Why We’re Gradeless

When Arthur and I first started Teachers Going Gradeless, I don’t believe either of us expected to meet such an impressive array of educators. The many voices from math, science, history, English, and other content areas have inspired and influenced my teaching.

We have invited a few of these teachers to share their gradeless journey. These teachers represent middle through high school and cover all four major content areas.

Our panel includes the following:

Gary Chu – Math

GaryBefore becoming a mathematics teacher, Gary was a biology and chemistry major at Loyola University Chicago. He received his B.A. and M.S. in Mathematics, Secondary Education from Northeastern Illinois University, and an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction, Educational Technology from Concordia University – Portland. Gary is a teacher at Niles North High School in Skokie, Illinois, and is passionate about collaborative learning, alternative grading, and assessments, and race and equity work in schools. Outside of the education community, Gary enjoys adventure and travel, contemporary and Haute food culture, photography, and most of all spending time with his wife and dog.

Check out Gary’s blog

Jen Doucette – English

jenJen has been a teacher since she was a little girl, playing school in her playroom for hours. Professionally, she has been in the classroom for 14 years as an English teacher and has focused her instruction primarily around writing the last eight years. She received her degree from Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, but she has continued her education through the Greater Madison Writing Project the last two years. Jen now lives near Madison, Wisconsin, with her family of three busy boys, and adds joy to her life through running, hiking, and watching the sun rise and set as often as possible.

Check out Jen’s blog

Tish Mullen – Science

TishTish teaches science at Sandpoint High School in Sandpoint, Idaho. She came to teaching later in life because she had to finish ski-bumming first. As a result, this is her seventh year in the classroom. She lives in beautiful Northern Idaho with her husband, Caleb, son, Huck, her dog, a flock of chickens, a house rabbit, bottomless piles of Legos, and what appears to be 9 million pairs of skis. In the summer, you’ll find her in her vegetable garden or the lake.

Dean Haakenson – Social Studies

DeanDean teaches high school social studies in Longmont, Colorado. He has been an educator for 20 years in the classroom and another 15 as an Outward Bound Instructor. Dean has a B.A. in Human Geography and an M.A. in Education from CU Boulder. When he is not in the classroom, Dean spends time with his family hiking, skiing, and mountain biking in Colorado. He is very excited to be transitioning to a gradeless classroom as he continues to reinvent himself as an educator.

Check out Dean’s blog

Katie Budrow – Science

KatieKatie teaches sixth-grade science at Caruso Middle School in Deerfield, Illinois. Before teaching, she spent five years doing chemistry work in the labeling industry. Katie has Bachelor of Science in Zoology from UW-Madison and a Master of Art in Teaching from National Louis. She has worked with various school districts as well as presented on NGSS implementation, standards-based learning, project-based learning, and personalized learning. In her classroom, the focus is put squarely on the learning. Students become scientists themselves and bring real-world science to life.

Check out Katie’s blog

What made you decide to go gradeless?

Gary Chu: The decision to go gradeless was a gradual one, and it started during my first year of teaching. Some new hires and I were invited to form a cohort exploring Assessment for Learning principles, and how we could implement them into our classes. The more I read, the more I found grading practices to be…broken. Over the first few years of teaching, I tweaked a lot of my practices, still managing grading using points. But after attending a few workshops and doing some more reading, I received the green light to go point-less. My classes are still run as such, and semester grades are now determined based on student proficiency, self-assessment, and grade conferences.

Jen Doucette: I came upon this decision by accident. As a fellow in the Greater Madison Writing Project, I was researching for my teacher workshop I would present to the group. I was seeking an answer about how to offer more effective feedback to my students after feeling frustrated at how much time I spent grading and how little time students spent reading my feedback. As I researched more, I had the epiphany that I must assess what I value about writing, not value what I assess. Through this epiphany came the understanding that the way I assessed did not align with what I told the students was important: growth and risk-taking. This began my first year of teaching writing without grades. I have now converted all my classes to this type of instruction.

Tish Mullen: My eyes were first opened to alternative perspectives on education when my mentor teacher loaned me a copy of Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. From there, I read more books by Postman and Weingartner, and The Unschooled Mind by Howard Gardner. A fellow teacher turned me onto Alfie Kohn, and that was it. My teaching would never be “traditional” again. I read Punished by Rewards and watched videos of Kohn speaking at workshops. The evidence Kohn presents is undeniable and his perspective spoke to something deep in my teacher soul. So I jumped in the next year. This is my second year teaching without grades.

Dean HaakensonI was inspired to go gradeless by the lack of investment I have seen in my classes over the past couple of years. No matter what I tried, the students were focused on the transaction of work for points. I have been trying to find a way to increase learning and involvement and when I read Role Reversal by Mark Barnes I knew I was on to something. Project Based Learning is a great model, but it was lacking something because kids were still focused on the rubric and grades. This has shifted with the introduction of feedback in my classroom. I am just beginning the journey, but it is already a positive shift in how students and I operate.

Katie Budrow: A few years back, I was inspired by a presentation by Garnet Hillman about how standards-based learning can cultivate healthy grading practices. I started with little ways to focus on learning, such as reporting behaviors and academics separately and only grading summative work. I loved the impact it had on my learners, so I kept exploring more ways to keep the focus on learning in the classroom.

Share one of your favorite resources for going gradeless and how you use it.

Gary Chu: Definitely learned a lot from Brookhart, et al. “A Century of Grading Research.” It provides a historical lens to the conversation and shows clear examples of how grading, as objective as we intend it to be, is massively subjective. I also really like Myron Dueck’s Grading Smarter, Not Harder, Ken O’Connor’s A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades, and Cathy Vatterott’s Rethinking Grading. And I can’t dismiss the impact Twitter has had on my professional development, particularly with respect to the discussion of grades (#sblchat).

Jen Doucette: The first step in my going gradeless journey began with Maja Wilson’s Rethinking Rubrics. She discusses the history of why we use rubrics in education and dissects how rubrics impact both students and teachers. Maja also speaks some about being gradeless, especially in terms of writing instruction. Her ideas about the limitations of rubrics changed my classroom. I also enjoy Alfie Kohn’s message; his ideas echo my own.

Tish Mullen: I sound like the president of the Alfie Kohn fan club, but he really is amazing. Books, videos, and blog posts by Alfie Kohn are at the top of my list. I also find inspiration on the Teachers Throwing Out Grades Facebook page. I have found that a project-based approach works best for me and my content area, so I also do a lot of research on PBL. The newest addition to my resource list is the new Teachers Going Gradeless Facebook page.

Dean HaakensonMy first foray into the gradeless classroom came when I read Rethinking Grading by Kathy Vatterot and Role Reversal by Mark Barnes. I have always questioned why the game of school was okay when it really just served to solidify class and ethnic divisions. Since I started this journey, the crew at Teachers Going Gradeless (TG²) have really sparked the conversion into overdrive. Other resources that are helpful are Hacking Project Based Learning by Erin Murphy and Ross Cooper and the Blended Learning Collaborative in my school district.

Katie Budrow: I recommend Ken O’Connor’s A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades and add Thomas Guskey’s On Your Mark to the mix. I also love Drive by Daniel Pink and Start with Why by Simon Sinek to help better understand motivation and human behavior. While this might not exactly be a resource, face-to-face communication is the greatest asset to my classroom. It was suggested by a student three years ago, and the entire process of how my room works had to change in order to make this a reality. Face-to-face conversations are my best way to assess formative work, and they are instrumental in assessing summatively as well. They guide the narratives that are written for each student at the close of each semester.    

What challenges have you faced in going gradeless?

Gary Chu: Practicing in (near) isolation. As many seeds as I have planted about going gradeless, there have not been too many others who are willing to take the leap into a point-less, gradeless classroom. Conversations with my peers have been, on the whole, very positive when it comes to what grades should represent, and how we should assess our learners. However, that next level is where I am struggling.

Jen Doucette: I practice in near-isolation, at least philosophically. Through presentations and conversations, I enjoy discussing the importance of focus on student growth rather than grades, and I can see people light up in response to the possibilities. Then, almost as quickly, I can see the light disappear as people question the realities of being gradeless, and then the light extinguishes in their doubt. This can be a struggle at times. I also think that while most students revel in the cycle of feedback and focus on growth, some doubt the validity of the system. They are taught to function with grades as the reward or punishment, and having a focus shift to learning can be a challenge.

Tish Mullen: Being required to use a learning management system (Schoology) which is not particularly flexible for out-of-the-box grading has been hard. I’m pretty sure I yell at Schoology—more accurately speaking, my computer monitor—at least three times a week. Parent-teacher conferences are also more intense. I spend a significant amount of time explaining my methods and reasons. I always manage to get parents on board, and often excited, but it requires a lot more energy and talking. It’s also a bit lonely. I’m pretty much it at my school and district-wide. There are other teachers interested in the gradeless approach and thinking about doing it, but no one is forging a path ahead of me. I’m the one clearing the brush. I’m truly thankful for my online gradeless peers and the support I receive from a distance.

Dean HaakensonI have to echo the idea of working in near isolation as the greatest impediment to implementing gradeless. In addition, I think reframing the culture of a school from a grade-based system to a feedback-based system is also hard. It takes time building trust with students who are used to a transactional school system.

Katie Budrow: Well, since I love a good challenge, one of the coolest ones is figuring out what grades mean to the learning community (students, parents, coaches, administrators). In order to have my students and parents focus completely on learning (and not the grade), I have to communicate why the shift is essential to create an environment conducive to learning. Grades signify a variety of things, such as accountability and communication, so I have had to make sure to provide these things in a different way.  

How has going gradeless helped achieve your goals?

Gary Chu: Throughout the first few years of my teaching career, I felt that a lot of what I was doing was enabling my students. A lot of what we did encouraged students to become passive learners. In an effort to combat this, eliminating points as a carrot to learn definitely helped improve student perception of why they were in class; the “Game of School” no longer existed within the walls of our classroom. A lot more genuine learning began to occur, with students taking ownership of what and how they learned, and they were doing it without being motivated by a grade.

Jen Doucette: My answer to this is simple: student learning has always been my goal. Growing gradeless allowed me to stop focusing on student deficiencies with grading, and allowed me to solely focus on how they improve every day. For the first time, I am fully cognizant of each student’s learning on a daily basis.

Tish Mullen: I feel like I finally am able to facilitate authentic learning. It’s less me, more them. I know what each of my 150+ students knows and their skill levels without looking in my grade book. They can’t cheat, which is probably due more to being project-based than being gradeless, but it’s still beneficial because they are less fearful of challenges. They try. They create. They defend their evidence of learning. They can’t just jump through the hoops or play the game. They have to understand and they can’t fake it. The focus is on learning, all the time. I don’t waste my time figuring out how many points for this or that. No one hassles me over 2 points on an assignment. No one asks “will this counts or “will this be on the test” or “how many points is this worth.” It’s truly liberating and empowering.

Dean HaakensonI am still working on implementing this system and it will take time, but I have seen great enthusiasm from many students because the format of gradelessness takes the pressure they feel in traditional classes off. I am seeing kids really work for their own knowledge and edification and it is helping my struggling students to engage more effectively.

Katie Budrow: Personally, I would rather talk about progress than goals (check out Goals Gone Wild for some great information on the dangers of goal-setting). Goals imply a fixed endpoint. Progress is ever-evolving. I’ve seen huge progress in my room and by my learners as we continue to put the focus on healthy grading practices. However, there is always room to grow! 

What misconceptions do people have about gradelessness?

Gary Chu: One major misconception from many of my peers is that a gradeless classroom does not prepare students for their future in academia and life. The main argument is that there are no redos in life. If that’s the case, I would not have a driver’s license. Some of my friends would not be health care professionals, lawyers, mechanics, sommeliers, or baristas. Life has plenty of redos, and that is the whole point: we learn, receive feedback to improve, and try again. A big part of gradeless classrooms is opportunities to fail in an effort to get better. There is no better place to teach failure as an opportunity than a classroom.

Katie Budrow: One of the biggest misconceptions I see is people thinking that it can only be done one way. There are tons of different ways to pull the focus off grades and put it onto learning, and these can be practiced in all kinds of grading systems (e.g. traditional, standards-based, elementary, or collegiate level). The best thing that educators can do is to find ways to focus on learning that work best for both themselves and their students. Another misconception is that gradeless means zero grades ever. There is a broad spectrum that can start simply by removing grades from homework to eventually grading at the end of a project or marking period. A lot of teachers who grade less still have to report out a grade at the end of a term, so figuring out how to make that grade an accurate reflection of learning is essential.

Tish Mullen: That it’s an un-American liberal conspiracy perpetrated by inexperienced hippy teachers without an understanding of rigor, designed to create people who can’t handle competition, lack grit, need too many hugs, and will not be successful in college or the workplace. Just kidding. Well, half-kidding. I haven’t had anyone directly say those words in that order to me, but there have certainly been insinuations and slightly more diplomatic suggestions along these lines. My administrators and fellow science teachers have been great, but they aren’t the “client.” They aren’t the people I have to convince that going gradeless is a legitimate, research-supported option, which can be more rigorous than your average class.

Jen Doucette: I echo so much of what Tish said. I feel as if students and colleagues alike think that gradelessness is a class designed without rigor that doesn’t prepare students for college or work. Some students fail to see that the quantity and quality of revision in our writing classroom far exceeds a traditional classroom because our focus is never on highlighting errors but rather on opportunities for growth. I would also agree with Katie that some people see gradelessness as only having one correct way when, in fact, my writing classes all offer different methods of not grading writing. Finally, I also see people hope that gradelessness implies less work for the teacher; while I wish this were true, I work just as hard if not harder. However, I see a purpose in my feedback and spend less time on managing rubrics.

Dean HaakensonThe biggest misconception about going gradeless is that some folks don’t think there are grades—there are! The way we determine the grade is just different. They are based on learning and growth, not points. Contrary to popular belief, it is more work not less in some ways, but the work is more meaningful and effective for students.

What advice do you have for others going gradeless?

Gary Chu: Two things: culture and Twitter. Culture is massively important, as an emphasis on learning and the process of learning should be defined explicitly. Acknowledging that everyone learns at a different pace and that not learning something right away does not make the learner a failure is an important part of building a classroom that thrives on growth mindset. The second thing, Twitter, changed my life. I read so much about how other teachers build structures and implemented things in their classroom that it helped me developed something that fit my classroom. It truly is the best, most free professional development around.

Jen Doucette: When I decided to stop grading, I wanted students to focus on what they learned instead of they grade they received. For me, the shift was freeing—no longer did the rubric dictate my thoughts on student writing, but rather now the writing itself dictated that. Yet the shift was not as swift for my students. Ingrained in their mind was the idea that they’re worth—especially in terms of writing skills—was tied to grades. But I persisted. My advice is to persist as well. It will be challenging. There will be questions you do not have answers to at first. It will be a struggle. But I promise you, it will be worth it. Students have honest conversations about their work with me every day. Every day. They don’t ask me how many points they will earn because earning points is no longer part of the equation. They ask me how they can improve, what they need to learn. And this is worth the persistence.

Tish Mullen: Judging from responses to posts in gradeless groups on Facebook, my advice is likely a bit controversial, but my advice is not get sucked into the trap of trading letter grades for other multi-leveled replacements. It’s easy to do because, in the beginning, there is a fear of changing too much simultaneously. If you give 1, 2, 3, 4 or growing/almost proficient, proficient, exceeding/mastery “feedback,” students and parents will swiftly equate them to letter grades. Exceeding is an “A,” proficient is a “B or C,” etc. It’s really frustrating to see them still focusing on grades when you are trying so hard to get them to do the opposite. The first year I tried using four levels on assignments: does not demonstrate understanding, demonstrates developing understanding, demonstrates understanding with mistakes, and clearly demonstrates understanding. I thought I was clever, until, without any encouragement, they decided that “clearly demonstrates understanding” was an “A,” and so on. It was a nightmare. Not only was it terrible trying to decide which one I thought fit best, but then petty arguments ensued over the distinction. I don’t want to give grades, let alone spend time haggling over them. Lesson learned. Now I only have two levels, “met” and “not yet met” for learning targets, and “passing” or “not passing” for an overall grade. Simple, clear, and functional.

Katie Budrow: Culture is critical. Honestly, that is where you should spend the bulk of your time when starting out. Grades do have many meanings, and it is important to honor that meaning as we start to remove them. You will have to build in ways to communicate evidence of learning along with ways to hold students accountable. Once your culture is solidly in place, there is so much that can be done. In my room, we start by talking about what learning is and then go on to figure out how to describe it. We build rubrics together so that students know what is expected of them academically, and we make team norms to help guide our behavior. We start the class each day by writing about what we are going to learn, and we close the class discussing what was accomplished. Learning is infused into every aspect of our classroom culture. Granted, every once in awhile, a conversation about grades will occur; however, it is really easy to shift the focus back to learning because we have built our culture that way.

Dean HaakensonI agree with Katie about culture: if there is not trust it is hard to be effective in a gradeless environment. Also of critical importance: go slow to go fast. Do the work gradually–choose one aspect of change and implement that. Then build upon it. It is also important to find a PLN to help you do this work. Being able to question, share and problem solve will really help you to persevere when things get difficult. Be an authentic learner along with your students. Share your work, struggles, and ideas. They will buy-in more if you are authentic.

Care to join us? Find us on Facebook and leave a comment below about your own experiences — with or without grades!

3 thoughts on “Why We’re Gradeless

  1. Thanks for an interesting read, Aaron and panelists. The perspectives are unique and varied. I enjoyed reading about experiences I’ve shared and resources I’ve heard of, as well as different takes and new ideas.
    I wonder if an elementary teacher might have something to add to the conversation.

    Like

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