Saturday, July 24, 2010

Grading Moratorium: John Spencer

John Spencer has joined the Grading Moratorium. Want to join? Here's how.

John Spencer
Pheonix, Arizona, USA
Grade 8
All subjects
Low Socio-Economic School

At what stage of the abolish grading game are you?

I'm still figuring it out, but I think I've hit my stride.  It has taken six years.  First it started in my second year of teaching, when I went from "weighted grades" to a system of mastery (retakes allowed, no due dates). I still graded daily, though.  In my third year, I went project-based and used rubrics, but I also included tests and homework.  I spent less time grading and more time assessing.  I expected pushback, but no one cared.  

In the fourth year, I instituted a no-fail rule, where all students passed.  I also allowed students to help plan the projects and design the rubrics. 

In my fifth year, I went to project-based learning with portfolios, but I still assigned letter grades to my projects and I still used rubrics.  I limited tests to a mid-term and final and I allowed students to use any resource necessary on the test.  (I tried to make the tests authentic - concept maps, for example) I also got rid of homework, but provided optional "extension activities" that students could do at home (the completion rate went from 20% to 80% when it was no longer graded) 

In the sixth year, I abolished tests and treated any assessments as a chance for self-reflection. In the sixth year, we switched to standards-based reporting and by district policy I had to count their final "grade" using one multiple choice assessment (60%) of the grade.  So I gave the students all 100% on the rest of their work.   

I can't entirely abolish the grading system, but I will continue to focus on portfolios, self-reflection, peer assessment, teacher conferences and authentic projects.  I do use a rubric for some projects, but it is not necessarily standardized (more of a chart with categories and reflection space).  I will provide data when necessary, but emphasize the qualitative data instead of the quantitative data. 

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

I abolished grades for four reasons.  First was practical.  I realized that grades, like any bribes or extortion (err. . . reinforcements) were killing intrinsic motivation.  The second reason was philosophical.  If I claimed to want critical thinking, community-minded life-long learners, why would I choose a method of assessment that went against all of this?  It was undemocratic.  It was prison-like.  The third reason was educational.  If I believed in student-centered, differentiated (and eventually customized/empowered) learning, I couldn't justify a one-size-fits-all method of assessment.  I couldn't claim to support collaboration and cooperative learning and then have students compete.  The fourth reason was personal.  Authentic assessment lets me know students personally on a level that is not adversarial.  When I know them relationally, I can teach to the individual student.  So, abolishing grading made sense.

What do you do in replace of grading?

Student conferences, peer review, portfolios, projects, authentic rubrics (they do exist), student exhibitions (we do a monthly family night), online publishing, tons of comments - all within a philosophy of mastery.

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

By district mandate, the quarterly drill-and-kill test is worth sixty percent.  Beyond that, all students earn 100%.

What fears did you have about abolishing grading?
I still worry about district office and administration.  Yet, if you are able to prove that they do well on the drill-and-kill test (which they do) the bureaucrats leave you alone.

What challenges did you encounter with abolishing grading?

Many of the "high performing" students were angry at first.  They saw it as unfair.  They viewed school as work and their peers as competitors.  That always takes awhile to encourage them toward a paradigm shift.  Yet, over time they switch and they calm down. They end up learning more once they aren't feeling the pressure.

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

You bet.  I'm not an expert by any means, but I'm up for it.

Contact info:

Twitter: @johntspencer

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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