Thursday, July 29, 2010

Grading Moratorium: Alfonso Gonzalez

Alfonso (Al) Gonzalez
Middle School Grades 6-8
Environmental Science, Physical Science, Life Science

At what stage of the abolish grading game are you?

I started teaching 4th and 5th grade bilingual Spanish students in South Central Los Angeles in 1991. I taught there for five years when my wife and I moved to Washington state. In WA I’ve taught grades 6 through 8th. I’ve taught most subjects and now I mainly teach Science. In those 19 years of teaching I have used traditional grading methods all but the last trimester of the 2009-2010 school year. That last trimester I gave no letters, marks or numbers of any kind. For the mandatory report grades I gave all my students a Pass unless they specifically requested a letter grade (which just were all A’s).
So I’m at the very beginning stage of the abolishing grading game!

Why do you want to or why did you abolish grading?

I have been tweaking how I grade every single year. I’ve written more and more detailed rubrics to explain what I mean when I assign letter grades. Time and again I hear students asking what their grade meant. “I got a C, what does that mean?” “I got a 74 out of 100, what does that mean?” I kept finding that in explaining what their grade or score meant I was giving the feedback that students and their families really needed. I was hooked on striving to improve the way I give feedback to my students after attending a workshop on feedback. I’ve experienced how students focus so much on the letter or the score and getting their averages that they lose sight of what they are learning. Learning becomes a chore when they work for a grade. I want my students to enjoy learning and have fun instead of seeing it as work and a chore or just something to get done for a grade.

What do you do in replace of grading? How do you establish a grade if you have no grades?

I’m working on improving how I give feedback to my students. It’s a challenge because each year I have anywhere from 130 to 150 students. So first and foremost I want to have my students collect evidence for their portfolio. I want to show students how to self and peer assess. To encourage my students to become independent learners I don’t want them to always rely on me for feedback, especially with a 1:150 ratio!
Students and their families need to know what they are expected to learn. My school district has all the teachers working in teams to choose power standards. That basically means that we get to choose which standards we will focus on so that we don’t try to cover too much. That way I can share with my students the standards that they will be learning. I have written essential questions based on the standards so that by answering those questions students can demonstrate how well they are learning the standards. I can use that information to share with students and their parents how they are demonstrating understanding. I use words so that they won’t focus on a number. So it is a form of standards-based grading minus the grading part (I hope!).

This is all a work in progress! For mandatory grading, midterm and final grades, I asked students how they wanted to be graded. I think I will do that again with every new class of students. I don’t mind giving them that choice because it’s not about the grade anyway. I can give a Pass or an A if that’s what they really want. So far I wasn’t planning on doing anything in between. I just gave families the option of Pass/No-Pass or A or F. I really don’t see anyone getting a No-Pass or an F unless they never show up to class. How can I fail a student if that student learned something and did some work? And honestly why should I or families worry about an A or an F when it literally makes no difference. In middle school flunking every single course rarely if ever results in being held back so why bother? I used to fight with students to get them to turn in work to raise their grades. Now I spend that time encouraging them to learn and regain control over their learning without worry about getting more points. I’m so tired of punishing my students when I’d rather be enjoying them and learning with them.

What fears did you have about abolishing grading?

Oh man it was hard! I mean after 19 years of giving grades I was worried that without the carrot my students would stop working! If mine is the only class where there are no grades then every other class will take precedence over mine. My class won’t matter and I think Science is very important! I was also afraid of what parents would say. I didn’t want to upset my students’ parents. I need them on my side. Well, my fears did come true because there were a few disappointed and unhappy parents. The parents of the students who are on track for college and doing well in the current system, meaning they know how to get A’s, were not pleased. 
So how did I deal with the unhappy parents? I was as available as I always was to share how their child was doing. All I had to do was check their blogs and look through their notebooks to tell their parent what they had done and what they were missing. I also had no problem giving those students an A on the report card. Those students are successful no matter what I did so it was fine. 

What challenges did you encounter with abolishing grading?

Besides disappointing a few families not much really. My principal was very supportive. My staff supported me even though they either didn’t agree with what I was doing or even though they wouldn’t do it themselves. I do appreciate talking this process over with the other teachers in my building because I get to hear the so-called other side of abolishing grades or why they think grading is still important or pertinent. The fear of students doing less work or no work at all and not learning is what I hear the most. When I recommend they read Alfie Kohn I get the kind of polite agreement that we all know means they they don’t feel they have the time to read another book. My Twitter PLN has been the best support I’ve had and I wouldn’t have done this, at least not yet, without their advice, support and guidance. I think the best way I’ve recently thought about abolishing grades is that if differentiating instruction is the way to go then we have to differentiate assessment and the best way to do that if to give students feedback in the form of information.

Are you willing to speak with others who are interested in abolishing grading?

Yes -

Twitter: @educatoral
Skype: educatoral

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