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



GRADING PRACTICES HAVE been ingrained in us for as long as the educational system has existed, but society has changed; we are no longer training students for success in the industrial era. In the 21st century, we nurture critical thinkers and collaborators, innovators and problem solvers; we must if we want our world to thrive. The way we assess our students affects their perception of learning, so if we take the negative or superficially positive away from the experience, more students will be able to see the brilliance that lies beneath the number and letter grades.

What can you change about your assessment practices tomorrow? What will you change in the future?

I remember when I decided it was time to throw out grades. It occurred to me that I would be surrounded by others who didn’t agree with my philosophy. Regardless of the realization that I might be on a solo journey, I took the leap. Not knowing exactly how I would make it a reality or what kind of pushback I would receive, I was undeterred from moving forward.

Now a few years into this process, still working in a school that doesn’t ascribe to this belief system, I struggle. Each year, I must hit the reset button with new students, engage in the tough conversations, challenge their attitudes about learning and continue to stand firm in my understanding of how assessment without grades will benefit my students. They often resist what they don’t understand. I’ve had students share their fears with me about the changes in assessment and their worries about how the colleges they apply to won’t understand. I listen patiently, quelling their apprehension, assuring them that what we’re doing will improve their ability to grow as learners and human beings.

They don’t always trust me at first. I feel their skepticism, understanding that eventually they will suspend that fear and put their faith in me. It’s a tremendous responsibility that I take very seriously. Fortunately, I know what they cannot understand yet, that once they are freed from the confining nature of the grading system, they will truly flourish.

We don’t do what we do for the thanks or for the opportunity to say, “I told you so,” but there is a deep satisfaction in the commitment we make to our students and their growth as people. Taking this leap has profoundly changed my practice and the opportunities allotted to my students. When a student asks without me offering, “Can I redo this?” and not because they want a better grade, but because they truly want to develop mastery of the content, I know the no-grades classroom works. Students inherently want to grow and learn; their curiosity drives them in ways that are hard to explain. The traditional system deprives them of that curiosity and once detached from it, they forget the spark. By hacking assessment and building an ongoing conversation about learning, we empower them to reignite it.

As you embark on this journey, you will have the support, as I did, of folks from your Personal Learning Network, people who get it and although they may not be in your school, they are just a tweet away. You may have days when you feel down and want to revert back because it’s easier than pushing forward, but you will gain solace in knowing that you are changing the way students think about learning.

Making these changes transformed learning in my classroom in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I suspected it might, but really had no evidence until it was implemented for a full year and my students told me they got it. Through emails and conversations with students, I’ve learned the power of the shift away from grades, and it has solidified my resolve and helped me to push on.

If you’re ready to see your students thrive and to bring joy and curiosity back to your classroom, take a risk: Make the change to a no-grades classroom and watch it happen. The work will be worth it.