Grades as Journey, Not Hyperbole

I am getting tired of grades being labelled as the bad guy in education. While they are not my favourite aspect of teaching, and in fact, way down the list, I cannot figure out why so many educators continue to vilify them.

The above statements might come as a big surprise to many of you. In the past, I have outwardly condemned grades, especially the notion that learning can only happen in absence of grades. I tweeted about it, discussed it at length, and even blogged about it…many, many times. (I will let you go back and scrutinize my previous posts on your own).

I now realize that many of these hyperbolic statements around grades came from early experiences with this theory rather than research even though I often called it research. Authentic research involves validity, a method, and collecting data, etc. What I was actually sharing was my experience. This blog is based on my experiences. I enjoy sharing my experiences and I think readers appreciate (at least I hope they appreciate) that I’m sharing my experiences. But I now regret making such bold statements about grading without doing my research, and I am glad I have regret.

Let me clear about something first. I am not suggesting that learning doesn’t happen in absence of grades. There are many benefits to using only feedback, especially during ungraded practice. Learning happens with and without grades. What I have realized is that it isn’t one or the other. One doesn’t triumph over the other. Grades can assist in learning, but not in the way they are slapped on papers and tests to show progress and teachers move on to the next unit in an assembly line fashion. Kids look at grades, be them letter grades, percentages, or proficiency scale indicators, judge themselves, fear judgment, and judge others, and then move on. The impact is quite grave in these scenarios. But grades can support learning when they include clear criteria showing students where they are at and why, teachers provide student-centered learning opportunities to use the feedback and the grade to improve, and final grade summaries are determined in a way that highlights progress rather than undermining the learning journey.

Regret, as Daniel H. Pink writes about in his The Power of Regret ultimately means I took a chance and now have the opportunity to reflect and improve as a result. Upon reflection and study, I have learned that the notion of learning only occurring in absence of grades is quite preposterous. Not only is there research to back this, but I also have experience in the classroom to authenticate it. One could say I see student learning as an opportunity for students to harness the power of regret. In the right environment, regret can become quite powerful for learning. What if we actually taught students how to use regret to fire them forward in their learning, teaching them how to reflect and use grades and feedback as a positive? Regret can provide clarity, instruction and an opportunity to learn, Pink suggests, if we can “take that negative feeling and convert it into a lesson.” He also says regret depends on the story one tells themself; when one feels regret, they create news versions of the story each time in their mind. By verbalizing regret, one may break that loop and identify where we had control and agency in that situation.

Brene Brown talks with Daniel H. Pink on The Power of Regret

It is about time. Instead of rushing from unit to unit, teachers need to take a breath and really concentrate on the learning journey and use grades to support the learning in tandem with feedback, rather than using grades as currency or a carrot or stick, and really harness the power of student involvement. Grades aren’t going anywhere soon, so instead of bitching about them, why not change the way we determine them so we can become more comfortable with them? I’m talking about reinventing them.

If I ran a school, I’d give the average grade to the ones who gave me all the right answers, for being good parrots. I’d give the top grades to those who made a lot of mistakes and told me about them, and then told me what they learned from them. – R. Buckminster Fuller.

First, reinvention begins when educators stop referring to students by the grades or categorization they hold because it diminishes their potential to meet goals. I have caught myself on more than one occasion making references like A student, C student, Honours student, failing student, Principal’s List student, special needs student, ADHD student, Learning Assistance student and now Extending student or Developing student. Labels rank and sort students, pigeonholing them as a certain type of student with certain abilities teachers expect from them. It presumes that past and present grades and categorization reflects what they can or cannot do. Then, a school plunks all of one type of learner into one class. Our classrooms are not and should not be homogenous hubs of one type of learner. Eliminating streaming, I understand, presents all sorts of problems for teachers because it means not teaching to the average and instead aiming for, what Shelley Moore calls, the outside and inside pins, the students who need the most support and the students who need the most challenge, “the pins that are the hardest to hit,” as well as those down the middle. Instead, we “teach to the kids who need us the least and already have support,” and that is what we were taught in teacher education. Heterogeneity better resembles the world, but we lump students into homogenous groups because we think it’s easier. Given how hard teachers work, it’s obvious why there is streaming because educators believe it will provide a simpler context to address minor deviations and move students a little bit further ahead rather than grand expectations to have them grow exponentially. But that’s the myth and not the reality. In his book, Ruthless Equity, Ken Williams writes, “Your heart is in the right place in that you want to move [students] further along, but your expectations are low because “further along” is ambiguous, and not grade-level or better. Your goal is for them to just “grow a little bit.” With this approach, you’re “doing students a favor.” This is charity work. These limitations you’ve place on what you believe they can and cannot learn aren’t based on your strengths and gifts, but your biases, fixed mindset, and lack of efficacy” (94).

If classes are complex mosaics of learners, then what? Develop criteria for standards that is task-neutral and strength-based so there is an entry point for every learner in the room. Begin here. Criteria development can be done in advance of students entering a class. Literally, it is presuming the needs of learners and how they can meet minimum expectations and then develop criteria that include stretches from there. The level furthest from the first has the most challenge. When criteria like this is done in advance, rather than in damage control mode when students deviate from the average, teachers are equipped to meet all learners. Proficiency levels like this do not rank and sort students, but instead provide a trajectory or pathway for students and opportunity for all students. Just because we plan Emerging level criteria for a group of students doesn’t mean we are settling them in that level. Developing and Proficient are right around the corner, as opportunities for growth. Additionally, when one teaches all levels, it shows students how to aim for the criteria and that there is an opportunity for all to achieve. Providing collaborative learning opportunities to apply the criteria during ungraded practice further builds courage and ease about grading.

Proficiency sequence/scale by Shannon Schinkel

Instead of dangling levels (grades) as carrots or sticks, punitive measures of compliance, teach students what grades represent as learning targets and how their voice and opinion can be involved in grade determination. Heather Lyon writes in Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal), “Schools use grades as motivators for students. Do this and get 100%, don’t do it and get a zero or I’ll call home, or you can’t participate in recess or the dance or the game. The problem is that the thing that was meant to be a scaffold (IE the carrot or the stick) never goes away. The goal of the scaffold was to momentarily help encourage compliance on the way towards interest – you don’t know that you like to do this yet, so to help you get there. In other words, I’m going to create a consequence that will move you from non-compliance to compliance. Unfortunately, the focus on the task is overshadowed by the focus on the consequence. In this way, the task becomes getting or avoiding the consequences rather than the learning” (108). Hodgepodge grading is problematic in this way because students gain credit for all sorts of activities like turning in homework and coming on time to write a quiz as opposed to what they should represent, what students know and can do. “Compliance as an achievement indicator misses the mark, as simply completing an assignment or assessment does not ensure that learning has occurred. Quality is what matters, so educators should determine achievement based on the quality of what was produced, not simply because it was produced…[A] compliance approach to assessment and grading would likely result in some learners settling for done instead of striving for higher levels of performance.” (p 23, Concise Answers to Frequently Asked Questions, Nicole Dimich et al.) Grades do not have to be about playing the game of school if we stop teaching the rules of the game. We have so much unlearning to do!

Students should be active participants in the assessment process. If criterion is clear, students can comment on what they achieved and how. This balances power between teacher and learner. While the teacher generates criteria as the curriculum expert, students have a say in how they met criteria and then through their own self-assessment feedback for the teacher, explain what they want the teacher to notice. Many teachers may be “horrified, or terrified, by the prospect of relinquishing their unilateral authority to make that decision [proving] the extent to which grades have been used all along to control kids rather than to provide useful information,” suggests Alfie Kohn, but this isn’t about students determining a random grade that is subjective to their prior knowledge and relationship with grading. Assessment should be a conversation between teacher and student instead of a teacher dominated task involving stacks of laborious grading at the end of learning. Additionally, by including self-assessment it can reduce the load teachers have at the end of the learning cycle because criteria properly front loaded and thirty minutes of class time to have students self-assess strategically deposited into the lesson plan frees up teachers to plan engaging lessons and student-centered learning opportunities. In other words, when I hear that shifting from a traditional approach to this type of approach is too much work, I can B.S. on it.

In my English classes, during writing seminars, I include self-assessment and then more time to continue the editing and revising process, because through the self-assessment process, students become acutely aware of whether they have met their goals and if they have appropriate evidence. If they realize they do not during the self-assessment process, they have time to go back to the ole drawing board. In this way, a goal of reaching Proficient, for example, becomes less about points chasing and more about the learning process because students actually have to show their learning and the only way, they can show they’ve learned it by doing. Even if a student self-assesses at Extending, they may decide to include more evidence in order to solidify their forthcoming assessment. They must put thoughtfulness into this process because not all writing moves are created equal and through our prior ungraded practice, they learned how profound writing moves have an impact on the reader versus nonchalant moves that were merely plunked into the piece because it is a poetic device, for example, but not a profound poetic device.

Students are taught use every level of the proficiency sequence; a great piece of writing has small, moderate, and bold, sweeping moves.

The example above shows a student finding evidence of Extending.

Not all learning opportunities are created equal. Students need to see themselves in learning opportunities in order to become absorbed in a task, or at least interested. When that occurs, the grade can become immaterial. Katie White suggests “creativity, creative experiences, the opportunity for creative expression, is a way of becoming a human being. It’s how you sort through things. It’s how you find your voice. It’s how you learn to make decisions and handle failure, it’s just a really great, I don’t know, mode of doing all of those things” (“The Keys to Creative Assessments with Katie White,” The Creatively Connected Classroom Podcast). If teachers have created criteria for their standards, when students show an interest or have a passion, it is no problem to content that interest or passion to the criteria. Last year, at the start of the Ukraine-Russia crisis, several students in my Humanities 8 class showed an interest in this current event. After exploring a few articles, the class wanted to take a deep dive. In response, I put our Feudalism unit on hold and switched to this content, still focusing on both ethical judgment (as displayed below) and exploring primary source evidence. In English First Peoples’ 10, an interest in anti-racism prompted the District Student Advisory Council to create a series of videos, tools for learning, becoming an important part of the English course when we explored the opinion standard. In both classes, clear criteria were presented to students and students responded with inventiveness and a desire to make a difference. Learning occurred in the presence of grades.

The final way teachers can reinvent grades is by how they track evidence and come up with final grades. I have written about this before, track evidence of learning and use mode + most recent + professional judgment to determine each standard’s summative evaluation. Then, at report card time, use logic rule to determine the grade. Grades are broken when educators rely only on the mean and don’t consider other measures of central tendency and don’t use professional judgment (Ken O’Connor). Grades can provide an accurate judgment of learning if educators conclude that a grade should synthesize what a student knows and can do at the time of a report card and includes clear communication of each standard using a proficiency scale and feedback. When different teachers present a different outlook on grading, students get confused by what grades serve. In British Columbia, a new reporting order is about to drop and included in that order is information on clear communication. For some high school teachers, the idea of writing several sentences about each student when they have close to 120 seems daunting, but if the standards and their criteria are already in front of them, comments will be relatively simple to generate. Problem is, if teachers don’t make the shift to standards-based grading and maintain an archaic and traditional grade book, the task of writing standards-based feedback will appear as more work because it will be.

In my class, each student’s best or most relevant evidence of learning is used so students don’t feel like they must swim against the current of early, lower grades in order to get their head above water. Below is an example of evidence of comprehension strategies used in an English First Peoples’ 10 course. Note that the term 3 grade is Extending because there are recent and multiple examples of it. The final learning opportunity is not regression, but highlights a bad day for the student, so I didn’t use it. Professional judgment builds equity and supports each student.

Shannon Schinkel, “Break up with Tradition: Shift to more equitable assessment practices” presentation

About half-way through the first term, I present students with the logic rule and a mock student progress report. From there, I have students determine that Student’s grade. Transparency is important. Withholding grades for a length of time in order for students to focus on criteria is important but dropping a grade bomb come report card time will not bode well. Been there, done that. Students were furious. I mean, many were thrilled because they appreciated my policy once they learned it, but they weren’t kept in the know in advance of report card time. They just wanted to know how I was going to come up with the grade. What was I so afraid of? Well, for one, I was suckered into social media criticism that they didn’t need to know because it would do them harm. I was misinformed. I would never give them progress reports with percentages one week into the course. Delay, yes. Withhold policy, no. Withholding policy, I presumed students would not and could not handle it. Communication and sensitivity were the keys. I just didn’t see them.

Ultimately, since I’ve been more transparent about grading, students feel respected by being included in the communication and of course how I determine their grades. And after they receive their grades, learning continues in many of the standards. Students show progress. At the end of semester, I have students examine all standards they wanted to show improvement in and co-construct learning opportunities so they can advance or maintain grades. They used their grades as feedback because the grades communicate meaningful information and are not multi-faceted globs of this and that. For one student in Social Studies 8, last year, they wanted to improve in the area of inquiry and evidence, so they came up with an inquiry question around their personal fascination with bicycles, researching and presenting their research. For another student in English 11 who had already shown plenty of Extending evidence in all standards, showed an interest in art as a form of communication leading them to mimic Sherman Alexie’s illustrating style by illustrating pages of prose from his Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian that he had not.

Atomic Habits by James Clear

There’s more to grades than hyperbolic statements that they serve no purpose. Okay, perhaps I wish we didn’t have logic rules or report cards or percentages. It would be glorious to just communicate learning through sentences of co-constructed epiphanies between teacher and student. But instead of viewing grades as a shame to have to use, I’m choosing to get comfortable with them by changing the way they are generated and used in my classes. Maybe I’m getting into bed with the enemy or maybe I’m on to something. Either way, I’m sure to regret it.


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