Gradeless: Don’t just dip your toes, jump in

Going gradeless is a complete somersault into foreign territory. To do it correctly, in my view, it shouldn’t be a partial or hurried cartwheel into gradeless. One cannot simply post marks using a proficiency scale, pat themselves on the back and call it gradeless. Gradeless is about pedagogy, mindset, communication of learning without numbers…all numbers…ANY numbers.

It frustrates me to no end when I hear that gradeless just doesn’t work. A closer examination usually proves that these classrooms are lacking clear, genuine gradeless teaching strategies with students. The practice looks, pretty much, the same as it did in previous years. Same assignments, same tests, same numbers all over everything. Curricular competencies? Nowhere in sight. And all the work handed back have numbers littered on them. But there is one small change; interim reports show use of the learning scale. Great, but not great. The information on these interims become a surprise. So of course parents and students are going to want marks. And of course there will be mass confusion amongst all stakeholders. There is no alignment. There must be alignment between practice in the classroom, communication with students, and the interim reports in order to see gradeless work. Otherwise, all teachers are doing when they only report out differently is use a different shade of lipstick on the same porcelain doll.

Gradeless literally means, no grades on anything. So, if someone is to run an actual gradeless classroom, they must take numbers off the work. Now that doesn’t mean replacing numbers with learning scale language. No way. It is about supercharging our focus on the language of a learning scale and providing feedback on the work instead. I cannot emphasize enough how powerful descriptive feedback as an assessment tool is with kids. The most vulnerable learner receives just the right amount of information to level up on the learning scale without the intimidation of ego slaughtering letter grades or numbers. The most efficient and enthusiastic go-getter will push onward and upward with feedback that feeds their desire for growth without the usual settling for an “A” and “now I’ll stop working, thank you” mentality. It’s incredible. So that’s the first step. It’s the toughest step. Stop marking. Assess. But assess with growth in mind.

Want to know why, despite all the energy we put into editing a student’s paper and showing them how to refine their work, that students cannot be bothered to apply the feedback? There’s a mark on it. Enter ego. Enter deflation. Enter feelings of worthlessness. And while they are entertaining the ego, deflation, and worthlessness, they’re gazing at their neighbours’ papers and comparing themselves to them. Numbers ruin everything! Want to know why else they aren’t following feedback? Time. There’s a problem when teachers say that students can do corrections without penalty but…on their own time (cue horror sting music). This limits any student who spends every lunch hour with their math teacher, the kid who plays sports six times a week, the dancer who dances five days a week and teaches dancers the other two…need I go on? Getting my drift? If teachers want students to apply the feedback and show growth, give them time. Give them all time! If we’ve provided feedback for all…why not give all of them time to make changes? But too many teachers are still too attached to timelines and deadlines…you know…the “we need to be done chapter two by this date, so we can start chapter three by this date…” Throw out the timeline! It’s a different assessment world when gradeless. Want growth? Give time. It’s that simple. Let go of all that content stuff one thinks they must get through by a certain date. Or at least don’t complain about students’ assessments when they fail miserably or show no growth. Choices.

That brings me to another gradeless problem. Content. Totally important. Like a good breakfast is the foundation for a great day, content is the foundation for all the skills that will be and should be the focus. But it’s the foundation and not what should be evaluated. Gradeless is about evaluating the skills in BC education. By all means, check for content understanding! Give a quiz, run a four corners activity, or provide an exit slip. It’s important to know if students know the content. But memorizing content is not a skill. Well, not an important one. Get to the skill (the curricular competencies) and now you’re cooking! Skills are the driving force behind the renewed curriculum. But that means for those teachers who are still immersed in comprehension-based teaching and count everything (formative, homework, practice, participation), they need to take another look at those high-level thinking skills that make up the majority of curricular competencies across all subjects. And don’t just make it the focus of teaching. Make it the focus of the learning. Slap those competencies on the board. Get students to unpack them and really understand them. Rewrite them if you must (I do…many are pretty tricky little suckers for kids to understand) but engage students in what should be the focus of assessments. Everything else shouldn’t count. Assess the skills; leave everything else out of the grade book.

When competencies are the focus, it’s about working backwards from competency to the design of the subsequent scaffolded instruction, to projects and assignments that will best give students the opportunity to show proficiency. And don’t get bogged down by how to comprehend that darn BC proficiency scale. There’s been every type of analogy one can think of: pancakes, driving a car, muffins, cups (I know that one pretty well). The best thing I’ve done in the last six months, is frame the competencies as “I can” statements and get my kids to aim for that…a target. A bull’s eye! Several teachers have been frustrated that they just don’t know either what the competencies mean or what proficiency is. Really? When you teach an essay, a lab, or a math equation, what is the end goal? What do you want kids to be able to do?  That’s proficiency. Just be sure that the focus is on the specific competency and not all the other little things we usual nitpick kids about. For example, in essay writing, if my focus is on an opinion competency, when I assess them, I will focus on how well they showed their opinion. I’m not going to fault them on the learning scale for punctuation, grammar, and use of the wrong font (curses, you comic sans!) There must be a laser focus on that competency.  Now let’s go back to that precocious learning scale.  Are they nearing the target? Developing. Just starting, but need lots of help? Emerging.  Past the target and ready for more? Extending.  Booya! Simple, simple, simple. And no numbers.  No numbers. NO NUMBERS!  No categories in the grade book (No assignments, projects, test/quizzes categories…they are gone). No overall score (no overall score with the learning scale neither…no no no!) No free marks for homework or participation (Oh my, that makes the little vein in my head bulge). Just a series of lovely little competencies with learning scale evaluations that are always in flux.  Here’s the skill. Here’s the evaluation. Here’s the evidence I got it from. Done.

When teachers focus on the competency, they focus on the skill. When they make it transparent with kids, there will be no confusion come reporting time.  And if teachers use feedback instead of numbers, students will grow accustomed to all that is beautiful in the gradeless wonderland. Can you imagine what our schools would look like if all teachers embraced this concept? Wouldn’t it be something? Kids wouldn’t need to be enticed to do work for carrots and sticks disguised as letter grades.  They’ll just…work. And when we need to evaluate them, we can hold our heads high and say and explain to a parent, “Here, they haven’t met the target…but here they have. Here are their next steps to reach that target.”  How easy is that? How simple? How rationale.

For now, though, I’ll have to keep wagging my tongue and preach from my gradeless bible, hoping my thoughts don’t fall on deaf ears. I for one have no intention of returning to my old classroom habits with all those numbers and letter grades.


2 thoughts on “Gradeless: Don’t just dip your toes, jump in

  1. You go girl!!!! I leaped into going gradeless. Scared the heck out of me! Loving the freedom. It is a lot of work … but authentic work! Still have to tell myself that it is not about getting thru the content! Seeing a lot of progress in my students. Feel that I need to keep working on giving effective feedback. Thanks for all your support Shannon!!

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