Five Things You Need To Go Gradeless

Paul Cancellieri
Dec 17, 2019 · 8 min read

Earlier this year, I wrote about the reasons that I had become disillusioned with traditional grading and assessment. In the intervening months, my team and I have created a much more effective and sensible system that has met with tremendous success. This article is one of three that share my biggest takeaways from the past year.

If you share my disdain for the way that traditional grades not only don’t encourage meaningful learning but actually obstruct it, you might be wondering how to start bringing change to your classroom. With the hindsight of a year spent learning, building, experimenting, and refining a gradeless system, I can tell you that there are five ingredients that are critical to your success:

Elevator control panel with numbered buttons
Elevator control panel with numbered buttons
Photo by Jason Dent on Unsplash

1.An elevator speech. This is your “why”. It’s the reason that you have decided to walk down this difficult but rewarding path. It’s the experience that tells you that grades don’t work. It’s the research that validates what you know firsthand. It’s how you want assessment to enhance learning in your classroom. It’s short and succinct and stirring, and you need to be able recite it from memory without sounding rehearsed. No big deal, right?

Start with what’s wrong with the status quo. What makes you sad or angry or frustrated about the way your students respond to grades right now? How do number or letter grades cause students to shut down or give up or wash their hands of the previous learning target and just move on to the next one? You need to make it clear to the listener — which might be an administrator, colleague, parent, or student — what’s broken.

Next, briefly explain what education research has shown about the power of student-centered assessment. Keep it simple and clear. What skills do we want our students to have when they leave our classes or when they graduate from high school or when they enter the workforce? Envision yourself standing shoulder-to-shoulder with your audience looking off into the horizon at your students’ futures. Describe what you see.

Finally, close with a call to action. Make it clear that as classroom educators we have the biggest opportunity to bring about this change. We can’t wait for big lumbering bureaucracies to see this need and respond to it. It will be too late for our students. We need to act now and there are simple common-sense steps that we can take.

Two bicyclists holding hands while riding on separate bikes
Two bicyclists holding hands while riding on separate bikes
Photo by Everton Vila on Unsplash

2. At least one teammate. You are beginning an uphill climb. There will be obstacles and setbacks. It will be infinitely easier if you have a partner (or two) that you can commiserate with, bounce ideas off of, and craft solutions with. If you work on a multi-disciplinary team (as I do), you can do no better than recruiting one of your existing teammates. If not, talk to the members of your department or Professional Learning Team. If necessary, pair up with a colleague at another school.

I was fortunate to have a teammate who shared my frustration with grades. She approached me with a desire to do something different and we started this journey together. After one semester of piloting and working out the details, our other two teammates joined us. Having our entire team on the same page has definitely made it easier for both the students and ourselves, but I don’t think that it is necessary to do it this way in order to be successful.

Implementing a gradeless system with a colleague has other advantages. Communication is so critical to your success (see #5 on this list), and being able to craft messages with another pair of eyes to proofread your work is invaluable. When problems arise, you’ll develop more and better solutions with the help of a partner. And it is important to have someone with you when you pitch the idea of gradeless classroom to your administration. Which brings us to the third key…

Photo by Pablo Varela on Unsplash

3. Supportive administration. Now, it probably goes without saying that you won’t get far in this process without permission from your principal or admin team. But, more than that, you need an administrator who believes in the power of what you are doing. They need to understand your “why” and know that going gradeless is the best way to solve this problem. They will be in a position to defend what you are doing and promote the benefits beyond your classroom and your school.

You might get lucky and already have a school leader who supports progressive grading practices. I was. In fact, my principal was the one who suggested a gradeless classroom pilot program to me. On the other hand, you may need to use your elevator speech to convince an open-minded principal or headmaster. Perhaps your administrator is reluctant, but you can persuade an assistant principal or instructional coach of the merits of this change. A retweet of an interesting article (maybe this one) with your principal’s Twitter handle mentioned might do the trick. Or maybe a printed scholarly article “inadvertently” left behind in a meeting with your school leader. Take small, persistent steps and you will be surprised how convincing you can be.

Child giving thumbs up signal underwater
Child giving thumbs up signal underwater
Photo by Jeff Dunham on Unsplash

4. Student buy-in. My teammate and I started seeding the idea of a gradeless classroom to our students more than three months before we implemented the new policy. We knew that they would have questions and concerns, and we wanted to address them as early as possible. We also wanted to ease them into this transition. Our eighth graders had spent almost a decade becoming familiar with traditional grades and, in some cases, learning how to “game” them.

Students are the ones who benefit the most from a gradeless classroom because there is renewed focus on the purpose of the work that they do. They are given more immediate opportunities to turn feedback into improvement. They are reminded that learning is an iterative process that involves failure and re-attempts. When they understand this, most of your students will see the change as a positive one.

Some of your students have given up trying to succeed. They have spent years of their lives failing at educational tasks. They have developed a desire to simply avoid these tasks — often resorting to disruptive behavior instead — in an effort at self-preservation. When these students begin to see that gradeless learning is intensely focused on using feedback to try again (and again and again), they begin to emerge from their protective cocoons and find the momentum that comes from academic success.

In my own experience, it is the strongest and most historically successful students who push back the most against this change. They don’t see the current system as broken, because they have the skills and resources to be successful despite its failings. They have figured out exactly what it takes to earn A’s and they value those grades for a variety of reasons. They feel like a gradeless system is pulling the rug out from under them, and they understandably don’t like it.

There are two keys to getting these students on board. First, show them that continuing to do top-notch work will continue to get them good grades at the end of each grading period. The goal of this system is still to measure and report academic progress. Seond, help them see that high school Advanced Placement courses and college classes expect them to be independently self-assessing and driving for content mastery over a number or letter. We are getting them ready for that reality.

Woman with megaphone covered in stickers
Woman with megaphone covered in stickers
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

5. Parent communication. This is closest thing to a cautionary tale that I can provide. I didn’t fully recognize the importance of this piece before kicking off our gradeless system. We sent out information to parents in advance and spoke about the changes at an Open House event, but received quite a bit of negative feedback from parents a few weeks into the launch. And almost all of it was based on misinformation or lack of clarity.

When we began meeting with individual parents, it quickly became clear that they were relying primarily on secondhand information from their children. They needed an “official” source of details about the gradeless system (which we call Mastery Grading), so we created a team webpage and began to use more detail in the comments posted to our online gradebook program. We encouraged parents to reach out with questions or concerns, and we incorporated our responses to them into a Frequently Asked Questions section of our Mastery Grading webpage.

Once parents understood that the gradeless system provided two key benefits — second chances and higher expectations — they began to accept it. Parents of students who don’t frequently show their mastery well on tests and quizzes (due to anxiety or lack of preparation) appreciated the fact that their children had the chance (or, in many cases, the responsibility imposed by the parents) to study more and retake those assessments. Parents concerned that the lack of grades meant watered-down standards were impressed to find that the bar for an A at the end of the grading period was actually higher than before.

Above all, parents who saw how much thought and effort had gone into creating this system turned into our greatest advocates. They spoke to other parents and allayed fears. They began using the language of our gradeless system (“Exceeded expectations” and “Grade conferences”) in their conversations with us. They showed us how far we had come on our journey, and how far we have yet to travel.

If you are considering launching a gradeless classroom, there are many resources online that can help beyond what I’ve shared here. These include Facebook communities, Twitter chats, and websites. My next article will share some of the most important and successful elements of the system that my teammates and I have developed.

Scripted Spontaneity

The musings of a science teacher, techie, and former marine biologist about the future of public education. Mostly.

Paul Cancellieri

Written by

Science teacher and author who is passionate about grading, assessment, and feedback

Scripted Spontaneity

The musings of a science teacher, techie, and former marine biologist about the future of public education. Mostly.

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