Going Grade-less — Week 1: The Journey Begins …

Michael Szczepanik
Jun 4, 2017 · 5 min read

I was nervous, even though I was confident that my principal, Brian Bartalo, would be supportive as he always has been.

I was nervous because I had spent so long thinking about how to go about it.

I was nervous because I was so invested in the idea. What would I do if “Bart” disagreed and said I could not go “Grade-less” in my class next year?

I scheduled an appointment to discuss my plans for changing the assessment paradigm in my classroom.


The time came and I sat down in Bart’s office. I explained why I was there and reminded him of an inspirational video he had shared with us at the beginning of the year (below)

This lively RSA Animate, adapted from Dan Pink’s talk at the RSA, illustrates the hidden truths behind what really motivates us at home and in the workplace.

I told him how it had inspired me to try to seek out ways to motivate my students by giving them autonomy, mastery, and purpose, but I struggled with it. I shared how I had used Mastery-based learning and Standards-based learning in class, yet all of them didn’t quite capture what I was trying to do.

Next, I launched into some research that had been shared with me.

  • First was Dylan Wiliam’s paper highlighted one study conducted by Ruth Butler in 1987 which looked at the learning of four groups of students, one group was given comments, another group was given grades, a third group was given written praise and the final group was given no feedback at all. The surprising result was that the groups were given grades, praise or no feedback showed no improvement while the group that was given comments did.
  • I also mentioned another study by Black and Wiliam in which three groups were given different types of feedback. The first group was given grades only, the second group was given written comments only and the third group was given both comments and grades. The group that performed the best was the group given written comments only. It seems that grades hinder and often stops learning.
  • Finally, I mentioned John Hattie’s meta-study that looked at the effect size of various teaching techniques (shown below). The highest effect size turned out to be self-reported grades.

The Plan

Next, I launched into the plan which is basically outlined below (with more details coming in later posts). It should be noted that I am a high school biology teacher in NY and I am doing what I can to transition to the Next Generation Science Standards before NY state’s version becomes official.

  • I will use a standards-based approach, by modifying current tasks, curating already made tasks or creating new tasks that align with the Performance Expectations of NGSS
  • Only the Tasks mentioned above will receive formal feedback during the quarter.
  • Feedback will take the form of comments in either a Single Point Rubric or a SE2R format.
Single Point Rubric (Jennifer Gonzalez)
SE2R (Mark Barnes)
  • Students through peer review and teacher feedback will work on tasks until the standards have been met for the NGSS aligned task prior to moving on to the next task
  • The class will be primarily asynchronous — with “on pace dates” instead of “due dates” for each task. (more about “On pace dates” in later posts)
  • When students complete a task they must submit a reflection summarizing which of the Approaches to Learning (ATLs) they exhibited during their work on that task.
  • Routinely, the class will start with a flipped video created by myself (I have almost 160 videos related to biology) or a review quiz. Review quizzes will be scored and put into a spreadsheet.
  • There will be other assignments that I will not assess as they are a part of the intake of information that is vital.

BUT what about grades?

5 week and quarter grades will be based on a Teacher-Student conference and will work the following ways

  • To be eligible for the conference … all tasks must be complete, otherwise, the student's grade is incomplete until tasks are complete.
  • Grades are calculated as follow — 10% based on review quizzes (students will do the calculation — see below) and 90% based on tasks/standards (student determine what they deserve)
  • 10% portion — students have access to their review scores and will determine what calculation they feel best represents their learning. For example “Student A” may choose to do an average of all the review quizzes, “Student B” may choose to drop the lowest 2 quizzes and average and “Student C” could use a “Power Law” grade calculation. More on why I am using this 10% at all in a later post.
  • 90% portion — students will have to give evidence as they answer the following questions:
  1. Have you met the required standards through the NGSS aligned tasks?
  2. How have you shown growth in your use of the Science and Engineering Practices?
  3. Can you make connections between the tasks by explaining the Cross-Cutting Concepts connecting the Tasks?
  4. What are your strengths and weaknesses as a learner as evidenced by your Approaches to Learning (ATLs)?

Bart’s response

Brian Bartalo (“Bart” as he prefers to be referred to) immediately began sharing his affinity for Douglas Reeves. At that point, I realized he was supportive but he continued to remind me of certain contractual obligations that I have. I am required to report a quarterly grade for each student as well as an in-progress goal at the five-week point. He knew that I already knew this but he needed to remind me of such. He reminded me that outside of that he felt that teachers had the autonomy to do what they felt professionally was in the best interest of students.

We talked about the perception that will come about from these changes … some will think I have taken the easy road when in reality it will be more work on my part, assessing and re-assessing. He suggested reducing the number of tasks in class to keep the workload for both teacher and student to a manageable level.

Communication with students and parents would be essential. Students, because they will be seeing me daily, should not be an issue but, parents would be different. He stressed open house, a welcome letter, and the ongoing emails and phone calls that will inevitable.

Overall, I sensed his intrigue and interest in the topic and he thanked me for coming to him about this.

Building the team

So what’s next? I would like to continue to communicate with other administrators about my plans including:

Also, other staff:

  • My science department colleagues (many of which already know and have helped me to shape this idea).
  • Guidance counselors
  • Special education teachers

As they say, “It takes a Village” and I will need as many helping hands as possible. I am excited to get going.