Friday, July 23, 2010

Grading Moratorium: Jason Bedell

It is my pleasure to add Jason Bedell to a list of educators dedicated to abolishing grades. Here's Jason:
Jason Bedell
Morristown, New Jersey, USA.
Grade 6-8 information literacy

At what stage of the abolish grading game are you?

Last year, I was a teacher-librarian. I was in a situation where I still taught daily, but did not have my own students. I was able to focus just on helping them learn without having to worry about grading them. This was immensely liberating.  A few days ago, after conversations with like minded educators Chad Sansing and Alfonso Gonzalez I approached my administrators. I am blessed to have a very supportive administration in my current school and after I explained my reasoning, I was given permission to stop using grades. So, compared to Joe’s six years, I am a relative novice. I do, though, believe strongly that it will be for the betterment of my students.

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

My first two years of teaching were miserable. If I hadn’t been rejuvenated through both my PLN on Twitter and through becoming a library media specialist, there is a good chance that I would not be in education.
A large part of that is due to the ridiculous amount of paperwork I had to do to document and justify grades, fighting with students to improve their grades (or else), and arguing with parents over how their child could have possibly achieved the grade they did. To top it all off, it never reflected what my kids really knew. I had smart but lazy kids who failed because they didn’t do the work (Which, if I can assess that they already know it, they should not have it.). I had kids who never demonstrated mastery barely passing by turning in a giant stack of work they did not try on the day grades were do. The system was a mess; beyond that, I was a mess because I was abiding by a broken system.
Also, I noticed that grades had almost completely overtaken learning as a primary motivator of students. It was much worse with my juniors than my freshman, which reflects my belief that the longer a person is in the system of school, the more he/she is affected by it. I was the students to learn because they want to learn. I cannot inspire them to do so when I am setting a grade on a pedestal as what is most important in my class.

What do you do in replace of grading?

There is a slight but important difference to me between grading and assessing. Grading is the process of documenting and symbolically representing what students know. Assessing is determining what students currently know and taking action based on that information to help them grow.
I still very much assess. I assess by giving individual feedback. I differentiate for my students. I differentiate instruction because they are not all doing the same assignment. Often, 30 kids will be doing 30 different but related things. This is time-consuming, but very worthwhile. If we differentiate our assessment, then we also need to differentiate our assessment.
My current plan (which may change in the details, but not in the vision) is to use Google Spreadsheets. Each student will have his or her own spreadsheet, which I will share with the student, the student’s guardians, the guidance counselor, and the administration. We are all a team and all need access to best help the students. In the spreadsheet, I will include a standard (For example: Students will be able to write a basic website in HTML.) and a narrative explanation that includes what the student has learned, how the student has or has not demonstrated mastery of the standard, and where the student needs to grow. I believe this will be infinitely more useful to everyone, especially the students, than a B- or a 78.

How do you establish a grade if you have no grades?

The short answer is that I don’t. My class is going to be setup as a pass/fail class. I will be teaching 6th graders for the first time and an elective class for the first time. GPA is not nearly as vital for these students as it is for high school juniors and seniors.
The long answer is slightly more involved. When you get in the habit of giving individual feedback, you are constantly having discussions and conferences with the students. This is a two-way street where you also are listening to the student and attending to the student’s needs. During the course of the year, you should have built a good rapport and a trusting relationship. Therefore, when that trust is in place, it is perfectly reasonable to have another conference with the student and discuss his/her work and what he/she deserves. In my experience, students almost universally give themselves lower grades than teachers when they are being honest and if you have invested time in building trust, there is no reason that they will no be honest.

What fears did you have about abolishing grading?

Honestly, I did not have any once I really realized that it was best for the students. I did address some common fears here, but my personality tends to be one that enjoys risk. I thrive in that environment. That does not mean that I take unnecessary risks with my students; I am more responsible than that.
What is does signify is that I would rather take a risk to do something great with my students than settle for mediocrity. There is so much mediocrity in education because we don’t take the time to reflect on what we are doing. To do things as they have always been done, without thought, is to accept mediocrity. I did that for the better part of two years and I vowed that I would never do so again when I started my third year. I have not looked back from that decision. I have failed and made mistakes, but more imp
ortantly, I have made strides with students that I did not know were possible in my first two years of education.

What challenges did you encounter with abolishing grading?

The biggest challenge for me was coming to the realization that this was even possible. I had been advocating standards-based grading, which is a very important movement in its own right, but it took a push from some great educators to make me realize that if I wanted to focus my assessment around authentic feedback, then I should just abandon grades altogether.

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

Of course. I feel that dialogue between educators is one of the most important methods that we all can grow. You can contact me on my blog (Make sure you check out the summer guest blog series on assessment. It is relevant to this conversation.), by email, by phone (Just leave a message and I’ll call you back.), on Skype, or on Twitter.
Twitter: @jasontbedell
Skype: jasontbedell
Phone: 931-320-9582

If you are interested in being a part of this grading moratorium, e-mail your story to

See other teachers who are committed to abolishing grading, see my Grading Moratorium Page.

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