Wednesday, May 11, 2011

My de-grading philosophy Q & A

When you talk about abolishing grading, does that mean you don't put letter or number grades on individual assignments even though you still have to turn in a final grade? Does it mean anything else?

I never put letter or number grades on individual assignments. Even when I was mandated to place a grade on the students report card 3 or 4 times a year, those report card grades were the only grades my students ever received.

Not only did I never assign letter or number grades on individual tests, I stopped giving tests altogether and moved towards more authentic forms of assessment such as paper and electronic portfolios that exhibited evidence of the students projects-based learning. These portfolios were never graded.

I also stopped giving final exams and instead provided the students with an opportunity to have a say over not only what they've learned but how they wanted to demonstrate it. Step 1: I provide the students with zero questions; they do all the question asking and answering. In language arts and science, students were provided an opportunity to not only generate a response but also actively construct, with my artful guidance, their own assessments. These final projects were never graded. Interestingly enough, I had many students ask if they could keep a copy of their final projects for themselves. When I did give traditional final exams, I can't ever remember a kid asking to keep a copy of the test - in fact, they couldn't leave the test behind fast enough. When I asked one student how they felt about these projects as replacements for final exams, he replied, "You can't construct meaning in a preconceived bubble."

You mention that you ask students to cite evidence of their achievement, so I'm assuming this evidence is meant to support a particular grade that you've invited the kids to propose about the process. Is that right? Can you say more about the process? Do you tell them at the beginning of the term that they'll be asked to do this? 

At the beginning of the school year, I provide the kids with a course description with a section titled Assessment that says:

I am the kind of teacher who strongly believes in creating an environment where students can experience success and failure not as reward and punishment, but as information. I substitute traditional grades with informative feedback that is provided to the students while they are still learning. Report cards will be the only time students will receive a grade in my class. Report card marks will be determined based on (1) the student's projects and learning portfolio (2) my own professional judgement based on what I see and hear while observing and working with the student while they are still learning (3) self-assessments that ask the student to reflect upon their own learning and proposed grade. Assessment throughout the rest of the year will be either written or spoken feedback from me to help the student learn and improve.

While it is true that come report card time students use their projects and portfolios as evidence to support a particular grade of their choice, I never go out of my way to sell or frame learning as merely a means to an end. We don't spend one minute more than we need to discussing the grades - in turn, this de-emphasis on grading allows my students to be attracted to learning for its own sake. I describe this process as a kind of detoxing from grade use in a detailed post here. When learning is the focus, rather than grading, my students are free to see their colleagues and their teacher as allies to collaborate with, rather than as obstacles to be defeated or judges-in-waiting to be avoided or kept at arm's length.

Does your own judgement ultimately count for more than what they propose -- meaning you can veto the grade they suggest? If so, how often does this happen? And is that made clear to them at the beginning? Do they negotiate with you -- or just propose a grade (with supporting evidence) that you then accept or reject? 

Because it is the adults (parents, administrators, other teachers) that have the hardest time accepting an assessment practice based on bringing the kids in on it, I have found it advantageous (read: reassuring for them) to state that it is my professional judgement as the teacher that ultimately counts for more than what the kids propose; however, it is important to note that I go out of my way to minimize my teacher power and very rarely veto or trump what the students suggest unless I deem the discrepancy too large to ignore.

Most of the time, I find students provide a grade that is eerily similar to what I would have provided them had I chosen to monopolize the process; however, there are the odd times when I do disagree with students enough that I feel it necessary to intervene. But it is important to note that for every student who will over-indulge in self-assessment, there are two or three that sell themselves short. Either way, when I deem a student to have misjudged themselves, I engage in a private conversation with them where we engage in an informal discussion revolving around their learning, the evidence of their learning and our two differing opinions about the resulting grade. I try my hardest to ensure we work together to come to a consensus.

Does this happen at a formal conference toward the end of the term? If so, how much time do you take with each student -- and do you do anything at that meeting other than figure out the grade?

I find children are the most honest and the most accurate when these negotiations remain informal and as low-stakes as possible. I also find that the less time and effort I spend making a big deal of the grades, the more time and effort they are willing to spend on their learning. However, if a student expressed an interest in a more formal sit-down, I would provide them with such an opportunity. Otherwise, I ask students to propose their grade along with reflective comments via a written form or on-line blog post. While it is true that I gather their grade proposals this way, I find far more intrinsic value in their comments where they reflect on which projects and activities they enjoyed and learned the most from during the term. In other words, the quantifiable grade conceals far more than what their qualitative comments reveal about their learning.


  1. Did you meet resistance implementing your assessment philosophy? I would love to move toward this way of assessing students, but I don't know how my 7th graders' parents would react when their student suddenly has a grade on their report card after little updates throughout the quarter.

  2. Refreshing! Learning in a manner supporting real life. The Alberta Party is developing education policy supporting outcomes in alignment with what you are accomplishing.

  3. @Danielle I believe that not grading does not mean not updating on progress...constant feedback in other forms would be the updates as to how students are doing. These might be blog posts & comments/questions/things that were good/things that still need some work...They could be essays/lab reports/presentations with the same thing....lots of ways to feedback without numbers

  4. In order to be taken seriously as professionals, we teachers need to begin to promote our own professional judgement and expertise as a valid tool for assessment. Until we do, we will continue to be seen by the public as replaceable widgets. How often does the general public find fault with a doctor's diagnosis? Doctors are seen as professionals capable of making a diagnosis on their own. We need to be seen like that too. I particularly appreciate your comment that you use "my own professional judgment based on what I see and hear while observing and working with the student while they are still learning."

    Andrew Lindsay
    Twitter: @mrandrewlindsay

  5. I just finished facilitating a first-year Introduction to Computer Programming college course. The participants worked either on their own, but mainly in small, self-organized groups. The only “assignment was a term-long projects they selected. At the end of the term, they also assessed their projects and their learning for their grades.

    Rather than share from my perspective, here is a quote from one of the participants. “The lack of regular assignments due on a weekly basis kind of struck me as odd. But as the course progressed, I noticed that the main emphasis was placed on learning, and not so much of just going through the course with the main objective to receive one’s desired grade and move on to the next course. I actually found this to be helpful in several ways. First, the emphasis on learning as opposed to working for a grade inspired me to actually try to figure out what I was doing and how the different elements of programming work as opposed to my usual (and admittedly poor) method of simply figuring out the best way to earn the grade I want. Second, it gave me freedom to not be pressured by deadlines and circumvented a lot of the stresses that I can sometimes encounter during a semester.

    Best regards,
    RJ Johnson

  6. Do you have any samples of the questions and maybe forms that you provide the students to do their assessments?

    This sounds great, I'm just looking for a little help with startup.

  7. Hey Joe,

    When I picture your class, I see students who are engaged in learning and self-reflection. I can see how providing information, not grades, helps students understand their own strengths and challenges in a deeper way than a percentage point does.

    I am curious about how you involve parents in this process. In the district that I am working in, parents get regular updates and can view their child's formative and summative grades online. I imagine parent communication would look different for you. How do you keep parents informed of their child's progress? How often do you communicate with parents?


    Haley O'Connor


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