Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Replacing Grading

Years ago, I struggled with the idea of dispensing with summative assessment as much as professionally possible. My reasons are extinsive, and you can read about them in a previous blog post of mine called The Museum of Education.

Here, my purpose is to show how I replaced summative assessment, things like rubrics, grades, averages, decimal points and judgements.

My discontent with grades runs long and deep, but I became fully conscious of my disgust for them when I read Alfie Kohn's article The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement. I then developed an idea of how to not only abolish grades but how to replace them with formative feedback when I read Kohn's book The Schools Our Children Deserve. It was here that I first read about something Kohn has come to call Bruner's Law:
So I set out to develop a replacement for grading.
Children should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment but as information.

I used www.prezi.com to explain the three categories I use to provide feedback for students.

Formative Assessment Template

I use these three categories for not only my written feedback, but also my two-way conversations. I guide the way I speak to my students by providing what I see, suggestions and questions. Remember though, that my ultimate goal is still to provide information for children to improve while avoiding rewards and punishments that reflect a behaviourists approach. (For more on how the great coach John Wooden also followed this approach, read my blog post Information vs Reward and Punishment.)

But remember, even the best forms of assessment can be over done. I remember when I first started using this kind of assessment and how I started to use the formal written version far too often. Any kind of reflection, no matter how valuable, should only be done sparingly. It makes sense to only stop and reflect occasionally - while the rest of the time we should just be doing whatever it is we are learning.

You have to understand that to replace grades means that we have to abolish them and replace them with something entirely different - and that means we need to stop mistaking measuring students with helping them improve.

It is important to point out that I am still required to put a grade on my students report card. The School Act in Alberta demands it. And so I oblige. But no where does it say that I have to have a collection of grades that I average in order to come up with a final grade. In fact, my school district's policy for reporting pupil progress writes:
Information relating to student progress must be substantiated by a carefully kept set of records, as well as samples of student work.
You'll notice that no where does it say that we must reduce learning to a number or letter in order to come up with a number or letter. I challenge you to look at your district's reporting policy to find out exactly what it says the teacher must do when reporting pupil progress.

We can't measure our way to learning. If we really want to 'close the achievement gap' while we 'leave no child left behind' as we strive for 'life-long learning', then we have to stop judging, ranking, sorting and measuring - and we have to start listening, learning, teaching, guiding and observing.

In otherwords, we have to stop confusing doing things to children with working with children.

For more on abolishing grading, check out this page.


  1. This is great. I applaud your efforts in working to make change. How can we make this a revolution? How can we spread the goodness of this?

    I am going to share this w/ my colleagues. How does your admin appreciate this? What are the implications at the post-secondary level?

  2. You had me at Alfie Kohn. My thoughts are so closely aligned with this post of yours. How fabulous. I'm not sure if I was supposed to be introduced to you...or to Google Prezi today. Glad I found out about BOTH!

    Kudos to you for your good work. It is ingenious...and refreshing...and so needed!

  3. @jsteltz: I have struggled for 5 years with those questions. I don't know how we can cause the kind of change we desire.

    I don't have a good answer for you, but I think what we are doing here is on the right track. We need to blog, twitter, facebook and social network our way to spreading the word. Educate everyone we can on the myths of school. For the most part, normal people are ignorant to these truths. Too many people just assume homework, grades, tests, rewards and punishments are a necessary part of school.

    @Kidlutions: I'm glad we met up. Spread the word!

  4. I loved this. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I'm with you, Joe! My last trimester of the year is about a month away and I'm going to try losing grades. I use Easy Grade Pro, which allows me to do standards grading and that sounds like what you are doing with your averaging scores. EGP averages a 1-4 or 1-5 rubric score for each state standard as I add scores for individual assignments. So for a progress report each child will see a list of standards with one number by each standard showing the level of mastery. I think that is so much better than a grade even though it's not as good as a narrative. But I see 150 students a day so I'm not going to take on more than I can handle! Our elementary switched to standards grading so my 6th graders come to me already used to it. The time is right!


  6. It's great to see teachers building a system around their values (and the research) instead of the other way around. I was wondering though if you have students fill out one of these forms as well, to first prompt reflection without specifying points on which to reflect. If you do, I'd love to hear about your experiences with that.

    I'm also curious as to what you think about publishing student work to get feedback from a more diverse audience. For example, there are networks of young writers that already share and comment on each other's work, for free.

    Again, thanks for being critical and standing up against the status quo on behalf of your students! Would it be alright if I reposted this prezintation on my own blog (http://powertothelearner.tumblr.com/), crediting this post of course?

  7. CVF, go ahead and repost this with a link so people can find the original. Thanks for the comment, and thanks for taking an interest in such an important, yet controversial, topic.

  8. Al, it looks like you are on a similar journey as me. Keep tinkering with grading until you finally can abolish them for good.

  9. Definitely some great food for thought. I like the idea on both a personal and professional level. Will be doing some experimenting on this and you gave me some books to read as well . . . my summer reading list is growing!

  10. Kudos to your distinction between measuring and helping learners. How do your observations and feedbacks influence what you write on your students' report cards at the end of term? Do you have a "standardized" system that sufficiently rules out the potential accusation of personal tastes and whims getting the better in the process of grading?

  11. Joe - this sounds significantly simliar to an approach in Special Education called Anecdotal Reporting or Comprehensive reporting. However, I do have one question you mention the term assessment, and all assessment are a measure of a variability according to either a standard, or some other quantifing item. As a result every, assessment has a outcome that comes with it a label. Here in is the question, how are you reporting the assessment without relating a students "achivement". In addition I have one final question. I have no intention of persuading you from your conviction as I do agree that its a students progress should be noted not what they have accomplished or how well they have accomplished it.

    My question is are you preparing students for what the current ideals are within society, where there are scores in everything. As life has both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.

  12. What are you talking about "scores in everything?" What in your life as an adult has scores, as measured numerically on a scale and affecting your future? And, if life *does* have "scores in everything," is it really such a complicated subject that it requires 12 years of training at the sacrifice of an actual education, just to teach a kid about this scoring system?? If a child can understand it in kindergarten, then couldn't we just give them a break from it until adulthood?