Thursday, July 22, 2010

Grading without Grading

I continue to receive e-mails from teachers asking me how I come up with a grade if I have no grades. Well, in 2006 I had the exact same question and so I decided to e-mail the very same person who convinced me to abolish grading in the first place: Alfie Kohn.

Below is the e-mail I wrote to Alfie in 2006, followed by his response.

Dear Alfie,
 I am a sixth year middle school teacher at Westpark Middle School in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. I am writing to you with two purposes:
 1. I want to thank you for all of the well researched books and articles that you have published. I am a very different teacher now compared to when I started. I no longer give grades, assign homework, or use rewards and punishment. 
 2. I have eliminated grades from my classroom with the exception of the three report cards that my district policy demands, and I have replaced everyday grading with real comments and constructive feedback, but I am struggling with how I can somehow convert (or symbolize) all the feedback as a grade. (I don't want to, but I have to) Do you have any suggestions??
 thank you
 Joe Bower
Here is the advice that Alfie Kohn provided me:

Thanks for your message and your kind words.  My primary answer to your question is "Bring the kids in on it."  This should be a decision you make with them, not for them.  That goes for the general class policy (and the rationale for it) as well the specific grade given to each student.  Some teachers meet with each student individually and decide together what the final grade will be.  Others, who are more willing to give up control and empower students, simply let the student decide.  (They invariably report that students end up picking the same grade that the teacher would have given, and sometimes they even suggest a lower one.  But the advantages of letting the kids decide are incalculable, and the process also has the salutary effect of neutralizing the destructive effects of having to give grades in the first place.)
 Good luck!
 -- Alfie Kohn
I still abide by this profound advice.

Kohn's primary answer to my question remains at the heart of my assessment practices:
Bring the kids in on it.
What is "it", you ask?

To answer what "it" is, I think I need to answer the question "How do you grade without grading?":

Firstly, even if a grade is demanded of you for the report card, it makes very little sense to me that the only way to come up with a final average would be to take a list of other averages and average them together to get a final average. I'm no mathemagician, but that smells fishy to me.

So if that's what I don't do, here's what I do:

1) My students collect the evidence of their learning in their paper and electronic portfolios. The paper one is nothing fancy - just a file folder while the electronic one takes the form of a discussion forum or a Ning that I created using or

2) I am a professional. I spend hours everyday with each of my students for 10 months of the year. I get to know them quite well, so my professional judgement and intuitive thinking count for a lot - and have proven to be quite accurate (there is a wealth of evidence to support that teachers assessment of their students may be the most accurate form of assessment we can depend on). There is no substitute for what a teacher can see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears when observing and interacting with students while they are learning.

3) I ask the students to self-assess. It is amazing how close they come to picking the same grade that I would pick. Interestingly enough, when there is disagreement between me and them, they are usually too hard on themselves - and the odd time a kid over-inflates their grade, I either decide to let it go or I have a conversation with the student and make the adjustment.

Abolishing grading liberated both my teaching and my students learning. Professionally, it was one of the most successful and meaningful decisions I could have ever made.


  1. Thank you for writing this and sharing you reasons why. I have been struggling with grades in a 4th grade setting and now feel that my intuition was right; not to grade and instead give better feedback. Thank you for giving me the extra push I needed!

  2. Hi Joe,

    How did you present your new approach to parents when you first began.

    During the 19 years (1965-1984) I worked at the elementary level in a school district in CT, our teachers shared children's progress via narrative reports plus periodic parent/teacher conferences. Most teachers and parents were quite comfortable with this more personal approach although a few of the fathers still wanted grades. At that point the moms stepped right in and became the advocates for their kids and the school.

    Right now, without grades, do you conference with parents who want more information?

    I'd like to share something very positive which is done here in most Israeli schools which are in the dark ages when it comes to GRADES.

    Beginning in the very early grades the child participates in the 2 or 3 scheduled yearly teacher conferences. It's very open and, at least with my children, was positive in nature. Furthermore, it is often a good time to deal head on with any problems which may have arisen during the course of the year. And— it fits right in with Alfie Kohn's advice "to bring the kids in on it."


  3. Inspired by both you and Alfie Kohn, I had my 8th and 9th grade students grade themselves fourth quarter of the previous school year.

    At the end of the school year, I had each student fill out an anonymous survey. In answer to the question "What was your most positive experience in this class?" one student responded:

    "I learned more about how to judge myself. When I first started grading myself, I was clueless. But now I know how to grade myself and find out what to improve on."

    How can our students ever learn how to evaluate their own progress if we as teachers are the only evaluators in our classrooms? I will definitely continue "bringing kids in on it" in my classes.

  4. I'd add one more step a la Benjamin Zander (TED and Art of Possibility). He asked students to write a letter to him on the first day as if it were the last day. The letter started: Dear Mr Zander, I got an A in this class because....

    These were college and grad students, but I think it would be worth while modifying this activity for younger kids especially in classes where they will be involved in determining their final grade. The exercise can help make it clear what is expected, what is important and take into account individual differences, needs, etc.


  5. I also ask the kids at the end of each quarter what grade I should enter for their report cards and please share evidence. I find that I have to talk to about 5-10% each quarter and we bump the grade up--that number goes down as the year goes on.
    I also do not bring my "grade book" to parent meetings. As soon as you do it seems the parents want numbers and you never get past the numbers.
    I think great advice for new teachers would be to leave the book behind, come in with a paragraph/story about the kid. Sure...give the parents that one letter grade for the quarter if they want it...but make that the last letter/or number you use when talking about the kid.
    Drives me crazy when I hear teachers just talk about a kid in terms of test scores, or % of HW completed.

  6. Homework has its benefits in teaching. I doubt tests do or grades I would not mind living and teaching in a world where I do not need give tests but if I did not give tests I would be fired. I will always give homework though it helps me to see in math what my students can be challenged to do without the time restraints of the classroom.

  7. At our school, kids write a reflection each semester for their report cards. They reflect on their weaknesses and strengths, what they have enjoyed, goals for improvement, and so on. And they are remarkably good at it. At other times in the year, we have student led conferences, where the students talks to parents (and teacher) about his learning, showing his development in his portfolio. The point is, it's THEIR learning. Seems ridiculous that they shouldn't be part of evaluating it.

  8. @ Joe
    Congrats on the system! Boo! on William Farisha and the beginning of letter grades.

  9. I teach high school Spanish in Jefferson County in Kentucky. As part of a cohort that is focusing on student proficiency, I found it difficult to transition to give up "grades". To help students, parents and me transition, I created a "I can..." stamp sheet that has the unit goals listed. In class we focus on being able to DO one of those goals. I don't grade them on how well they can do it until the end of the unit using a proficiency-based rubric. This sheet takes care of grades for participation, daily class word, formative quizzes, homework and study guides. My students like the sheets because they always know what they need to work on. I can show this sheet to parents when they ask about their student's progress. I explain that we are learning a skill, like playing the piano. I'm not "grading" them until the concert, but they have to show practice and accomplish specific skills.
    Furthermore, a good rubric is key to assess them at the end of the unit. To satisfy the district's and school's grade policy, I assign a grade based on their proficiency level. If they "meet expectations", I give a B+. If they "exceed expectations", A+, If they are "approaching expectations", C+ and everything else is a U/F. I don't give D's. Students can redo any assessment if THEY want to improve.
    Overall this change has created more language production, better focused lesson plans, students working harder than me and less grading for me!

  10. This post helps me a lot. Like you, the "Bring them in on it," resonates for me. We've recently switched to a standards-based report card in elementary. The proficiency scale is from 1-3 so it almost boils down to regular grades. I believe students are fair assessors of their own understanding (when consulted). I'm going to consult them much more often this year. Thanks.
    Also I appreciate the mention that as professionals, our judgement counts. I spend intense hours with these students and what I see is telling despite it lacking percentiles and standard deviations.

  11. How do you deal with colleagues who feel you are slacking if you don't grade everything that comes across your desk and you don't have "enough" points in the gradebook?

  12. I would love to do this. I'm held back by two things.

    The first is that I'm the teacher-librarian, teaching library stuff, music, and a little French to make up a full timetable. I could probably do this with the French class, but most of the other classes I see only twice a week. I'm wondering about how to bring this in to a prep-coverage situation like mine when no other teacher in the school is doing it.

    2) My board of education requires us to post learning goals (no problem there) and success criteria, which include some type of gimmick showing level one, level two, level three, and level four work. The idea is to use those levels to teach the kids to assess their own work so they can improve it. I have some problems with this, though I think it's not too far from what you've suggested here and certainly far better than me doing all the grading. My problem is that it's too limiting. How am I supposed to know what a creative level four piece of work is going to look like in advance? The whole point is that it's creative, and the students created it! How am I supposed to quantify that? I'm annoyed at the way standardized curricula limit authentic learning. I had a situation last year in grade five when I taught the 360-degree circle, because my kids couldn't remember the 90-degree angle without some context. By the time the lesson was over (I showed them the ancient Babylonian idea of six equilateral triangles making up the circle, then cut the circle into four instead of six) they had independently discovered complimentary and supplimentary angles. I did a couple of activities to get them to explain their thinking, and let the other kids in on the secret discovered by about half the class, and then I told them they'd just figured out some high school math and I was giving them all an A for that portion. But I didn't anticipate it, so it wouldn't have fit onto that neat little four-level chart.

  13. Nice post.

    Some teachers at my school who have to give quarter and semester grades but don't like grades have a method that doesnt students in to it but is still pretty good-- they create the final grade based on demonstrated improvement rather than an average of points. Another class at my school bases grades on what kids argue for themselves, or gives a narrative assessment instead of grades. I hope it catches on more.

  14. First, let me say that I think it would be really fun to teach in Alberta for a year. I appreciate all of the thoughtful ingenuity coming out of your area.

    I have some questions. Do you still have to fill out a report for parents? If so, what does it look like? I taught elementary school and transitioned from a curriculum based traditional report card to a standards-based reporting system: A,B,C,D,F to 4,3,2,1 The 4,3,2,1 had little correlation to the grading method and was primarily determined by summative assessments required by the district. I'm not too familiar with Canada and it looks like you all have sense enough to still have curriculum. Standards-based education has taken a stronghold on U.S. public schools, thanks to efforts tracing back through many presidencies.