My Gradeless Odyssey

Two years ago, thanks to Twitter, I stumbled upon a book that completely changed my teaching career. Normally, once teachers enter year twelve, they have firmly ingrained routines that have been demonstrated to work. I was very much this way until I read the book Assessment 2.0 by Mark Barnes. The premise of his researched-based book is that giving students feedback, instead of grades, will help them grow at a much faster rate. I was at a point in my career where I not only felt stuck in a rut, but I could identify with the dilemma of giving students feedback on their assignments only to have it ignored due to the good or bad grade at the top of the page. Figuring that I didn’t have much to lose, I gave it a try last year with only my honors classes.

Overall, the experiment turned out very well. It was weird, for both myself and my students, not assigning grades and only giving them feedback. I had my students practice reflecting over their own work and ultimately assigning themselves progress report and report card grades. I overruled their report card grades with very few exceptions, and not without discussing it with them first. I wanted them to understand how they could improve so they could ultimately get the grade that they desired. Aside from going gradeless, very little of my day-to-day classroom structure changed. I decided to implement the gradeless structure in all of my classes the following school year after seeing it work so well, but against the objections of several of my honors students who cautioned that it wouldn’t work with less motivated “regular” students.

This past school year, I began the year with complete comfort in my gradeless grading system. Over the summer, I had read two more books on this topic: Hacking Assessment and Teaching Students to Self-Assess: How do I help students reflect and grow as learners?--both by Starr Sackstein. Again, I made very few changes to the curriculum or to the daily operations of the classroom, except for having my students reflect more often over their work. At the end of the school year, I asked all of my students to be brutally honest and reflect on the gradeless classroom itself. While not everyone was a fan, almost all of the comments looked similar to this: “You are able to work at your own pace and not be extremely rushed and I feel like students learn and work better like that. I love the gradeless classroom environment. I view it as a very positive thing because if the lack of stress it gave me. I feel it made me able to take my time and master my standards that I needed to better. Other teachers should definitely do this type of system.”

In case you are wondering if students choosing their own grades will cause them to greatly inflate their grades, this simply has not been the case the two years that I have gone gradeless. After analyzing my students’ end-of-the-year averages this school year, 29% had A’s, 12% had B’s, 23% had C’s, and 18% had D’s and F’s, respectively. I don’t know how this compares to other teachers at my subject and grade level who assigned grades, but I’d be willing to wager that my grade distribution is pretty close to theirs.

Despite my relative success, several things that I couldn’t quite pinpoint weren’t sitting well with me, and I went searching for answers. I read another one of Mark Barnes’ books, ROLE Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student-Centered Classroom. This book helped me realize that I haven’t gone far enough in creating a classroom environment that truly revolves around my students. Also, my students’ comments at the end of this school year indicated that I need to do a better job of notifying them when they have missing assignments and of reminding them about FreshGrade--the online website I use to keep track of their progress on individual assignments. My students also told me in their comments to make the work more challenging and to implement more projects. Finally, I recognize that I need to do a better job of communicating with parents. Both FreshGrade and Google Classroom have this feature, but my students’ parents did not utilize them very much this school year. Recognizing and attacking these issues will allow me to continue to grow as the lead learner in my classroom.