Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Grading Moratorium: Mark Skelding

Mark Skelding has joined the Grading Moratorium. Want to join? Here's how.

Professor at Southern New Hampshire University-Vermont Center’s Field-Based Graduate Program in Education, in Colchester, Vermont.

At what stage of abolishing grading are you?

I often wonder if the marking period during high school, when I deliberately tried for all B’s and no A’s, and succeeded, might have been the actual beginning of my fight against grading. I currently teach graduate level courses on formative assessment and grading reform for practicing teachers coming back to school to get their Master’s Degrees. As I tell my students in the grading course, I vowed years ago, after starting to uncover during my 12 years as a middle school teacher what I now know about grading, that I would never grade anyone ever again. Although our program could move to a Pass/Fail (which is still grading) system, school districts in our area still require letter grades as a measure for whether to pay for/reimburse a teacher for the courses they take. Consequently, we still give a final grade. But it is the only grade the teacher receives at any time during the course, and it is a standards-based grade based on their progress (growth) score which they are sustaining at the time the course ends … and I don’t give the grade. I will explain below.

Why do you want to/did you abolish grading?

One title I’ve given my work is “The Theoretical, Technical and Ethical Reasons for Abandoning Grading.” Grades and the whole notion of grading student learning are flawed on every level you can think of. Most obvious is the unfair subjectivity and arbitrary decision-making involved in the practice. But also, theoretically, systems thinking, constructivist learning theory, and cognitive science all reveal that learning is formative. Evaluation (grading) is summative, the antithesis of formative. Technically, practices such as averaging, weighting, composite grading and giving zeros are all unfair on varying levels. And ethically, and I would argue morally, grading and use of cut-score-scales is wrong because it is an inherently discriminatory practice. Please see my accompanying articles that explain each of these in more detail.

The overriding reason I want to abolish grading is because it is a social justice issue. I firmly believe that, whether knowingly, willingly or unwittingly, it is an insidious means by which we are helping reinforce and sustain a class system in this country.

What do you do in place of grading?

The system I’ve been teaching, and simultaneously using with our students, is a formative, standards-based progress scoring approach. Each of our courses is comprised of a set of standards which drives the instructor’s planning and instruction, and which students are given multiple opportunities throughout the course to continue showing growth in. The students are given a course standards checklist at the beginning of the course, the scoring-to-grade process is explained to them first thing, and once they understand how they will be getting graded they determine their own cut- score-scale from which their final progress grade will be determined.

From then on the instructor is responsible for designing learning opportunities that engage the students in those standards every step of the way, and the students are responsible for taking advantage of those opportunities to continue growing in those skills. The students know that their final grade will be based on their continuing progress. In order to be given credit for making progress, every time they are assessed they must show new evidence in their course portfolio, new and different from the body of work looked at for their prior assessment, that they have made progress in the standards since the last time they were assessed.

Periodically during the course the students, whether through self-assessment or peer assessment, share their accumulating body of work (course portfolio) and are assessed on whether their latest body of work shows that they have grown/progressed/ advanced in some way in each of the course standards since the last time their checklist was completed. Their course standard checklist is then marked accordingly.

At the end of the course a final assessment occurs, and it is that final assessment that then gets converted into a final grade (evaluation). And that grade is an individualized, criterion-referenced progress grade (as opposed to a norm-referenced attainment grade which typical cut-score-grading scale grades are) that is simply based on the number of course standards the student is showing sustained progress in at the time of reporting.

So for example, if there are 8 course standards and the student can show during the final assessment that she is sustaining progress in 6 of the 8 standards, she then plugs her progress score of 6 (out of 8) into her personal cut-score-grading scale she gave herself at the beginning of the course and gives herself a grade. If her personal cut-score-scale is 7-8=A, 5-6=B, 3-4=C, 1-2=D, 0=F, she would give herself a B, which we then submit to the Registrar’s Office.

What fears do/did you have about abolishing grading?

Now? Absolutely none. In the beginning I think my greatest discomfort was feeling like I was doing something wrong by not conforming to the system. I no longer have any of those feelings, especially with what I now know about grades and grading.

What challenges do you encounter with abolishing grading?

Although I still encounter some teachers who are set in their belief in the validity, reliability and fairness of grades and grading, most teachers I work with are begging for a better way for accounting for student learning. The biggest challenge for me in my current position is teachers feeling that there are systemic obstacles preventing them from moving forward. These obstacles range from parents wanting grades because that’s what they had when they were in school, to students wanting grades because that’s all they’ve known and in their minds the only thing that counts, to electronic grade books that force teachers to have to give grades (which we reveal during the course can be gotten around).

I remind them that if we can be doing what we’re doing with them at the university level, a level of schooling where typically there is an extremely conservative belief in/emphasis on grades, then they can be doing the same at their school.

Are you willing to provide contact information for others interested in abolishing

Yes. Please feel free to contact me at m.skelding@snhu.edu.

1 comment:

  1. In the secondary class I teach I have moved to using Not Meeting, Minimally Meeting, Meeting, and Exceeding expectations for all assignments. We develop criteria for Fully Meeting, then I give feedback and have students revise assignments until they Fully Meet or Exceed. This loop can occur more than 20X in some cases. Twice a semester I report out with a % (because I have to) but prior to that I conference w students and of course give some chances to upgrade evidence of learning. As assignments are mandatory and must be fully meeting to be accepted, there is more "I" (in progress) paperwork, but we get away from C grades entirely. There are fewer assignments, but all must be done with much more care. It works well, especially for reluctant learners, and the course skills seem to transfer better to the 40% Ministry exam. I believe this works well in the system we are in and I'm not going back to traditional assessment. It will also work well as we move toward more personalized learning and would work well if we ever get to a place where percentages and letter grades were no longer used at all.


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