Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School (2015)

INTRODUCTION

Goodbye, grades; hello, growth

FRUSTRATION. EVERY TIME I had to complete report cards I felt frustration bordering on anger. How was I supposed to communicate learning with one grade without making every student’s learning seem the same? Averaged scores say very little about actual learning: any number of students can earn a B for many different combinations of reasons. A gifted student who does little work may receive the same grade as a struggling student who has improved steadily throughout the course or a student who started off strongly but performed poorly in the last quarter. Unfortunately, in high school a single number or letter grade on a report card is supposed to communicate a great deal of important information.

Every time a grading period ended, I struggled with how to assess my students meaningfully and became increasingly less satisfied with how the system expected me to do it. Something had to change—I was doing my students a disservice even if they didn’t realize it.

Assessment must be a conversation, a narrative that enhances students’ understanding of what they know, what they can do, and what needs further work. Perhaps even more important, they need to understand how to make improvements and how to recognize when legitimate growth has occurred.

Two years ago I started dabbling with the process of eliminating grades, initially taking the risk in one of my elective classes. It was a safe testing ground to pilot the idea, as the class wasn’t essential for graduation. After getting mostly positive feedback from students despite my relatively novice understanding of the practice, it was time to go all-in. I decided to make the move at the beginning of the school year, accepting that it would likely be messy and that many things would need to change as we went forward. With the permission of my administration, I sent a letter home to parents, and when students arrived we immediately started talking about learning.

As a high school English teacher in a small New York City school, I work in a program that is somewhat unconventional, comprised of five different classes of varying content and student grade levels. The year I began to experiment with the no-grades classroom, my program was as follows: Ninth grade ICT Journalism (an inclusion class, which in this instance operated without the support of a special education teacher), 11th grade Newspaper with students of varying skill levels, 12th grade Newspaper, AP Literature and Composition, and Publications Finance (taught alongside two math teachers who were new to the subject), for a grand total of 152 students. Undaunted by this huge undertaking, I hoped my enthusiasm and purpose would engage the students in a meaningful dialogue.

As with any new endeavor, running a no-grades classroom came with some challenges. Although I’d taught all of the classes before, I hadn’t done so without grades, and time management became an issue. At times, the shift away from traditional grades was exceptionally challenging: it was much easier, I realized, to “just” put a grade on student work.

However, the immediate impact of the new system on my students encouraged me to persevere through these difficulties. My lower-level learners were enticed by the idea of a no-grades classroom, often asking why other teachers weren’t taking the same approach. They liked the idea of not being judged; they hadn’t had success in a traditional space, often being negatively labeled because learning was more challenging for them.

As we rid ourselves of the grades, risk taking and questioning became a natural part of the process.

Most of our learning and practice happened in class, so I was able to support students as they worked. Whereas almost none of them had been empowered to be an “expert” before, they developed expertise in different areas, such as identifying active headlines, writing engaging leads, organizing effective articles, and attributing quotations properly. They appreciated being treated like capable students rather than having the teacher assume they would always back away from a challenge.

Since all students work at different paces, there would be no assigned additional nightly homework. Students were allowed to continue working on projects as they saw fit in and out of school, but there was no reason to burden them with busy-work at home. Admittedly, this was a challenge at first. I had always given homework because I believed making students responsible for managing time and taking control of their own learning was a mark of rigorous pedagogy.

After teaching for many more years and not seeing positive results with some of my older practices, I researched and read widely and determined that much of what I thought was good practice really wasn’t. While I no longer believed that giving homework is good practice, I had to remind myself that my students were getting an education that was often more rigorous than before, even without the homework. Rigor doesn’t necessarily have to do with the amount of work assigned, but rather the difficulty and intensity of the problem or project.

Throughout this book, you will encounter many of the challenges I faced while successfully making changes. After working within a traditional system for more than a decade, there is a deprogramming process that still occasionally causes me to pause. However, after seeing increased student commitment to learning once grades were eliminated, I’m constantly reminded of what truly motivates students: challenge, interest, and expectations, rather than a teacher’s rules.

These changes were ideal in the journalism class. As we rid ourselves of the grades, risk taking and questioning became a natural part of the process. Students sought new programs online to test their ideas and the outcomes were amazing. For example, when it was time to create journalism ethics PSAs, students found different storyboarding apps and cartoon apps rather than choosing to film themselves, which was uncomfortable for quieter students. Each group developed a different twist on its assignment, which enriched the learning. The work was sound and creative, and learning was a positive experience for the students and for me.

My highest-level students weren’t as excited by the idea; after all, most of the 12th grade advanced placement class defined themselves as “A” students and if I took this away from them, how would they know they were excelling? Achieving high grades is extremely important to an honor student. As a former honor student, I could empathize with their need for grades: I used to fight vigorously for every point I could get, just as they do. Looking back, the grade had little to do with the learning and more to do with my need to feel smart. Those high grades were like a bulletin to the world announcing my achievement. I can’t imagine how much more I would have learned if I didn’t feel the need to compete for better grades and instead had just focused on learning. Hard conversations had to happen. Tough questions had to be answered.

“What is achievement?”

The question lingered in the air. I gave the students time to record their thoughts and then they shared them in small groups. To many, achievement meant high grades in every class. This idea had to be challenged.

“What does getting an A really mean?”

We broke it down. Our debate opened with strong feelings and stronger opinions. By the end of the first discussion, I could tell that they appreciated this new idea, but many weren’t willing to abandon their beloved grades.

Buy-in was most difficult for the juniors. Seeing that this was a critical year for college, most of them didn’t like the idea of dealing with something new at this point in their educational careers. I couldn’t blame them for their skepticism, but I assured them that it would all be okay. We continued to converse throughout the early days of the school year.

I had planned to speak with parents about the shift away from grades on open school night. Unfortunately, few parents attended; I had to reach them another way. Despite my discomfort with video, I started a YouTube channel so I could communicate progress and make learning transparent for parents and students. I committed to making a video a week, tracking both successes and challenges in our work. This channel ended up being a resource for my colleagues who were frustrated with grades. Unfortunately, few parents actually watched the videos.

Undeterred by these initial failed attempts to get parents on board, I received the feedback I needed by sending surveys home with the students. The most vocal parents shared their concerns, which were echoed by my high achievers and colleagues (and even by me at times), but instead of giving up I continued to push forward, focusing on the improvement students showed in their portfolios of work. The progress was undeniable. I then used the YouTube videos to display what I clearly saw in the work and the students saw it too.

I felt confident I was on the right track when I began to get feedback from colleagues around the world. As it turns out, many educators are frustrated with the current grading system and they, too, work in traditional schools. They articulated many of the same worries I’d been trying to address. How could I sustain a bold risk like this in an institution where no one else was doing it? How could a no-grades classroom succeed when I was still required to provide progress report grades and end-of-semester grades? The answer was to just keep going.

As the first progress report came due, it was time for self-assessment conferences. I met with every child to discuss his or her progress. Now, this wasn’t the first time formal conversations had happened. Students had been receiving feedback from me and their peers the whole time, but this was the first time we had associated their progress with mastery of standards and equated progress to a traditional grade.

Although I was committed to eliminating grades, the school required me to maintain a standards-based online grade book that tracked each skill on a mastery scale and calculated a decaying average (a decaying average values the most recent iteration of the learning, rendering earlier versions as practice). Although maintaining an online grade book and traditional reporting was restrictive and upsetting—I even had several conversations with my principal about offering an alternative report for my students instead of the traditional progress report or report card—the school couldn’t run its reports with any teacher’s information missing, so I had to conform. This made me—and the students—very unhappy.

Since using an alternative grading system was non-negotiable, I chose to confer with each student and determine grades together. These conversations were invaluable. As preparation, students filled out Google Forms about their finished work and the learning that was evidenced in it. We talked about what it means to truly master a skill. We looked at each student’s body of work together and then we determined a preliminary grade to put on the progress report. Students had no surprises on report card day because they had selected their grades with me. I had no anxiety about students coming to me crying over the grade I had given them. Instead, everyone fully understood his or her level of achievement and had a plan for moving forward into the second half of the semester.

Was this perfect? No, but it was better for the moment. I had to accept less than perfect as “good enough” for the time being because of the school’s requirements. My system didn’t solve all of the issues with grading, but it was a step in the right direction. I suspect you could adapt a no-grades system for your working conditions as well.

The whole year went on like this. Projects included multiple opportunities for growth and feedback from peers and from me. Students raised questions about their learning and the classroom steadily became more student-centered. Students made decisions about their learning and their goals, and I provided strategies to achieve them, rather than assigning grades to a curriculum I had planned without their input. Reflection became a hallmark in the learning, a way for students to direct my reading of their work. In their reflections they told me what they were working on and asked for specific guidance toward goals that were based on the Common Core, College Board Advanced Placement or ISTE standards and that were aligned with the learning in each class.

By mid-year, students could articulate their growth and challenges in ways I had never experienced in my 13 years as an English teacher, and it wasn’t only my most articulate students, it was all of them. Throwing out grades, regardless of the fact that I was functioning in a system that rejected the idea, was the best pedagogical decision I had made in a long time. There were many challenges and my execution wasn’t perfect, but I did it, and one thing’s for sure: I’ll do it better every year moving forward.

Many people who participated in the process that year wanted me to write a book that answered all of their questions about getting rid of grades. That’s what this is: a guide to help you create your own no-grades classroom. The book follows the Hack Learning format, so it will introduce problems we face with assessment, creative hacks, steps for immediate implementation, and a blueprint for building capacity. There will be some pointed commentary—some strong language. My attitude about grading may sound negative because, in my opinion, grading is negative. You’ll read that “grades lie” because grades force students into categories that are imprecise and don’t offer help for improvement.

I’ll also address possible pushback. What will people say if they don’t agree with the hack? First we’ll explore the challenges and then I’ll offer some responses to resolve the disagreement. Even with reasons and explanations, not everyone will get it, and that’s okay. The most important thing to remember is that this is an ongoing process that will require some back and forth. Expect it.

Last, you’ll see the hack in action. This section will provide anecdotes showing how the hack has worked in my setting as well as in other classrooms. These stories seek to show what a real no-grades classroom looks like, and here you’ll find evidence to share with those who are more reluctant to embrace the idea of giving up grades.

Admittedly, making this change is not easy. You’ll have challenges. You’ll make mistakes. But communicating learning will become a conversation instead of a monologue: By giving narrative feedback and soliciting student input, we will make a significant impact on student learning.

ABOUT THE HACK LEARNING SERIES

Hackers don’t take realities of the world for granted; 
they seek to break and rebuild what they don’t like.

— SARAH LACY, AUTHOR/JOURNALIST

A HACKER IS someone who explores programmable systems and molds them into something different, often something better. Hackers are known as computer geeks—people who like to take applications and systems to places their designers never intended. Today, hackers are much more. They are people who explore many things both in and out of the technology world. They are tinkerers and fixers. They see solutions to problems that other people do not see. Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg might be considered technology’s greatest hackers. No one taught them how to build an operating system or a social network, but they saw possibilities that others couldn’t see.

The Hack Learning Series is a collection of books written by people who, like Jobs and Zuckerberg, see things through a different lens. They are teachers, researchers, and consultants; they are administrators, professors, and specialists. They live to solve problems whose solutions, in many cases, already exist but may need to be hacked. In other words, the problem needs to be turned upside down or viewed from another perspective. Its fix may appear unreasonable to those plagued by the issue. To the hacker, though, the solution is evident, and with a little hacking it will be as clear and beautiful as a gracefully-designed smartphone or a powerful social network.

So many facets of learning need to be hacked: the Common Core, digital literacy, reluctant learners, special education, cultural diversity, teacher preparation, and school leadership, to name a few. When teachers, parents, administrators, and policymakers see the amazing insights that hackers can bring to various issues, they are sure to want more. Enter the Hack Learning Series—an evolving collection of books solving problems that impede learning in the world of education and beyond.

INSIDE THE BOOKS

Hack Learning books are written by passionate people who are experts in their fields. Unlike your typical education text, Hack Learning books are light on research and statistics and heavy on practical advice from people who have actually experienced the problems about which they write. Each book in the series contains chapters, called Hacks, which are composed of these sections:

·                   The Problem: Something educators are currently wrestling with that doesn’t yet have a clear-cut solution

·                   The Hack: A brief description of the prescribed solution

·                   What You Can Do Tomorrow: Ways you can take the basic hack and implement it right away in bare-bones form

·                   A Blueprint for Full Implementation: A step-by-step system for building long-term capacity

·                   Overcoming Pushback: A list of possible objections you might come up against in your attempt to implement this hack and how to overcome them

·                   The Hack in Action: A snapshot of an educator or group of educators who have used this hack in their work and how they did it

EDITOR’S PROMISE

I am so proud to be a contributing author and the editor of the Hack Learning Series, written by experts who are dedicated to improving teaching and learning. I promise that every Hack Learning book will provide powerful information, imagination, engaging prose, practical advice, and maybe even a little humor. When you read a Hack Learning Series book, you’ll have solutions you didn’t have before.