Going Gradeless: My Semester 1 Reflection

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Three years ago, I learned about an idea on Twitter that simultaneously piqued my interest and blew my mind: there were teachers who stopped recording grades and instead provided feedback to their students. This movement was initiated by Mark Barnes (@markbarnes19) and Starr Sackstein (@mssackstein), and it has exploded in a short amount of time. Now, there are weekly twitter chats on Sundays at 8:00 at #TG2Chat and the Teachers Throwing Out Grades Facebook group currently has over 8,000 members. As the years progress and more teachers learn about this concept, the movement grows because it works. Interestingly, most of the teachers in the Facebook group are the only ones in their respective school buildings who have thrown out grades in favor of specific feedback. Such is the case for me.

I began this school year by explaining to my students the concept of how a gradeless classroom operates. I look forward to the day when so many teachers have gone gradeless that this explanation will no longer be necessary. For those of you who are also wondering how this works, the concept is quite simple. The students complete assignments that are based on the course standards (which for me is English 3) which specify what the students should be able to do. I give them specific feedback based upon their mastery of the standards. Either the students have met the standard(s) or they haven’t, and, if not, I tell them exactly what needs to be corrected and encourage them to redo their work. At the end of the nine weeks, I have them examine their own progress on a Google Form, ultimately resulting in them assigning themselves grades. This YouTube video does an excellent job of explaining the process.

At the end of last school year, I reflected that I needed to create a more student-centered classroom that utilized more projects and that I needed to do a better job of notifying my students when they have missing assignments. Therefore, I began the year spending class time setting up standards-based projects for my students to work on, and then I gave them more class time to do them. The results were less than stellar. By and large, my students were not used to having that huge amount of autonomy, and they did not handle it very well. No only did several of them self-report low grades for the first nine weeks, but they did not master very many the intended standards, which was much more alarming to me.

I was torn. Should I stick with it and teach them how to deal with the autonomy that I had given to them? Or should I transition from “guide on the side” to “sage on the stage” and take more control over the daily operations of the class? I chose the latter. I let the teachable moment of how to handle autonomy slip through my fingers in favor of ensuring that they grow as English students. They could not afford to go another nine weeks not working to their full potential.

Now that the first semester is over, I am pleased with the results. More students have turned in revised work than at any time in my teaching career, which means that they are learning from their mistakes and getting better. The grade distribution for my two regular English 3 classes is 15% A’s, 18% B’s, 45% C’s, 12% D’s, and 10% F’s. My three honors courses have a much more skewed grade distribution with 61% A’s, 19% B’s, 13% C’s, 7% D’s, and no F’s. The honors courses have three rigor points added to the semester average (which certainly helps), and these students are generally more studious and willing to redo assignments than students in my non-honors classes.

Looking ahead to next semester, I feel more confident that I have ingrained my expectations well enough to increase my students’ autonomy. Most of them plan on going to a community college or a university, and they need another shot at having more freedom. I personally need to continue to work at getting more efficient with providing feedback. By the end of Q3, I will have covered almost all of the English 3 standards, which will leave me about a month to go back and concentrate on areas where my students need the most help before they have to take TNReady, the state’s achievement test.