Going More Gradeless

A few months after I launched the gradeless learning scale to the teachers at my high school, it was noted by a reputable professional that students and parents alike would soon view the headings of the scale as no different than letter grades. In their view, what they were trying to tell me was that by exclusively using the learning scale headings (Emerging, Beginning, Developing, Applying, and Extending) on assignments, tests, and projects, it would soon become ingrained in the student and parent psyche that one level was more distinguished than another level, that competition among students would be inevitable, and that the long standing tradition of parents hovering over A’s would soon become parents hovering over “Extending.”  I vehemently argued that the headings did not replace letter grades and that it is the way in which the language beneath the headings is used. Of course, in typical Shannon fashion, I became fixated on the reality of the notion because even thought my initial knee jerk reaction to criticism to is I’m right, you’re wrong, I’m possessed by a strong, reflective nature that keeps me up at night…Eeek…maybe they are right? No, I’m right. I’ve put the hard work in. I’m right, I’m right, I’m rightor am I wrong?

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In the subsequent months following that awkward conversation, I carefully watched how my students reacted to the learning scale when it was exclusively used without feedback. I observed how parents navigated the use of the learning scale as formative feedback. I made darn sure that I was communicating student learning and differentiated between what was formative and summative to parents so that there was one true understanding…that learning never ended in my room, no matter what level a child was achieving on the learning scale, learning did not have to stop….blah blah blah. It was a sort of take that! spirit of stubbornness that drove me to promote my learning scale even more.

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Then two events threw a wrench in my gradeless mechanism.

The first occurred when a parent requested a letter grade for their child. Despite my attempt to explain my gradeless pedagogy, the parent held firm to the historical misconception that a “B” was a tried and true optimum goal. And, as such, when I used a traditional formula to tally the sequence of learning scale assessments in my grade book program, a “B” appeared. They were elated by the grade. Then, my student turned to their parent and commented, “See, Mom, I told you. As long as I get Developing on everything, I’ll make Honour roll.”  My heart sank.

The second event occurred after a week long Social Studies project was handed back to my Humanities 8 students. The project was a thing of beauty. There was voice and choice. Students created newspapers with medieval headlines, comic books featuring important rulers, and a Renaissance travel brochures. It was a fun, engaging opportunity for students to show their learning. When, I returned the projects to the students with a carefully and meticulously outlined rubric, complete with feedback for growth and where each landed on the learning scale, the conversation between students went like this:

                “What did you get?”      

                “I got Applying. What did you get?”

                “I got Developing.”         

                “Ha, ha. I did better than you.”

                “Man, next time, I’m making a newspaper.”

                “Don’t worry about it. It’s a B. Developing is fine.”

Oh dear.

Many students did not look at the feedback or the rubric. They fixated on the very paradigm that I had endeavored to move them away from. The learning scale had, effectively, become the wrong kind of motivation for some students.

I was, effectively, drawn back to the warning from that professional had given me. It became clear to me.  I was right to make the learning scale, to shift the conversation from grades to a progression of learning using the language of the learning scale. But they were right as well.  I knew letter grades were deeply entrenched in student and parent psyches, but never could I have predicted that it would morph my beloved scale into the horror of extrinsic motivation.  Now, I wondered, should I ditch the scale altogether?

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I was drawn back to the very reasons for choosing this gradeless assessment path in the first place. I still wanted to revolutionize the way teachers assess learning. I believe, to my very core, that letter grades do not accurately and ethically communicate learning.  I want skills to be the focus of assignments, tests, and projects. But, above all else, I want students to stop playing the game of school and find intrinsic motivation in learning. In my usual, stubborn way, I refused to refute my learning scale, and I could not ignore that reality of the flaws in my practice. I needed to find a balance between tracking achievement and motivating students to follow individualized paths, and getting them to stop competing with each other for letter grade golden tickets. So, I didn’t wallow in self-pity. Ok, well maybe I wallowed a little bit, but after awhile, I came around because I can never let go of the opportunity to learn from my mistakes.

When I look back at my assessment journey over the past ten or so years, I have to view each bump in the road as pregnant pauses, breathy opportunities for reflection and re-navigation. If I view a setback as an oh woe is me moment, I’m allowing the setbacks to define me instead of pushing me onward and upward. So, like the times before, I chose to view last year’s long journey of standards-based assessment as an important mark in my assessment trajectory.

So, what next?

The next step was so blatantly obvious, but so extraordinarily terrifying. I needed to ditch the learning scale. Well, I don’t mean completely ditch the learning scale. I needed to use the learning scale as a means of tracking achievement, but I needed to remove it completely from the conversation of learning with students. I wasn’t prepared to remove it completely from the conversation with parents, but if I could modify the way in which it was used, when it was used, and how it was used, perhaps I could shift parent’s mindsets from being so dependent on grades.

Here was the plan for the 2019-2020 year:

1) No letter grades, marks or learning scale assessments on anything. ANYTHING.

2) Only use descriptive feedback on student work when there is the opportunity for growth.

3) Use more single point rubrics to direct students towards the learning target (proficiency).

4) Ditch all tests and use projects only, so students can return to and show learning growth at any time without me having to make a new test. (I was pretty much test-free anyways, but exclusively using projects would be more student-centered and authentic.)

5) Communicate both feedback and assignment completion on Fresh Grade so parents are kept in the loop.

6) Track feedback in a grade book.

7) Track progress of skills on the learning scale, but only in the grade book. Include the learning scale assessment on Fresh Grade when a cycle of learning is complete (the formative becomes summative or a summative project has been assessed using a single point rubric).

8) Do not assign a number to each level on the learning scale. No number would mean no overall percentage output. I would have to find a way to come up with a letter grade after the learning was complete.

So, my plan meant some big changes for this school year. It meant that I would still use the learning scale to communicate progress, but when I would use it would be determined by the student`s progress, and no longer would I stamp the learning scale headings on student work.  The learning scale`s function would be to track, which would allow me to still be accountable to parents, admin, and the Ministry of Education. I was, now, finally pretty much, gradeless. Everyone has their own interpretation of the word, gradeless, but I feel more gradeless than ever before.

So, what`s it been like to be more gradeless than last year?

The result of these changes in my assessment practices has been so positive. There are simply no limits to student growth. Students are no longer comparing themselves to each other because,now, they receive exclusive, individualized feedback on their work. And, now, because I`m so feedback driven, I`m more conscientious about the time in class to give students the opportunity to use that feedback. I have students returning to projects from two months ago to make changes and show growth. The descriptive feedback drives all learning forward no matter where they are on the scale. There is no ceiling on learning just because a student might be Extending on the scale. No one is done learning. They are always learning.

I’m exclusively using projects for summative assessments, so I’m more conscientious about the kinds of projects I do with students, focusing on the curricular competency goal and designing projects with the target in mind, not manipulating the target with a former project in mind. What I’m seeing, is more authentic evidence of learning.

I don’t put descriptive feedback on everything. It’s crazy to consider taking the time to write advice on everything that is turned into my in box. I only use feedback on a project or assignment that is hitting the curricular competency target. All the formative work gets checked off as complete. I also use oral feedback as often as I can. Formative assessments are recorded as complete, so parents are kept in the loop, and I use whole class opportunities to give feedback.

My gradebook looks completely different too. Each student has their own, specific booklet with a list of curricular competency goals, a learning scale for each potential assignment or project, and space for me to copy descriptive feedback. When I offer descriptive feedback to the student, I write an abbreviated version in my gradebook so I can track if they used the feedback. This grade book is much different than my old grade book which was a series of assignments running across the top, a list of the students’ names on the left, and a bunch of numbers in the grid. Now, I can grab one student’s booklet and take it with me to a parent-teacher meeting and not shuffle through numerous grids. Recently, I modified the student packages to reflect the medium by which a student shows me their learning, adopting a show-do-tell philosophy, so that students can meet targets in various ways or show proficiency of a target in a collection of ways. 

Snip from my new grade book. Each student’s progress is now represented by a package that allows me to record growth and keep track of the descriptive feedback I’m giving to them.

Shifting to single-point rubrics has made the target (Proficient or Applying) more concrete for students. I get students to use them to self -assess their work, and then I can offer my own feedback. That takes some of the leg work out of feedback driven assessments. It takes some time to unpack the curricular competencies so that students clearly understand a target, but when they do, it is clearer fro them to hit it. But, even if there is feedback for improvement, and time given to them to advance, they use it.

I try to write the target as a clear, “I can…” statement, focusing on growth and not deficits.

I’ve never enjoyed assessing student’s work so much as I have this year. Keep in mind, I don’t regret not taking this leap last year. I needed last year’s bumps so I could make this year’s leaps. Just like I need this year’s bumps to make next year’s leaps. I’m firm in my assessment conviction and that is motivating me. And my advice to anyone on this journey is this…take the bumps, reflect on the lows, and don’t be afraid to make massive changes to your practice if you know, in your heart, it is the best thing for kids. It takes an evolution of reflection to start a revolution (and you can quote me on that).


One thought on “Going More Gradeless

  1. Thank you for this! I have been following your journey as I slowly figure out my own with assessment. I am a primary teacher so I have been that step closer (but not really) with the use of the words as opposed to the numbers (1-4). What you described in regards to students/parents just transferring their understanding of grades to the new terms has been my own experience which has left me dissatisfied. I have just began to play with one point rubrics which I first came across on your Facebook group. It feels positive and I will keep trying. Keep experimenting and sharing! It’s definitely helping me. Thank you!


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