Reaching a Crossroads

Reconciling Gradeless Philosophy with a Standard Classroom

I’m at a crossroads in my teaching. I no longer speak the same language as my students and colleagues. We sometimes use the same words, but even then we express different philosophies.

We all enter the education field with a focus on student learning and with a vision of a student-centered classroom. With state and national initiatives, we transfer our focus on students to achievement of standards as outlined by the Common Core. Even with this, I believe we all still have students as our focus: what do we need to teach them? How can we assess that they have mastered the standards?

Where my road diverges is the way in which we rank and assess students. In other words, I struggle with why we grade.

In my 14 years of teaching, I have found grades to inhibit student growth. Grades are teacher-dictated, formal, and final. As a writing teacher, I always offered students rewrites if they were dissatisfied with their grades, but I found the vast majority just accepted the score as final because students define their worth by the grade they receive. The grade impacts their confidence, performance, motivation, and classroom demeanor. Students work to the level they feel expected of them, and the grade has always been that barometer.

Although I’ve recognized how assigning number and letter scores can hinder student progress, I have recently realized that grades hinder teachers, too.

We pride ourselves on being difficult graders. I was particularly proud of the amount of B+ grades I handed out on papers, citing rigor and high standards as my platform. After I read Maja Wilson’s Rethinking Rubrics, I was humbled by her quote, “What is the difference between an 89 percent paper and a 90 percent paper? The distinction is ludicrous and dishonest.”

And she was right.

I frequently withheld the 90 percent score on an essay as a motivator for students, asserting that their essay had not yet reached an A level, yet I wasn’t deliberately explaining to each individual how to reach that place. I could defend that grade based on a rubric, but I sometimes made exceptions and manipulated the rubric to give the score I thought the assignment deserved. Because the truth was — and is — that some writing doesn’t fit well on a rubric. But that doesn’t negate its efficacy. When my focus shifted to defending and manipulating my rubrics, I lost sight of what was really important: what did that student learn? Had they learned anything at all?

Now I speak a language of feedback and growth. I focus on a gradeless writing classroom, a classroom where I never put a number or letter on a piece of writing, a classroom that is fluid and student-focused. Sometimes the students direct their own goals and learning, and sometimes I direct their goals, but all of it is focused on what they need to learn and how they will prove their learning. I believe in rigor and high standards in writing, but only if those standards are designed to foster growth, the students respond to the rigor, and the grade reflects growth. When the grade does not reflect learning — which it most often does not — I question the validity of having a grade at all.

Our educational system is built on grades and designed around placing students in categories in order to quantify their intelligence, but I’m not trying to reinvent our educational system. I just want to figure out where I fit into it, and I wonder if there is a better way to intensify our students’ drive for learning.

Yet even with my best intentions, I still feel misunderstood by some students. When I ask them about what they learned, they question what grade they earned. To me, learning and grades do not reflect each other at all. Even standard mastery does not necessarily indicate learning. A student may enter my class with mastery of most standards already. Instead of allowing them to just earn an A without learning new skills, I challenge them to create their own goals and decide where their learning needs to happen. Complacency is not ok. But I recognize that students don’t always see that.

So where does that leave me? An outlier in a system that still dictates the way in which I must assess? Perhaps. I am hopeful that it puts me in a situation to be creative. To find a way to honor what I believe is the best for my students while adhering to standards and requirements.

Despite my current confusion, I am often reminded of how far I have come. A few weeks ago was my birthday, and one birthday message from a former student caught my attention: “Happy birthday, Mrs. Doucette. I hope you enjoy your day of giving B+s. Maybe you might even give an A- or two.”

I giggled, at first. Alex and I have a great rapport, so he didn’t intend the message to be mean-spirited. But as I thought further about Alex’s comment, I started to get upset, embarrassed even. His comment reminded me of how much my priorities have shifted in my classroom. Why had I spent so long focusing on a deficit-focused model of writing assessment with grades instead of fostering students’ opportunities for growth?

So here I stand at the crossroads. Sometimes a place of struggle and uncertainty, sometimes a place of solitude. Yet in this uncertainty, I am certain of one idea: student growth will continue to be the core of all that I do.