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

HACK 2. PROMOTE BUY-IN

Open lines of communication with stakeholders

The question, then, is not about changing people; it’s about reaching people. I’m not speaking simply of better information, a sharper and clearer factual presentation to disperse the thick fogs generated by today’s spin machines.

— BILL MOYERS, AMERICAN JOURNALIST AND POLITICAL COMMENTATOR

THE PROBLEM: STAKEHOLDERS ARE RELUCTANT TO CHANGE

WHEN MAKING A big change like throwing out grades, many people will not “get it” and may push back in ways that impede the progress of students. Schools and colleges have supported the traditional grading system for far too long, making it challenging to suggest this seemingly radical, but important, reform.

THE HACK: PROMOTE BUY-IN FOR THROWING OUT TRADITIONAL GRADES

To ensure optimal impact on student learning, every stakeholder needs to be involved and must support the cause. Students need to hear the same message from all of their teachers—a message that is supported by administration and further supported by their greatest advocates, their parents. Shifting students’ mindsets is challenging; getting adults to reconsider theirs is much more challenging but not impossible.

To align the school message, several things will need to happen. One is peer-to-peer conversations with colleagues who are receptive to new ideas. Staff learning opportunities will ensure that practice is well informed and consistent. Teachers will need support from administrators, who will also need resources to properly implement such a big change in communication.

Be specific when discussing why this change must happen with the adults involved. Once the “why” is evident, you can work on a plan for the “how” that best suits your individual school community. It’s important to consider the size of the school and age level of the learners as you begin to make these decisions.

WHAT YOU CAN DO TOMORROW

Adults can be closed-minded when they are comfortable with the status quo, so you’ll have to give them evidence that this new way is better. Assuming you are at the beginning of the process, consider the following:

·                   Suggest resources that promote change. Share a few resources about shifting away from grades that will resonate with colleagues and administrators. These can be books, blog posts, podcasts, Twitter streams, or Facebook groups, like #TTOG and Teachers Throwing Out Grades, respectively. Refer to the Resources page at the end of this book for a list of recommendations.

·                   Provide examples. Illustrate how student learning has improved with this new method. If you have students who can talk about it, even better. Bring students with you when you have an informal peer conversation or a more formal faculty meeting. Encourage them to explain how shifting away from grades helps them become self-evaluative, independent learners.

·                   Present classroom action research findings. Prove to colleagues and administrators that the system works, then ask about starting a committee for optimal implementation. For now, just drop in for an informal conversation to get the temperature of the situation at your school. If you can gather a few “beta” testers with you, they will strengthen your case.

·                   Write a letter to parents. Explain the shift in methodology and encourage parents to provide feedback and inquiry as an ongoing practice.

·                   Set up a class Twitter hashtag. A unique hashtag creates a virtual space that aggregates any tweet about your class or assessment system. This can be an easy way to collect questions, concerns, and comments in one location to develop a dialogue with parents and community stakeholders.

·                   Sign up for a YouTube account. Once you set up a YouTube channel, begin planning videos that will keep parents informed.

A BLUEPRINT FOR FULL IMPLEMENTATION

Step 1: Meet with administrators to discuss the shift.

This kind of change will require the support of administration, so list the many benefits of making the change and be prepared with talking points when you go in. Administrators don’t have the time to do the research—make sure you provide it for them.

Explain the benefits for students and how throwing out grades will enhance the learning experience. The more detailed your talking points, the more likely you are to garner support. Use the different hacks in this book as talking points to help administration understand how necessary these changes are.

Step 2: Conduct a professional learning session.

Gather staff members and communicate the philosophy the same way you did with students. Make sure to have research and student outcomes ready to share. Invite questions, and if you can’t answer them immediately, provide an answer within 24 hours. Create a multimedia presentation with student messages and/or video that demonstrates what feedback in your classroom looks like.

It isn’t the grade but the conversation that communicates the learning.

Step 3: Invite parents in to discuss the change.

Help parents envision how using feedback instead of grades will make communication about learning better. If you’re using an online grading system, make sure they know and understand the symbols you are using. Honor the questions they have about the change and be patient. In your information letter, invite them to follow class progress on Twitter using the class hashtag and on YouTube by watching your videos. Continue to engage in conversations via email, phone calls, and social media until all parents are comfortable with the shift.

Step 4: Involve the parent coordinator in the process.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a parent coordinator or a PTA president at your school, enlist the help of that person. Spend time helping him or her understand the shift so you will have a liaison to support your cause when you aren’t there to discuss the change with parents. This person can be a strong ally, someone you’ll want on your side.

Step 5: Support the staff.

One learning session isn’t going to be enough to roll out this change successfully. You’ll need ongoing support. Make sure you cover topics like using no-grading vocabulary, providing meaningful feedback, offering opportunities to revise and redo, understanding mastery learning, valuing engagement over compliance, and other issues that often get mixed up while assessing student achievement.

Step 6: Establish a school-wide initiative.

Once early adopters are on board, you’ll need a strategy that implements the changes in a relatively systematic and consistent way. The school staff should determine policies together to ensure minimal confusion during the transition.

Step 7: Create a beta team to try it out first.

The whole school may not be ready right away. Instead of jumping in without seeing how the system will work, consider having a small group do it first. Perhaps approach a grade level team or a department; preferably it should be a group of teachers who share the same students. This way the students have a consistent experience and the teachers can solve problems together.

Step 8: Full school implementation.

Once the beta testing and research are done and the staff and community have been informed appropriately, it’s time for a school-wide shift. It will be easier to implement the changes when everyone has been briefed and prepared and each voice and concern has been heard. Put a committee in place with the original beta team and some other teachers, administrators, and parents who want to help ensure progress. Keep it positive and keep moving forward.

Step 9: Check in with the stakeholders.

Periodically check the climate. How are people feeling about the shift? What can you do to support them better? You may want to create a quick Google form to make sure that you’re meeting everyone’s needs (see Figure 2.1).

OVERCOMING PUSHBACK

Change is hard and the people we work most closely with can be our greatest challenges, so you’ll need to be prepared for some resistance.

Tracking progress for all my students will be overwhelming. No one will argue that tracking progress is not time consuming, but the amount and quality of tracking can markedly increase the amount and quality of student learning. Throughout this book, you will find useful strategies for reducing the constraints on a teacher’s time. Remember, providing narrative feedback about learning and encouraging self-evaluation are the most important parts of a no-grades classroom, so the time you invest will pay huge dividends throughout the year.

Kids aren’t motivated to work without grades. Believe it or not, kids are only motivated by grades because grades are the only carrot students know. If we can help students become intrinsically motivated, then the grade at the end is not significant. Attention gets focused on the learning, not on how we communicate the learning. Using grades as a motivator doesn’t encourage learning on a larger scale; it merely motivates in the short term. Grades ultimately end up being a power tool that serves the teacher but not the student. It’s important to explain this to students and repeat the lesson throughout the year. Remind students that they are not letters or numbers. They are lifelong learners.

Students can’t get into college without grades. Many homeschooled students get into college without grades, so there are schools that accept portfolios over transcripts. Many university and community colleges also accept students from other countries that use variations on letter or number grades or GPAs. However, for schools that require transcripts and grades, students will be taught to self-grade and that final term grade will appear on a transcript. In fact, last year all of my students who applied got into college. I just received a thank you email from a recently graduated senior who started college over the summer. She shared that the reflective practices she learned helped her be better prepared for her college classes.

How will I know how my child is doing? Students will have greater ability to articulate what they know and can do in the no-grades classroom. When they discuss their learning, they will be able to point to the level of mastery in the work, which is a better indication of what they have learned than a grade. It isn’t the grade but the conversation that communicates the learning. Parents will still be able to talk to teachers about specific areas of strength and challenges and how they can be involved in helping their child improve. Parents will now have descriptive feedback and volumes of work samples that will surely be more accurate and informative than a single letter or number.

THE HACK IN ACTION

Sarah Donovan is a teacher who is in the process of transitioning to a no-grades classroom. Here, she provides an excellent example of how to approach a principal when you are ready to begin the process.

In 2013 our junior high school unblocked English Language Arts (ELA). Separating reading and writing allowed for greater flexibility in scheduling, but it also made writing an inclusive class. Typically, students with low test scores would be put into a reading intervention class, which did not focus on writing skills. In decoupling these literacy strands, teachers learned how to facilitate writing workshop, a method emphasizing process over product.

Naturally, there was less grading and more feedback in these writing classes. And naturally, this led our department to notice how while we were talking less about grades, the grades actually went up. In other words, by not focusing on grades, there was more learning and achievement. Of course, we still gave grades, but the irony of putting a letter or point value on the process was not lost on us.

When our administrators looked at GPAs, they also noticed that writing grades were typically higher than reading grades. Literacy skills aside for the moment, our conversations pointed to the key differences as practice and assessment. In the writing classes, the practice was happening mostly in class, and the assessment was formative, encouraging students to revise and resubmit. Learning was more conversational. Yes, in reading class, we discussed literature, but much of the reading was happening outside of class (as homework), and the assessments were typically graded. The grade ended the conversation.

The GPA conversation prompted the (then) principal to start a committee on school grading practices. This didn’t really take off. Grades are a tradition in schools. The “A” and a high GPA have been at the heart of many motivational speeches in our classrooms and assemblies (along with “do your homework” and “no excuses”). However, just inviting teachers to rethink grading prompted some people to ask for resources and reflect on their practices. I started doing some research.

This year, while supervising eighth-grade graduation practice, I walked around with Mark Barnes’s book Assessment 3.0, which advocates a no-grades classroom. Teachers were stopping me to ask about it, so I told them I’d pass along what I learned. I had always used narrative feedback and portfolios, but I had not considered even asking if I could do away with grades. Assessment 3.0 helped me to imagine “what if,” so I decided to put together a proposal for a no-grades classroom.

A couple of weeks into summer school, I had a sample letter to parents with a rationale for a feedback approach to assessment, a plan for documenting written and verbal feedback (blogs, notebooks, charts), and an outline of how end-of-quarter conferences might look (portfolio, standards, reflection). Then, I made an appointment with our new principal.

We met one afternoon after summer school. I started by reflecting on our discussions related to GPA and how our conversations with students and teachers focused on getting grades up rather than learning. We targeted students based on their low GPAs and then pulled them out of lunch or class to talk to them about getting grades up, doing assignments, filling in those zeros. Essentially, we were talking to students about a system that they had no control over, a system that was rather arbitrary. This teacher allowed late work, this teacher didn’t; this teacher used zeros, this teacher didn’t. If we didn’t have grades, what would those conversations have looked like?

He listened carefully. We had recently purchased a computer program that would take us in the direction of standards-based grading, so he wanted to know how a no-grades classroom might work with that program and how it would fit with standards-based teaching practices. I didn’t have the answers, but I knew I would use the standards as a way of setting up activities and guiding feedback. I knew I would want students to look at the standards at the end of the quarter and say, “Look at this blog post comparing A Book Thief and Night. I compare a fictional and historical account of the holocaust for how they account for their place in the 1940s. I even use proper MLA citation. Look.”

This all seemed reasonable to him. He is a reasonable guy but had three key concerns:

·                   Final grades: We talked about how we could probably get away without midterm grades, but the district required quarterly grades. He wanted to know how we would decide on a final, quarter grade. I talked to him about Barnes’s final grade conference and how the grade would emerge from a grade conference.

·                   Parents: He wanted to know how I would communicate progress to parents. I thought about this, and I knew the class blog would be a record of my feedback and the student responding to the feedback. Parents could see this any time. Still, how would I indicate where students were in the assessment process if students were in the process of resubmitting something or if they hadn’t done it in the first place? I thought I’d have to make use of the school-wide grading program somehow. So we talked about developing a code to communicate with students and parents to make the process transparent.

·                   Colleagues: What would they think of this? How would my no-grades classroom work alongside a classroom with a more traditional approach? I had not really thought of that. I knew there were a few teachers eager to do more feedback, to rethink zeros and late work, but was he saying that this change might cause animosity or divisions among the faculty? My response was simply that I’d try to make the process transparent and talk about it as one way of rethinking grading.

Changing a system like grades is not something that can be done with a few weeks of research. Grades are part of the institution of school, and our beliefs about learning and achievement are bound up in those letters. What I am doing, and some of my colleagues are joining me, is rethinking a system that has alienated a lot of students in our Title I school. As an ELA teacher, I do think that words are powerful, so I am starting by changing the language we use to talk about learning.

Although full buy-in from all stakeholders is ideal, it is unlikely. There will always be someone who is unsatisfied or doesn’t agree, but try not to worry about that person too much. Engage in a dialogue that focuses on facts and spend your energy where it counts, on the folks who do get it and want to support teachers and students. Consider your school community. Who will be your early adopters? How can you use their support to engage the larger community? Who will give the biggest pushback? In what ways can you turn those negatives into positives?