listen to lives and own the privilege of carrying those stories.

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