The 5 Best Reasons for Going Gradeless

Here’s why I did it and why you should too

Photo by Tamarcus Brown

In my original post, Teachers Going Gradeless, I tried to capture the spirit of a growing number of teachers who are finding ways to deemphasize grades. Whether that means grading less, as in limiting the impact of grades within the context of current constraints, or without grades, as in avoiding the damaging and demotivating effects of grades entirely, we are teachers convinced that teaching and learning can be better when we grade less.

Here are some reasons you should join us.

Reason #1: Help your students kick butt on the test

Until we overthrow the regime of tests entirely (which I would like), helping kids succeed in this test-driven society will remain an equity issue. As Jeff Duncan-Andrade, founder of Roses in Concrete Charter School in Oakland, California, states,

You have to create pathways for kids to get to college and that includes tests. We need to stop seeing it as a binary … You have all of these degrees hanging on a wall but you are not giving kids a route to those degrees.

Considering that grades and tests seem to originate from the same impulse to measure, you’d think they’d be on the same team. Turns out they‘re not. In her study on types of feedback, Ruth Butler (1988) demonstrated that students who receive comments alone — as opposed to scores alone or scores with comments — show the greatest gains. Butler also found that both low- and high-achieving students’ motivation and achievement declined significantly when graded, compared to those who received only diagnostic comments.

In a longitudinal study, Jo Boaler (1998) found that a cohort of mathematics students who did not take tests or receive grades scored “significantly higher” than their peers who spent the same time taking frequent graded tests and learning to solve problems like the ones on the national standardized exam. This entirely counterintuitive result came from the students’ development of a growth mindset with regard to math, which was due, in part, to replacing grades with descriptive feedback.

Boaler reflects,

Now we know that grades and test scores demotivate rather than motivate students and that they communicate fixed and damaging messages to students that result in lower achievement in classrooms.

Reason #2: Give them more than just the test

Given Boaler’s findings, this reason hardly needs mentioning. Still, let’s be clear: an education centered on test prep is an inferior education. Here too is an equity issue. A report from the Center for American Progress highlights that urban high school students spend nearly 266% more time taking standardized tests than their suburban peers. In an interview with Harvard Political Review, Robert Schaeffer, the public education director at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, explains that in certain schools, “the curriculum becomes test prep: doing worksheets and practice tests and getting ready for the big test.” Camika Royal notes how constant talk of “closing the achievement gap” on tests echoes the rhetoric of colonization.

We know this test-centric approach would never pass muster at an upper-class suburban or private school. While going gradeless doesn’t guarantee a more equitable approach, I find that shelving the gradebook allows me to better accommodate the identities students bring with them to the classroom. Rather than confining students to a succession of “cells,” we can instead make space for dialogue and choice, learning more about their strengths and interests, and valuing the funds of knowledge they possess.

Reason #3: Become a better teacher

One of the main reasons teachers resist going gradeless is that grades have traditionally served as carrots and sticks in motivating students to do the work. Late penalties, zeroes, one-shot assessments with no opportunity to redo or retake — even just assigning grades — all these have exacted a modicum of compliance from students through the years.

This isn’t to say that teachers who go gradeless don’t have any extrinsic methods at our disposal — we do. The very architecture of our schools provides a considerable amount of these. But it’s a lot less. And many of us quickly realize that — in the absence of these spurs — our lessons aren’t quite as inspiring as we thought. As a result, many who go gradeless feel added urgency to create environments in which intrinsic motivation can flourish. Moving away from extrinsic motivators often causes an implementation dip, but teachers would do well to wean themselves and their students off this degrading and ultimately demotivating drug.

What’s the alternative? How can we unlock intrinsic motivation? That’s a whole subject in itself and something we should all be working on. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, identified three sources of intrinsic motivation: autonomy, the desire to direct one’s own life; mastery, the urge to master things that matter; and purpose, the need to connect with something larger than oneself. I would add to this relationship, where teachers are aware of and responsive to the unique cultural contexts and competencies of students.

In short, without the constant prodding of grades, would any meaningful learning occur in our classes? And if not, why not?

Reason #4: Rediscover your subject area

In “A Mathematicians Lament,” Paul Lockhart makes a claim that may seem shocking: “The first thing to understand is that mathematics is an art.” Today, most people see mathematics — possibly more than any other subject area — as “formulas and definitions and memorizing of algorithms.” Very few people have any sense of what Lockhart means when he says, “there is nothing as dreamy and poetic, nothing as radical, subversive, and psychedelic, as mathematics.”

Arguably, what has happened to mathematics is due to our schools’ obsession with grades, tests, and measurement. In order to ensure that our assessment, grading, and reporting methods are fair, objective, and reliable, we’ve done considerable violence to the discipline. And it’s not just math. This kind of sequential, discrete, formulaic, paint-by-numbers approach has infected most of our subject areas, distorting — if not completely obscuring — the kinds of authentic problems, situations, and audiences students will encounter upon entering into those fields. In an added irony, this approach has made our profession highly vulnerable to the offerings of online modules like Khan Academy, who present material in this exact step-by-step way — all with the added benefit of being able to press “pause.”

Going gradeless allows us to rediscover our disciplines because we are no longer forced to focus exclusively on measurable outcomes, which as Linda McNeil (1986, as cited in Kohn) points out, “may be the least significant results of learning.” In an article for Inside Higher Ed, author and writing teacher John Warner wonders if — instead of providing students the “training wheels” of rules and rubrics, techniques and tactics — we should instead give them the balance bikes of “writing-related problems,” allowing them to experience firsthand what real writers do. All disciplines can benefit from affording students this same opportunity, putting them in touch with what a mathematician, a scientist, a historian does. This approach can also facilitate a much-needed de-siloing of education generally.

Reason #5: Get a life

As mentioned in Reason #1, scores short-circuit the feedback cycle, making it less likely students will heed teacher comments. Dylan Wiliam notes,

When teachers pair grades with comments, common sense would tell us that this is a richer form of feedback. But our work in schools has shown us that most students focus entirely on the grade and fail to read or process teacher comments. Anyone who has been a teacher knows how many hours of work it takes to provide meaningful comments. That most students virtually ignore that painstaking correction, advice, and praise is one of public education’s best-kept secrets.

Add to this the work of transferring all those numbers, letters, and levels into a paper or online gradebook and you have a recipe for burnout. My switch to standards-based learning and grading just exacerbated the problem because I would often have to enter multiple scores for each assessment when the student met two or more standards. Additionally, I would regularly change these scores as students demonstrated higher levels of achievement in each standard. And since our online assignment-based gradebook did such a poor job representing the standards-based approach, I ended up maintaining both an online and paper gradebook, effectively doubling the time I spent buried in grades. The fact that all this effort meant my students would more or less ignore my feedback is an irony that pains me to this day.

Now, I’ve changed my whole approach. Using the online portfolio platform, Seesaw, students self- and peer-assess based on clear criteria whenever they submit work for my review. They point out strengths and weaknesses in their own and one another’s work, and elicit specific feedback from me. For my part, I record verbal feedback through the app, describing what I see and don’t see, and directing them to either revise and resubmit or to demonstrate improvement on a subsequent attempt. I use a variety of methods to provide feedback now, sometimes individualized, sometimes full-class — never with scores, levels, or letter grades. At the end of each term, students submit a letter or video, or conference with me about what letter grade they believe they deserve, supporting phrases from my Descriptive Grading Criteria with concrete evidence from their work.

As a result, not only do I spend a fraction of the time I used to spend grading, but I provide students with the opportunity to consider how general performance criteria are either present or not present in their own work and the work of others. Students show more growth and I have more time to devote to what matters.

What do you think? I want to hear from you. And please click the so more people get to see this.

Teachers Going Gradeless is a global group of educators convinced that teaching and learning is better when we grade less. Find us on Facebook!

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