So this idea has been simmering in the back of my mind ever since I did my student teaching at a high school that uses the proficiency system of grading. There, however, students worked to meet expectations for a class and went along working at taking lecture notes, filling out worksheets and passing multiple choice tests just like any other traditional system, to end up with A, B, C, D or F as from time immemorial.
Then I started my first position in a large high school with some of my classes nearing 40 students. The frenetic and often frantic planning and delivering of lessons for three preps in four different classrooms took up most of my time and grading just was a side effect of what I determined that students were doing. I tried to make rubrics to help me show students how I was grading them so they could get the most points possible and get that elusive A. I delivered presentation lectures with guided notes, just as my mentor teacher had. Students robotically wrote down what was required but failed, most of the time, to acquire the knowledge that they needed to pass the tests that were mostly just asking them to regurgitate the information from the notes.
A couple of years went by and I began at my current school. The grading dilemma continued nagging me, but time just didn’t allow for me to really get to the bottom of what was actually bothering me. This winter, however, I purchased the book, Hacking Assessment, by Starr Sackstein and finally this summer, have begun my journey to introducing the concept of the gradeless classroom to my students.
Ms. Sackstein puts into words that nagging feeling I’d been having, stating
[student’s scores are] “not an accurate representation of their ability” and “students need to see themselves simply as learners”, not as a grade (as in, I’m an A student or a C student)
The scores that I had been giving them, even when guided by a rubric, were usually not telling them what they knew how to do or where they needed to improve. Most of the time, those who wanted that good grade were jumping through the hoops, copying that one kid’s work who turned it in on time and got a good score on it, or, less often, cramming to pass that multiple choice test and promptly forgetting the information the next day. The focus was on getting it done; getting a grade and not on: what are we learning? or, how can we improve our learning?
Shackstein also writes,
As soon as we put a number on student work, learning stops.”
which tells me that the way I have been doing it, the way I have been trying to do it better by giving students feedback and letting them improve their work, is only part of the change needed.
In Hacking Assessment, the reader is given 10 ways to go gradeless. Each chapter is a “hack” that guides the process of introducing these changes into your classroom and school. Within each chapter the author first explains the hack, then gives ways it can be done right away in a “what you can do tomorrow” section. The next part is a step by step “blueprint for implementation” We all know that there will be naysayers and puzzlement from students, parents, administrators and fellow teachers, so there is an “overcoming pushback” piece in each chapter with common objections and ways to answer effectively. The final part is a peek into a classroom where the teacher has implemented the ‘hack in action’.
As I plan for this year, I have identified five main areas I will need to work on teaching my students about. First of all, I will have to teach them why I have decided to change the way I report their learning. The first chapter has a basic lesson plan for doing this that includes a probe into what students know about learning and how they feel about failure, among other things. During this lesson I will get a feel for how they will respond to the new system. I need to try to anticipate their questions and concerns but I think that the “overcoming pushback” section will be of great help.
Another thing that I know I will need to plan for is teaching them how to dissect the standards and determine the important skills and content that they will be expected to show mastery of. This has always been the teacher’s job but I have a feeling that when the students get involved and they are more aware of what is expected, they will be able to meet the expectations that they have set for themselves.
feedback should always be specific and offer strategies for improvement.”
A third lesson that is necessary for me to teach is how to give feedback and how to utilize the feedback they get for improving their learning. The suggestion is to teach students the art of giving feedback by modeling it to them and then creating expert groups that focus on a particular area of expertise. They will need to know that it is important to remember that feedback includes first of all positive comments and then constructive recommendations for improvement. If I train them to do this then I can be ‘freed up to work with students who need more help than a peer can offer’.
As important as feedback is, reflection is even more necessary for students to learn. Implicated in the quote above is the fact that students who do not reflect on what they are doing in class will not necessarily learn as much as those who do. Sackstein gives a few questions to pose to students to guide their reflection. It is suggested that every day as an exit ticket, students be asked to do a quick-write about what they learned that day and what they need to work on next.
A final and essential thing that I will have to teach students is how to grade themselves. Since I have to report grades as letters, I will be giving the students the authority to decide what letter grade they deserve. They will do this by first looking at the body of work they produced during the grading period and, using their reflection skills, answer a few questions about their learning, with the requirement to point out specific evidence from their work to back up their claims. They will then have a mini conference with me to present their evidence and conclusions. I will give them the grade they decide on. Of course, the author says, there may be some who give themselves a grade that I think they really don’t deserve, whether lower or higher than I would have given them. In these circumstances, it is advised that one ask questions and request that the student provide the evidence to back up their decision. Most of the time, the student will change their mind if they can’t support that grade. However, in the end, the decision needs to lie with them, even if we still disagree. We need to trust the process and “watch in amazement as they skillfully share what they’ve learned”.
Of course there will be a very steep learning curve for this process of changing the mindset of students to realize that what they are expected to be doing in my class is focusing on being learners and not compliant followers of the status quo. By guiding them to set goals, give and receive feedback, reflect, and evaluate themselves, I expect to see them come to realize that they are the ones who are best qualified to report their own outcomes.