hacking assessment

Everything I learned while teaching English without grades

This post is brought to you, quite literally, by Starr Sackstein’s Hacking Assessment. The ideas in Hacking Assessment inspired me to try a feedback instead of grades policy in my freshmen English classes. If you read Starr’s book, you might not make a radical shift, but you’ll definitely learn A LOT about assessment. You can Get 50% off on Hacking Assessment here.

Why did I do this?

Here’s a story that’s embarrassing to tell. But, as Neil Gaiman says about writing, “the moment that you feel, just possibly, you are walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind…That is the moment, you might be starting to get it right.” So, it’s a story I’ll tell:

The grading period was just about to end, and I had a stack of student essays about the play Inherit the Wind. After a quick pass through them, one thing became apparent to me: none of the students’ work surprised me. The students who typically did well in my class did well on this assignment. The students who had struggled all year long struggled on this assignment, too.

So, I looked at each student’s current average, and placed that grade on the top of the paper. For students who were on the threshold of two grades (the ol’ 89.9) I gave the student the grade that he or she needed in order to be bumped up. My face is getting red with embarrassment as I type this.

Now, there are two things that come out of this story for me:

  1. That was wrong to do.  That being said…
  2. The assignment, and my assessment practices, did not lead me to feel motivated to read the papers and see the student progress that has occurred. 

This leads us to where I am today. In three of my classes, which are three sections of freshmen academic English (think College Prep), I did not put a grade on a single assignment this year. No grades on pieces of writing, no grades on presentations, no graded homework and no graded formative assessments (that is something I will never go back to, as it is clear to me now that putting a number on a formative assessment removes any right that the assignment has to be called formative). Anyway, no grades.

The exception to this was the interim report and end of marking period times, when students receive a grade. I’ll get to how they get those grades later in this post.

How did I hear about this idea?

One day, scanning the Interwebs, I encountered a hashtag, #TTOG. It led me to scroll through more tweets, until a man named Mark Barnes mentioned something about a Facebook group called “Teachers Throwing Out Grades.” Hmm, I thought. Interesting. Grading is my least favorite part of teaching, and it never feels meaningful to the learning process. So, in my effort to explore further, I checked it out.

Immediately, I knew I had found an important community. In this group were teachers committed to  student learning instead of numbers. The basic ethos of the group was that learning was difficult or impossible to measure, and that traditional grading systems hinder learning by putting the emphasis on symbols like letters, numbers and percentages instead of meaningful feedback loops. In theory, I think this is something that lots of teachers would agree with: Everyone seems to care more about grades than whatever it is they are getting grade on.

The deep realizationI came to after perusing posts in this group was that this required a radical change. This was not something you just do, like trying a new website or printing out an article for your students to read. This was a commitment, and one that that required deep planning, preparation and communication with everyone involved in the learning process of your classroom.

How did it start out?

The most important part of this process happened before I ever began it with my students. That was the conversations I had with administrators before the school year started. In order to make what some consider a radical shift in my classroom, it was important to communicate my plans and rationale with the administrators in my school, and to make sure that they understood that I had a plan, and I wasn’t simply trying to shirk on my responsibilities.

To prepare for this, I gathered all the research and planning I could and developed a proposal to share with my supervisor and building principal. Much of the ideas and structure of this proposal was inspired by a similar document that Starr Sackstein wrote for her school.  Here’s the document:

What did I do to prepare?

I was nervous about starting the year with this new policy. Of course, there were visions in my head of total parent and student mutiny. Teachers sometimes have a tendency to envision the worst case scenario when they are trying something new in the classroom. So, partially motivated by the fear of starting this new program, I set out to prepare myself.

The personal learning network (PLN) is an acronym that is often thrown around on social media. When I decided to make this change, my PLN became the go to resource for transforming the assessment policy of my classroom. Specifically, I’d like to thank a few people who shared their time and experiences with me:

  • Steve Fergusson, an English teacher in New Jersey and fellow TCNJ alum, who shared his experienced with a hybrid of traditional and standards-based grading. Talking to a teacher I already knew made this whole process feel doable.
  • Joy Kirr, who curates one of the most valuable educational resources on the Internet, her Live Binders, helped me both through her reflective blog posts (like this one) and through many interactions on Twitter.
  • Starr Sackstein talked to me on the phone about how to use a traditional online grading portal to implement a feedback instead of grades system. Again, I recommend reading her book, Hacking Assessment
  • Mark Barnes and the entire Teachers Throwing Out Grades Facebook group answered many of my preliminary questions about how to go set up and sustain an English class without using traditional grades.
  • Farrah Krovoza, a middle-grades teacher in Hawaii, shared her experience with standards-based grading with me.

Sometimes, just following the ideas in a book and implementing them is good for personalized PD. But in this case, with so many questions to ask, being able to reach out to these people was so valuable. Thank you all.

How did it work?

I refined the process throughout the year until I came to three main components of the no grades classroom:

  • Portfolios

These were digital, and they allowed students to reflect on and gather their best work from the marking period and the end of the year. We used Google Drive and Google Classroom, so students could easily go back through the previous work they did and drag and drop their best work into a portfolio folder. For written work, students used the built in camera on their chromebooks to take a snapshot and add the photo to a Google Doc. That looked like the photo below. It wasn’t always the easiest text to read, but it provided a record that the students had done the work, and allowed me to follow up by reading the students paper work and talking to them about it in person.

  • Self-Assessments and reflections

At the end of each marking period, and often at the interim report time, students completed a self-assessment checklist based on the skills we had practiced during the recent quarter. Students reflected on questions about their best work and wrote about the areas that still needed improvement.

  • Conferences

While conferences happened nearly daily in the classroom as students read and wrote, the end of marking period conferences were focused specifically on students’ accomplishments during the marking period, and where they thought their work left them in terms of a final grade.

What were some of the struggles?

  1. The number one struggle of this system was having students complete assignments on time. I try to leverage intrinsic motivation and student choice as much as possible in my classroom by allowing students to read, write, research and speak about the topics that they care about in life. Still, at times I found students openly describing to me that they would do work for other classes first because they knew that those assignments would be graded the next day, and they were concerned with their numerical averages falling in those classes. Each teacher does what is best for his or her students, so I place no fault on other teachers. I need to  work on making this system function better within a school that, by and large, uses traditional assessment methods of points and averages.
  2. Another struggle was getting students to fully understand how the system changes the nature of the class. Primarily, it was difficult to get students to lose the fear of punitive grading. Even later in the year, some students would still ask if they would lose points for making a certain error in a writing assignment, or not demonstrating a certain public speaking skill during a pop-up debate (thanks, Dave Stuart Jr.)
  3. A practical, day-to-day challenge was figuring out what to put in the online gradebook. My students completed plenty of reading and writing activities, and I aligned these activities with the specific skills (standards) that we focused on in each marking period. So, I wrestled with the idea of putting the assignments in the gradebook and leaving feedback comments next to those assignments, or putting the standards/skills in the gradebook and leaving comments about how students were progress on those skills. This is something I’m still wrestling with.

What did students think?

I asked students to give feedback on the feedback instead of grades system on their final self-assessment survey. They answered these questions:

What do you think about the grading system used this year? Why? Be honest and specific.

Looking back, the question could’ve been posed better. I did use the word “grading” right in the question, because the students still view classes in terms of grades, and so asking them about the assessments or feedback in the class would’ve been less direct. Students understand that there are no grades on their assignments in this class. Their responses were predictably wide-ranging, and they were very valuable for how I might modify my plans moving forward. Here are some highlights (I focused on the extremes, both for and against the system:

This grading system was great. – -allowed me to worry about the work rather then the grade -less stress -gave me an end goal to strive for

I don’t like not physically seeing my grades. It makes me slack a lot. When I dont [sic] see a grade in I think that I have time to do the work later and then eventually all my work piles up and I don’t do most of it.

Honestly I loved it. I felt much more comfortable being graded on effort than being graded on completion. As a young writer who writes based off of feeling its so hard to write with rules. Its stressful knowing I’ll get a bad grade because I didn’t complete a 5 paragraph essay. Its not that I was procrastinating and didn’t get a chance to finish, but its because I put all my creative energy into writing 3 paragraphs and rather not have two crappy paragraphs chucked in there. This grading system was comforting and actually made me want to improve for myself rather than for a grade.

I didn’t like it. I didn’t like not having individual grades for assignments because I couldn’t see my progress throughout the marking period. Seeing my progress helps me know how much I need to work on to improve my grade, but I couldn’t see that with this grading system.

At first, I absolutely hated it. But then after getting to know it. I realized it was a smart idea. It gives students abilities to grow and learn when they don’t understand something rather than doing poorly on it would give them at bad grade. I really wished all my other teachers used it.

The grade system was a new way to get grades. I thought it was a good way of going it. If we made a mistake we could just go back and fix it rather the teacher just giving us the first grade. It will help us learn from the mistakes and learn.

I felt that because of the grading not being directly on the grading form, this class didn’t seem that urgent. One, if u go on to grade portal, you don’t see a grade however, if you went on grade portal and saw an F (45%) instead, you would want to try harder in class. But I also understand the main goal of this system, its not so much about a straight forward grade, but its based on what each of us can do and how much we can improve ourselves.

What did this student feedback help me realize?

Some students never made the connection between feedback, improvement and learning. They still tie their progress only to a number. And, when there are other seven classes and all of the classes before this year have relied on numerical grades, this is understandable. Still, I take ownership of not explaining the system clearly enough to those students who thought that they couldn’t track their progress unless their work was numerically graded.

Some students fully realized the benefits of the system as I intended. They were able to “grow and learn” without focusing on grades and made them “want to improve for [themselves] rather than for a grade.”  When students mentioned that they had clear goals to strive for, were able to focus on reading and writing instead of stressing on grades, and were able to make mistakes without worrying about the punishment of a bad grade, it makes me think that the impact that this system had on those students makes it worth it.

What did parents think?

Overall, parent response was positive. I attribute this to the fact that I thoroughly explained my reasoning during back to school night, I shared my proposal letter with parents via email and I maintained opened communication with all parents who had questions about the system.

For the parents who were deeply involved in their children’s educations, my hope was that this system would allow parents to get a more clear sense of the actions their son or daughter could take to improve. Theoretically, it removes one step in the conversation about school work. So, instead of:

Mom: What’s your grade?

Kid: 75

Mom: Why?

Kid: I got a bad grade on a quiz.

Mom: What was the quiz about?

Kid: Angles.

Mom: How can you bring up your grade?

Kid: We have another quiz coming up next week.

Mom: What do you need to work on.

Kid: I’m not sure.

Ideally, it would go more like this:

Mom: I saw in the grade portal that your introductions are strong but you need better evidence in your essays, have you worked on revising?

Kid: Uhh, no… I guess I better get to work.

And of course, that is a utopian ideal, but the principle is hopefully clear: by putting feedback directly about student performance in the grade portal, it tells parents and students exactly how the student is doing, instead of using a symbol (letter or number) that must be interpreted.

What will I change for next time?

More in class conferencing and keeping records of in class conferencing. Record conferences notes in the grade portal as feedback, make audio comments of conferences.

Collect even more of what students create, so it can be used to demonstrate learning and be used as meaningful assessments for me and the students (record small-group discussions, have students capture their writing with cameras, take pictures of their independent reading books, etc.)

Use posters around the room to remind students of the skills that we are learning, refer to them more in conversation.

Make end of the year portfolios a bigger deal, follow more of the sage advice from Mr. Jim Mahoney and my colleeague, Mr. Erik Petrushun.

Overall, using a feedback instead of grades policy was the most informative, reflective  and yes, stressful, process I’ve undergone as a teacher. It was extremely rewarding, and I look forward to building on the system for next year.

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8 thoughts on “Everything I learned while teaching English without grades

  1. Gerard, I’m thinking of another step… What if we recorded the (especially end-of-quarter) conferences (sans video – audio only), and uploaded the link to the grade book? I’m not sure I’m confident enough in what I would say (although working this way does have me more conscious about what I DO say), but I’m sure it would be eye-opening to parents and maybe even students…

    • gerard.dawson1@gmail.com

      This is a great idea, Joy. I’ve considered trying something like this with http://www.vocaroo.com, since it’s so easy to share the links there. I’m also wondering how much click through I’d get by parents and/or students compared to how much work this would be. If they’d listen, I’d be glad to put in the time, but if they’re not listening, then it would be a waste. What are your thoughts on that? Thanks for the idea.

  2. I would love to do this in my high school Spanish classes. I appreciate the references you’ve provided and I plan to do some more reading!

    • gerard.dawson1@gmail.com

      Great to hear that, Jeenna! I think a Spanish class, for which you can clearly outline the skills and content that you want students to know, is a perfect place for this system. Also, students often have nerves about practicing a new language out loud, so eliminating grades can help boost kids confidence in practicing.

  3. Hello Gerard,

    Your ideas are innovative and focused on the learning versus the grade, which is what teaching should be all about. Your reflections are very valid and thoughtful- I appreciated your openness and your reference to both positive and negative feedback you received from students. The fact that you are thinking about recording your conference notes as feedback is a great idea that will help parents track the progress of their child’s learning and will help students see the information in the grade book to know where they are in their learning journey. This feedback is what you should refer to as your formative assessment feedback. Your conferencing and student reflections and self assessments of their progress should all be documented as formative assessments in the grease book that of course are not graded, but simply recorded to demonstrate progress. Your summative grade is the portfolio at the end of the marking period. The cool aspect about this process is that it can de completely differentiated by student since each student will be at a different place in their journey towards the completion of their portfolios. This resolves the issue with having the hard deadlines you mentioned- each student will be at a different part of their journey and these stages are all documented through your conferences and their self reflections that they can complete after their conference with you using a Google form. Would love to chat more if you’re interested.

  4. Gerard – I am wondering how your second year with the “no grades” process worked out this past school year?

    • Hi Tiffanee. Well, this year I went from teaching the same two courses I had taught for several years in a row to teaching two new courses (4 in total). With all of the new curriculum I had to learn and read, I took a step back from the no-grades process this year. Self-assessment, feedback, and reflection were three pillars of my class, but I did not implement the full no-grades system as I did last year. It seemed that there were too many variables going at once, and I did not want my instruction and the students’ experience to suffer because of it. I am re-grouping to make a plan for next year.

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