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


Put the power of grading into students’ hands

Life will never be close enough to perfect, and listening to that voice means stepping outside of yourself and considering your own wrongdoings and flaws.



WHEN A GRADE is calculated by averaging tests, projects, homework, and class participation, the teacher often has only a cursory understanding of a student’s actual learning. Even if the teacher has observed the student at work, what he or she sees is only part of the picture. Many times teachers think they know what students know and can do, but misjudge the reality. If we don’t include students in the evaluation process, we are missing a vital piece of the puzzle.

Too often a teacher’s bias plays a role in how students are graded. This prejudice is human, but unjust. For example, how many times has a student’s reputation distorted your impression, even before you met him or her? Does a student’s behavior change the way you read his or her work? Aren’t there some kids you just like more than others, even though you’d never admit it?

·                   What teachers see is not always the full picture.

·                   Grades can be affected by prejudice.

·                   Leaving students out of the grading process denies students the right to show what they truly know and can do.


Since traditional grades misrepresent learning, it is essential to teach students how to self-evaluate based on a set of standards or class expectations. We must give them the ability to look objectively at their bodies of work and determine their own levels of mastery by using evidence from their learning.


Teaching students to self-evaluate will take time but that doesn’t mean you can’t get things started now. Here are some things you can do right away:

·                   Stop grading student work without student input. What you see on the page and what is in a student’s head may be different, so there is a better way. I understand that logistically it may be easier to grade alone at times, but we must bear in mind what is most beneficial for students. Grading fatigue can happen, too, when grading alone. The more time we spend looking at the same assignment, the less consistent our opinions become. The students at the top of the stack usually get the best of us, while those at the bottom could potentially get a cursory read.

·                   Introduce the difference between reflection and self-evaluation to the students. As with the no-grades mindset, this will take a little convincing, but starting with a conversation about why students will be evaluating themselves helps to grease the wheel. Students also need to understand that while reflection is about the process of learning, the hows, whats and whys, the self-evaluation is the end result of that. Understanding the level of mastery achieved is the end result of the process demonstrated throughout the learning. Now the child must decide if he or she has met his or her goal.

·                   Help students develop their own self-assessment tools. The key here is to do it with the kids and not alone. Single point rubrics work well. You can create one by making three columns on a piece of paper. Place the skills or content in the center and leave the columns on either side blank so students can fill them in to indicate their level of proficiency. On the right they will note areas of concern and on the left they will show areas that exceed standards. Students fill in evidence on either or both sides, based on the standard or skill. Or let kids group up to develop a rubric based on the standards the assignment asks them to address. Have them indicate proficiency by referring to specifics in the work they did.


Step 1: Discuss the new role students will play in the assessing process.

Students will need to have some kind of understanding of mastery learning when they have to grade themselves. Because you are no longer working with a point or letter scale, which is all they have known, you will need to provide them with something else to measure themselves by. You will need to help kids grasp mastery learning the same way you taught them about the no-grades mindset. Their understanding is key to their ability to assist in collaboration for their end “report card” if the school requires one. Essentially, they will be determining the grade with the teacher’s support rather than the other way around.

Step 2: Provide a checklist to help scaffold the self-assessment process.

Students will need some guidance, especially at first, so either provide them with a basic checklist or generate one with their help to keep them focused while they assess. The checklist will need to include clear criteria that they are assessing themselves against. If they know what mastery looks like and in which areas they need to show it, that will streamline the process.

Step 3: Allow students to self-grade using evidence.

When students assess how they are doing, it’s not good enough for them to say, “I deserve to be considered proficient because I know what I did.” They need to be more specific, taking evidence from their work that supports their assessment. Often I tell students it’s like writing an argument paper. You make an assertion about something and then you need to support the assertion with evidence from the text. In this analogy, the “text” is their assignment and this is where they draw their support from.

See below for an excerpt of exemplary student work. Anastasia Papatheodorou was a senior in my AP Literature and Composition class. She was one of my hardest sells about giving up grades and also one of my greatest success stories.

For starters, I’ll get straight to how I have done this term specifically. I most definitely had my lazy moments this term. Right when I was struck by the deadly senioritis, it came time for a fifteen-page research paper. That was definitely tough to get through, but I was pretty proud of myself after that. Although it still needed more work, I think that paper definitely showed an improvement in development. As I mentioned in my last reflection, depth has been something I’ve struggled with all year, but I think this paper really showed how I started with an idea and I expanded on it. (Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.) . . .

(specific evidence from her self-assessment was removed)

If I can take this class over I would want to continue to work on depth because I have improved, but just like with anything there is always room for improvement. I would want to focus on depth specifically because if there is any skill that will get you far in life it is being able to answer the question “Why?”

Well, it has come to that point that I dread so much talking about in conferences, which is why I chose to write about it instead. The grade I believe I deserve is an . . . wait for it . . . A. Not to say that I deserve an A just because, well who doesn’t want an A, but I truly never worked so hard toward a class before to actually improve. I show clear growth in not just organization and cohesion but, thanks to you Ms. Sackstein, also public speaking, use of technology, researching, and most important, reflecting.

Step 4: Converse with students to determine a final grade if one is needed for the report card.

Once students have prepared to self-evaluate by going through their body of work, then it is time to discuss it with the teacher. The student should have gathered evidence and he or she should be certain of the evaluation. The teacher shouldn’t drill the student, but rather listen attentively, asking clarifying questions to fill gaps. These conversations should take about five minutes. At the end, the student provides a grade that will go on the transcript or report card. Make sure to use the grade that is determined in the conversation; there should be no surprises.

If the teacher doesn’t agree with the student, then a longer conversation needs to happen. It’s important to talk it out. If in the end, the student really believes he or she deserves a particular grade, I’m inclined to say let him or her have it. After all, the grade itself doesn’t mean very much. This happened a few times my first year, and it left me with an unpleasant feeling that I needed to address personally. Because of the traditional beliefs I held at that time, I felt uneasy allowing the student to have the grade. Despite this challenge, however, I did allow the student’s grade to appear on the report card.


People will say that teachers are the only ones qualified to assess or evaluate students, and therefore sharing this responsibility is lazy on behalf of teachers. I’ve already addressed how teachers are intimately involved with helping students to assess themselves, which sometimes is more work than simply giving a grade would be. It should be clear, too, how much students benefit from learning how to self-assess. This resistance seems to stem from another source of tension: How can we control the students if they have power over their own grades? Honestly, teachers and parents are the ones who need the grades. Grades are often used to motivate or punish, making them very powerful tools that both teachers and parents can use to get students to do things they may not want to do. This pushback isn’t insurmountable.

All students would inflate or deflate their own grades. You’d think that, but most students are actually pretty honest, and those who aren’t really just require a frank conversation. There is no shaming necessary—just ask a few questions and they will usually make the necessary adjustments. When students will not alter the grade (and they are very few), ask them to present their work and have them look at theirs next to an exemplar. Ask them to make comparisons. Ultimately the evaluation needs to come from them, so our job is to help them see what is in front of them objectively.

What about the student who does no work, but still thinks he or she should pass? Again, a frank conversation is in order here. Perhaps you talk to the student about what he or she knows. Believe it or not, just because work hasn’t been completed, doesn’t mean learning hasn’t happened. We do need evidence of learning, but sometimes a conversation and alternative assignment can do the trick.

“But I don’t want to give myself a grade.” Some students may resist self-evaluation, and that is probably because they don’t feel confident in what they see and feel about themselves. It is important to help students understand that they are the only ones who truly know what they know and understand. If they don’t want to work alone to develop their evaluation, partner with them and help them build their confidence. You may hear things like, “I hate this part” or “I don’t like grading myself.” I usually answer with, “I don’t like grading you either; that’s why we’re doing it like this. This grade isn’t a measure of what you know and can do, it is just a formality.”

How can I allow this student to get this grade? Okay, so here’s a tricky one. You may find that you have some conflicting feelings about putting the control into the student’s hands. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t one or two conferences where I really didn’t agree with what the students said, and despite my best effort to help them understand my view, they held their positions. I needed to take a breath and remember that the grade isn’t important and if this was the level students really believed they had attained, I had to trust them as much as I trust the process. Be patient and try to move past the “justice” reflex. It’s not about fairness; it’s about mastery achievement.


Perhaps the greatest trepidation I had this year was placing the responsibility for final grading into my students’ hands. Like most educators, I was used to handling the burden on my own (and I think I secretly liked to have the power), but grading had come to seem arbitrary and tiresome, and so when it came time to test the effectiveness of our changes in tracking achievement, it was only fitting that the students assumed control of their grades, just as they had managed other aspects of their assessments.

It’s time to pass the baton to the students and watch in amazement as they skillfully share what they have learned.

First, I sent out a survey to see how students would like to communicate their final grades. They could choose to share them in writing, on Voxer with an audio file, on video or screencast, or in a one-to-one conference. Once I got a preliminary idea of how many students were going to do what, it was time to provide some instruction about the expectations.

The assignment sheet outlined specific deadlines so those students who were to meet with me face to face could prepare their evidence for the conference by the date we were scheduled to meet. My goal for having them prepare was to make sure students could show their mastery of the year-long standards by presenting evidence from their bodies of work. This avoids having any students arbitrarily inflate or deflate grades based on their feelings about learning in the class rather than their actual accomplishments. Whereas some students feel that they “deserve” a good grade regardless of their learning because they worked hard, some students believe that they “aren’t good math students” or they are “humanities” people, and they downplay their achievements. Having them find specific evidence is a way of helping them be more objective and accurate.

As the written and video assignments began coming in, I realized quickly that I wasn’t going to be disappointed with my choice to empower the students. Each display or written discussion of learning was cohesive, thoughtful, and evidence-based. Students had a candor in their writing and an honesty about growth and challenges that was most unexpected.

By the time I finished, I was completely impressed by how thorough students were. I had three students who believed they deserved to fail and gave me the reasons. Most students were spot on. Every child’s assessment was what appeared on the report card. There were absolutely no surprises and no tears or angry emails on report card day.

Joy Kirr, a National Board Certified middle school English teacher, shared this example of how her seventh graders self-grade their reading.

My students grade themselves on their independent reading. When the year begins, I ask each student to reflect on his or her reading habits each week. The first reflection sheet I give them asks them to evaluate six parts of their reading. Some students don’t read an entire book, and most don’t know how many pages they’ve read, but it gets the conversation going. The first few reflections do not go into the grade book, as we’re practicing how to reflect (and I really don’t care for grades).

Still, some students are very hard on themselves. They’ll give themselves a 9/10 because, “I finished it but not until the bus ride to school this morning” or “I really didn’t try to understand parts that confused me.” These make great discussion starters for one-on-one conferences. As the year moves forward, we continue with the reflection and new goal setting, whether it goes into the grade book or not. This reflection is the reason we are putting in all this time and effort; so students can see how they progress throughout the year.

It seems like no one enjoys grading, yet teachers are uncomfortable delegating the responsibility. We need to partner with our learners to create an environment where tracking progress and evaluating that process is transparent. It’s time to pass the baton to the students and watch in amazement as they skillfully share what they have learned. Consider who does the grading now. How might you introduce self-evaluation into your practice? How might you model the activity for students? What impact would doing this kind of activity have on learning?