I sit down at my desk. It’s the end of quarter 3 and it’s time for the dreaded report cards — the time where I average the homework grades, find missing assignments, and vigorously come up with something to say. My computer flickers on and my online gradebook comes to life. It happily tells me many students are receiving A’s and B’s and then, as if it is the Ghost of Christmas Past, the dreaded F appears. John Doe: English Language Arts Quarter 3: F. I stare blankly at the screen.
This very moment I had been dreading the whole quarter. What does this F tell me about John Doe? Does it say how much he’s improved in reading over the quarter? Does it say if he knows how to compare two texts or write an introduction to an opinion writing piece? More so, does it tell me about his cooperation with others and his big heart?
A year ago this is how I graded, this vicious, unnerving cycle of grading. Then I found Twitter. Twitter is a beautiful tool, and after a bit of digging I realized that there were other classrooms out there that were gradeless (an amazing Twitter community for all of this is Teachers Going Gradeless; @TG2chat). I wasn’t the only crazy person – so I took the plunge. The past seven months of a gradeless classroom has changed my perspective and gives my John Does a fighting chance…
Gradeless doesn’t mean a lack of assessment. It means giving students an opportunity for success through practice, voice, and self-reflection. A gradeless classroom is multi-faceted and is constantly changing.
In my experience, it offers students more practice, collaboration, observation, conferring, and gives more time to accomplish what I, as a teacher, was asking for previously. Gradeless classrooms take the pressure off of points and focuses on learning and growth (which happens for kids at different times). According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), researchers concluded that “after around four hours of homework per week, the additional time invested in homework has a negligible impact on performance.” This very fact was the first step into my gradeless classroom. As teachers, our time is often consumed with grading endless amounts of homework in hopes that our kids will average a decent score at the end of the quarter, but with my gradeless classroom I spend my time on more things of value.
When I finally had this mind shift, I allowed for more student reflection on work, which has a positive affect, and I eliminated graded homework. Previously I spent a lot of time assessing students’ homework. When I decided to move to gradeless I moved more towards rubrics and conferencing, which naturally moved away from homework. Students reflect on the work they have done. Through reflection and rating of their understanding, I am able to confer with them more effectively during our conferencing and small group times – far more than homework ever did.
By ditching homework students have more opportunity for self-reflection and practice without the pressure of having every piece of their work graded. Students take more risks and ask more questions, because there isn’t the fear of failure. For example, student practice work and homework becomes less about getting the right answer and more about the exploration of the process. In the day to day students are meeting in small groups, reflecting on learning using rubrics, and analyzing strong mentor models.
Eventually, as the learning processes unfold, I formally measure students’ understanding through using my State’s standards: student exceeds standard, meets the standards, or does not meet the standard. This assessment occurs after students have had ample time to ask how they need to improve and what they need to learn. There isn’t a specific algorithm for when this assessment occurs, but by meeting with students weekly you will get a strong sense of what your students know and how you can push them towards meeting the standard.
When I started caring LESS about the percentage and MORE about my students learning, I began to let go of control. Gradeless means more attention to detail. As a teacher, I am able to observe student work and evaluate it with a greater purpose in mind. When evaluating, I use standards based grading, which is district initiative. This lends itself greatly to my gradeless classroom because it eventually assesses students on skills and not percentage based scales. Standards-based and gradeless are not synonymous but are blended very easily. If you are thinking about going gradeless, standards based is a route you may want to go, but there are other avenues as well.
This can also be done by creating standards-based rubrics and face-to-face conversations for assessment. It allows for my students to work through projects together to begin with, and after gaining confidence, they often being to soar through the second quarter. Through this gradual release, I am able to create lessons that are multi-faceted and allow students to know what I am expecting, the standards, and how to achieve them.
Some questions come to mind…
What will my report cards say if my district isn’t like yours and has percentage based grading?
An encouraging word… I was gradeless before my district moved this way. Unfortunately when it comes to report cards you will have to average your students’ work. However, this doesn’t have to be done in the traditional sense of a composite score of homework, assessments, and projects. This can be done with observation notes, through assessing what your students really DO know, and using your knowledge of your students to grade them fairly.
How do you keep track of your students’ progress?
In my classroom I have my students send their work via Google-classroom. This gives me a portfolio of work to draw from when I am assessing with our standards. My students are rated on a 1-4 scale (1: not progressing 2: progressing with guidance 3: grade-level achievement 4: achieving above grade-level). Also students rate themselves on their understanding weekly. I am able to pull from those examples to compile an understanding of where my students’ understanding is.
How did I explain this to my students’ parents?
For the most part my parents were very much on board when I decided to go gradeless, this was probably because we were also going to standards based grading scales, which was a district decision that they communicated to parents. I was very upfront at the beginning of the year, explaining the gradeless philosophy, and had a lot of support from my parents. With a gradeless classroom I believe that I am talking more to my students than I ever did before, and this translates to home as well. Keeping an open conversation going about student progress keeps parents happy, whether it is concerning grades or not.
Going gradeless is an ever-changing, flexible way of teaching. This isn’t perfection… but what in education is? My hope is that my classroom would be a place where students can explore, desire education, and create. My greatest desire is that my students would be known and their ideas & thoughts would be validated. The place I have chosen to start is to know my kids by name and not by a letter.
Abigail Lund teaches 4th grade ELA and math to her fabulous kiddos in Cincinnati. She loves coffee about as much as her husband and cat… and is a self-proclaimed lifetime learner. Catch up with daily happenings and ramblings on Twitter @mrsablund.