Semester Without Grades: An Early Report from the Field

This past August I seized the opportunity be an early adopter (read: guinea pig) by requesting that my principal let me pilot a transitional gradeless classroom (our goal is to be a fully standards-based high school within 3-5 years). Six months later, I am emerging from the initial messiness of the process (that stage of cleaning your room when you’ve got your junk in piles all over the place, and can now start folding and filling drawers) so I thought I might share a few reflections in the moment.

This past August I seized the opportunity be an early adopter (read: guinea pig) by requesting that my principal let me pilot a transitional gradeless classroom (our goal is to be a fully standards-based high school within 3-5 years). Six months later, I am emerging from the initial messiness of the process (that stage of cleaning your room when you’ve got your junk in piles all over the place, and can now start folding and filling drawers) so I thought I might share a few reflections in the moment.

 

Contextual Compromises

As a large, urban, Asian international school with a highly motivated student body, and very high family expectations, my school offers a clear set of social obstacles to grading reform. Many families are suspicious of anything that might jeopardize what they perceive to be a mathematical formula for admission to the best universities. With these reservations in mind, I was given the go ahead to implement standards-based evaluation for all assignments but I still had to produce a letter grade at the end of the semester.

Within these parameters, I deployed a grading system inspired by the work of Alfie Kohn and Thomas Guskey, patching together a list of the most relevant C3, Common Core ELA, IB History and IB Approaches To Learning standards which I applied to relevant assignments. I then produced a semester rubric for each letter grade, reflecting each of the chosen sets of standards, which was distributed to and explained to all parents and students on “back to school” night. After some initial hesitation, I was encouraged by the trust they expressed in me. Trust is key whenever change is involved, so for all of us together—parents, students, teacher and admin—moving forward with eyes open was a critical element leading toward the early successes I am beginning to catalogue.

 

Early Observations

This is an anecdotal analysis of a learning method still in the prototyping stage—I don’t claim any data-based conclusions here. The following are my early takeaways, gathered to serve as a starting point for inviting conversations with anyone else in any stage of the process.

  1. Grades become more than a number. My students seem no longer baffled or mystified by their grades. –They still have questions about rubric statements, but not about numbers, percentiles, class averages or other students’ scores. No one asks me for one point here or there to get that bump from a B+ to an A-. I will confess this wasn’t a natural transition for everyone. While I was introducing the concept to a class in August, one of my more ambitious and anxious seniors took out her calculator and began furiously punching buttons. To this day, I have no idea what she was attempting to calculate, but I do know, six months in, she is far less anxious about her grade.
  2. Assessing learning becomes a conversation. Our conversations always center on a rubric (often the semester rubric) and begin most often with the question, “Based on the evidence provided by your work products and performance, which of these statements do you think best reflects your current level of learning?” So far, all of these conversations have ended either with the student and I in sync, or with the student opting for a lower descriptor on the rubric than I do. (This underestimation or humility is a challenge of its own). Assessment as an ongoing conversation allows us to act positively in response, and to consider learning holistically the way a number tag doesn’t.
  3. You learn how many students who earn Ds and Fs do so because they don’t do their work. This is still controversial ground: many teachers still believe there should be grading consequences for not submitting work, or not submitting it on time. I agree there should be consequences, I just don’t believe it should taint focused assessment of a students’ knowledge and skills. Make a place for evaluating work, and make another place for evaluating work habits and watch how much you learn about your students’ actual abilities. Also watch how fewer of your students end up in mathematical quicksand, succumbing to the sinking when they decide (correctly) that they’ll never be able to climb out.
  4. Ds and Fs are replaced by appropriate action. Because I only grade work that is submitted, when learners face challenges, before any student reaches D or F descriptors of performance, one of two things generally happens:
    • If the student is challenged by the content and skills demands, we communicate about the challenges via the related standards immediately, assignment by assignment, and we develop a plan involving further practice, peer tutoring or learning support.
    • If the student is not completing his work for some reason, we immediately discuss the matter, and bring in peer, parental or learning support immediately. There is no symbolic middle-step represented by a letter derived from a percentile, we skip the formalities and take direct action toward improvement.
  5. It’s worth the extra effort, and because the effort is meaningful, it is less of a burden. If you’re like me, you see a list where pros outnumber cons. Yes, grading via statements and interventions takes more time. Yes, schools should recognize and compensate for the added effort of a gradeless approach to learning. And yes, the value added to evaluation as a function of learning makes the time cost to teacher and school worth it.
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