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


Design comprehensive projects for optimal growth

Teaching is no longer about relaying the content standard . . . it’s about transforming lives.



TOO MANY TESTS and assignments offer little in the way of creativity and student growth. Some teachers use the same activities from year to year to make grading easier. It’s an unfortunate reality that projects or tests seldom get revised to really develop students as learners. Instead, they offer ample opportunity to be right or wrong, which can dampen a love of learning. There are several problems with these assignments and assessments:

·                   Many tests and projects don’t allow for students to show depth of learning.

·                   When teachers don’t allow iteration, this stunts student growth.

·                   Most assignments provide a single path to learning, taking away student autonomy.


Every assignment, project, or classroom experience must support a progressive movement in every child’s learning. The teacher should consider deliberate ways to make all learning substantial and to connect content and skill to what is relevant in students’ lives.

Teachers need to involve students in choices and provide opportunities for them to modify a teacher’s assignments or to create their own. When we say “Yes” to student ideas, we encourage autonomy and empower them. Giving our students a voice in instruction and assessment develops a collaborative relationship that ultimately enhances achievement.

In addition to collaborating with students and giving them a voice, teachers need to consider multimodal opportunities that extend learning and differentiate for every child. With ample time and feedback, students can revise original work, practicing essential skills that will propel them to mastery.


It’s time we start asking kids about their learning preferences. The more we include students in the process of creating learning experiences, the better the outcomes will be. Here are some easy ways to rebrand assignments as ongoing learning experiences.

·                   Poll your students. It’s important that teachers understand what students like about learning. This can be as simple as asking kids to raise their hands after a series of questions and recording their answers or collecting a piece of paper with their ideas; or it can be as high-tech as creating a simple survey online. A few easy-to-use apps or websites are Poll Everywhere, Plicker, SurveyMonkey, and Socrative. Ask a few simple questions including, “How do you like to learn?” The goal is to find out how each student’s voice will contribute to the feedback loop, when activities are created later.

·                   Practice revising part of a project or a piece of writing. Take what you’re currently working on, provide peer or teacher feedback, and allow the student to continue working on the assignment to improve it. Explain how this facilitates ongoing learning. Invite students to consider what they’re doing and how they might proceed. Remind students that their decisions help drive their learning.

·                   Adjust assignments for particular student needs. In an existing assignment, work with students to adjust expectations to ensure that all children can be successful. This is a good place to honor student input. This can be done in a variety of ways that do not consume too much time. For example, you might share a list of guidelines and invite students to identify parts they don’t understand and to explain how they might approach particular directions. They can respond in a notebook or on a blog or other web-based tool. This activity amplifies student voice and encourages self-evaluation.

·                   Say Yes to a student-generated idea. If a student asks you to do something in place of an existing assignment, before you say no, ask to hear the idea and help to adjust it so that it meets the same criteria as the original assignment. Optionally, this can be a class assignment. Explain a learning outcome and invite students to brainstorm ways they can demonstrate mastery.


Step 1: Revise your curriculum with the help of students.

Examine the curriculum with your students, bearing in mind what must be covered. Take an inventory of the current curriculum and explore what can be changed, adjusted, left out, or put in; rebuild it for maximum student engagement. Remind them that assignments are being rebranded as learning experiences that include student voice.

Step 2: Align projects with specific skills or standards.

Knowing your end point is essential before you begin, so make sure that all assignments are purposeful and aligned to a standard. Review what must be accomplished by the end of the year, create the assessments, and then plan backwards to the beginning of the course. It may help to start with a skeleton of the whole thing and fill in the details topic by topic. Ask yourself if your project is truly a learning experience that involves student autonomy, facilitates a feedback loop, and will be enjoyable.

Playing to passion when you can will keep students motivated and working toward mastery.

Step 3: Teach students to understand the standards.

It’s not enough just to tell students the standard or place it on an assignment sheet. Students must be able to internalize it. Consider using an activity that asks students to reconstruct or rewrite the standards for each unit. Taking time to complete this activity prior to a unit or major project helps students envision the depth and breadth of the work, while considering what they need to accomplish. Here are a few tips for this important activity:

1.                 Explain what the standards are and what role they will play in the learning experience.

2.                 Inform students that they will be rewriting the standards in a language they understand. Instruct them to translate the standards into student-friendly language on sentence strips or chart paper.

3.                 Model the process with the first standard or learning outcome. Read it aloud, and then break it apart phrase-by-phrase or word-by-word. Rewrite it in simple language. Think aloud while you rewrite the standard.

4.                 Instruct students to repeat the process with a different standard. Leave the model and samples on the board or chart paper for the class to see while they work in groups.

5.                 Divide students into groups of two to three and assign them three to five standards per group.

6.                 Have students present the new standards in their own words in a way that works for them.

7.                 Create an evolving bulletin board with the rewritten standards so students can refer to them throughout the year.

8.                 Ask students to decide which standards they are meeting while they are working and during reflection time.

As we continue to teach kids to reflect, we must remind them to reference the standards and to explain how they are addressing them in their work. This will help shift the conversation away from grades and keep it where it needs to be: on learning.

Step 4: Build choice into learning experience.

Many sources indicate that allowing for student choice increases student engagement (see the Resources section at the end of this book). Wherever reasonable and possible, allow choice for students. Give them options or allow them to generate new possibilities of their own. Throughout the year, when introducing new content, always ask, “How can you demonstrate mastery of this concept or skill?” Don’t let students shrug this off; remind them that you’ve rebranded assignments to learning experiences that always give students a voice.

Step 5: Tap into student passions.

Know your students well so you can appeal to their interests. One year, a group of students loved to perform and create skits. My previous year’s students didn’t enjoy these kinds of activities; they wanted more technology. Of course, you will need to balance everything out, but playing to passion when you can will keep students motivated and working toward mastery. Remember, you can’t rebrand assignments and ignore what students enjoy.

Step 6: Connect content and skills throughout the year.

As students are learning new material, it is essential that new work encourages them to recall and apply the skills and content they learned earlier in the year. Continued practice and application in new situations will deepen understanding and help students progress toward mastery. Always ask students how something they learned earlier is helping them learn something new. Reminding students of the value of prior learning will help facilitate ongoing feedback and self-assessment. Figure 3.1 provides one example of how teachers can help students connect skills and reflect on their own learning.

Step 7: Always provide options for students to create their own path to learning.

Once students are used to being a part of the creation process, you should consider opening all projects and assignments up to a student design option. They will learn right away that this is not easier, but in fact more challenging, because they will need to consider what they must accomplish before they start. Being a teacher/creator is at the highest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy and will allow students to demonstrate mastery.


Traditionally, school has been full of worksheets and teacher-driven tests and assignments. Although we know these practices are misguided, some teachers still use them. Here are some of the things you may hear from colleagues, students, or parents about rebranding assignments:

These kinds of assignments are too subjective. Creative assignments allow students rather than teachers to make the rules and to determine what is quality work, and this makes some people very uncomfortable. However, there is seldom only one right way to do anything. We need to provide opportunities for creativity while students synthesize learning, encouraging them to do things in a way that is intuitive. All learning is subjective, and when we only offer one chance or route for learning, we greatly limit the possibility that every student will achieve mastery.

There isn’t enough time to allow students to work in class. Time is always going to be a challenge, but many skills can be taught through the process of working on longer, more complicated assignments, rather than shorter “one and done” assignments. If we adjust the way we spend our class time, then it is entirely possible to allow students to do the work in front of us rather than at home. Teachers will no longer spend full periods lecturing: This is not an efficient use of class time if students are to master content effectively. Employing effective collaboration and technology integration will alleviate time constraints, allowing the teacher to become more of a coach and a facilitator.

There is too much content to cover in my class to teach this way. As with the challenge above, we must put depth of understanding before breadth of coverage. If students don’t understand content that we “gloss over,” then we do them no service by mentioning all of the topics they need for an exam. Consider the order in which concepts are presented and overlap and incorporate as much as is reasonable in each assignment. Allowing students to practice skills and develop competencies is a more effective use of time than presenting PowerPoints crammed with content.

Projects don’t prepare students for tests. Any good test will not ask for rote memorization. Life isn’t a test with predetermined questions and answers; we need to teach kids to attack and solve problems using their knowledge and skills. Projects most definitely prepare our students because projects help students learn how to apply knowledge and use skills in different settings. If students are prepared for life by having mastered educational standards in a variety of settings and challenges, they should excel at any valid test.


Synthesis projects present students with a problem and require them to collaborate to develop a solution, all the while developing skills and learning new concepts. One example of a synthesis project assignment sheet can be seen in Figure 3.2.

Students consistently use these project experiences to grow as learners. Of course, other ways of learning, such as writing essays, are necessary in high school; however, they don’t have to be completed, isolated activities that lack process.

Here’s how Aric Foster, a high school English teacher and no-grades classroom advocate, rebrands assignments, making learning experiences out of essay writing for AP exams.

“As soon as we put a number on student work, learning stops.” After hearing this in the Twittersphere, I was inspired to make changes to my own grading practices. While I have been using standards-based learning for years, I felt like even the labels of 4.0-1.0 stagnated the feedback loop. It is every teacher’s dream that learners receive feedback, internalize it into their souls, and then grow in proficiency from this feedback to never repeat the same miscue again. While this is rarely the case, amending how I cultivate the feedback loop has made noticeable strides in achieving this learning Utopia.

The most prominent example for me came when I changed how I assess my AP Literature students when they wrote AP essays. I have used many different rubrics to assess this crucial task—all of which were blatantly tied to standards and clearly delineated levels of proficiency in those standards. In addition, learners logged the written feedback I gave them in an attempt to make it more meaningful. However, it wasn’t until I moved from a numbered rubric to a “feedback only” form that I saw drastic improvement in student writing.

Figure 3.3 was inspired by Mark Barnes’s SE2R feedback model. Barnes suggests that feedback be given as follows: summarize, explain, redirect, resubmit. When a student submits an essay, I merely record what I see, how the work does or does not address standards, resources to pursue to amend areas of concern, and a new plan for resubmitting the work.

My goals are to keep my comments as objective as possible, to notice and coach while not judging harshly or praising superfluously, to help learners see how their work adheres to an established norm of proficiency. I have found that this process not only builds a culture of learning but encourages learners to take risks and challenge themselves, as they know there will be no punitive words or numbers for their performance—only observations and suggestions for revision.

This process, this rebranding, fosters a paradigm shift, both for the learners and for me. No longer are learners trying to earn points or “get a 3.0.” Instead, they are trying to Answer the Question and Use Style and Cite Evidence to Support a Claim and basically just write better. Evidence-based learning helped my learners shift the focus from “playing school” to “achieving a standard.” However, when I threw out grades completely and purged classwork of numbers to achieve, my students started to learn for the sake of learning. They began to attempt class work with a new mindset—one of collegiality and growth, not compliance and immobility.

From my point of view as the teacher, this alteration revised how I think about work in class as well. Before this revolution, I was a teacher who was conducting a lesson and almost formulaically circling numbers on a rubric that matched what a learner produced. While that is not a harmful practice and does cultivate growth and does adhere to standards, it is still just teaching. Instead, now I consider myself a coach. A coach sees how his “athletes” performed, analyzes how that performance is what we are all looking for, and provides resources and encouragement and practice to perform even better. Rather than wearing the tie of a teacher, I now have a whistle, game film, and drills we can practice in order to do better in the next big game.

Also, by coaching and not just teaching, I can more easily see areas where my coaching is lacking. This year, after following this “feedback only” process, it was clearly evident that I was struggling to teach Answering the Question effectively. So what did I do? I did the same feedback process: I noticed my deficiency, sought resources to improve (Twitter, Voxer, professional development, etc.), and “resubmitted” my work by amending future lessons. This rebranding facilitates a culture of learning for my students, allows me to help individual students learn more meaningfully, and provides an avenue for me to do continuous professional growth.

I remember this was especially meaningful for “Clare” last year. Clare was pushing herself even by enrolling in the AP class and struggled repeatedly at the beginning of the year to produce up to the AP standard. For her first essay, the feedback I gave her followed the aforementioned feedback process:

What I saw: “I see that you have only one transition in the whole essay and that you cited only one example from the text to prove your thesis. I also see that you effectively used three of our vocabulary words and did not have any grammatical errors that distracted from meaning.”

Addressing standards: “Using mature and varied transitions to move from one idea to the next shows proficiency in our Style standard and explaining how multiple examples from the text prove a thesis shows proficiency in our Answer the Question standard.”

Resources: “Please read three other student essays, highlight all of the transitions you see, and tell me what you found. Also, please review our AP notes about ‘How to answer the question’ and tell me which strategy you plan to use.”

Resubmission: Revise your second paragraph to address these areas of concern. Highlight your Style amendments in green and Answer the Question amendments in pink.”

Clare then sought multiple avenues to succeed: coursework, classmates’ products, and coaching from me. Her resubmission is potent, clearly delineates the standards she addressed, and makes it easy for me to see if and how she addressed the areas of concern.

Yes, it might seem like this is “a lot of work” and impractical for the teacher to do for every assignment, every time. However, this is where the learning happens. This is why the learners and I are in the same room together.

“Pass back paper day” used to be a 10-minute lesson in my room where I mentioned a few common errors to the entire class. Now, this is an entire class period where students are working with each other to see examples of how they can amend their own work, consulting resources to improve their proficiency, and conferring with me to clarify how to develop their writing. I am not spending time putting numbers in a grade book or circling boxes on a rubric; I am using my time more effectively and potently to address student learning.

Oh, and Clare? She earned a 3 on the AP test.

To achieve optimal growth, students need to be engaged in their learning, which is why we need to rebrand assignments into memorable learning experiences. Moving away from question-and-answer classwork, we must establish rich projects that offer synthesis possibilities for students. In this way, they will learn to master skills and recognize their own growth as learners and collaborators. Consider what learning looks like in your space. How many truly memorable projects and experiences do kids have? How might grading these experiences diminish the possibilities? What do you need to do to truly rebrand assignments?