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Saturday, December 30, 2017

Top 4 Reasons To Go Gradeless

Disclaimer, I am no expert on this topic. Dr. Bjork, Learning Scientists, Dr. Pooja Agarwal, Alfie Kohn, Rick Wormeli, and many others educators have inspired me to move to a gradeless system. I just feel like this is the best thing to do for our students. Here are the top 4 reasons I feel like we should stop grading and some tips to help you (and me) to #DitchGrades.

1.    School should be about learning not performing: Grades put an emphasis on performance. I am not saying performance is bad, however, I just don’t feel like grades are the best indicator of real mastery performance. To me if you have mastered a concept you can recall it over a period of time and you can be fluent in the concept to apply to other situations. For instance, if a student performed well on a test does that mean they have truly learned the concept? How does one test determine if a student has learned a concept? Students practice strategies that can help them with performance but do not help them with learning (Cramming). All the research I have found suggest that student need to struggle in order to truly learn. It seems counter-intuitive that if we are struggling with a topic that this must not be good for learning, but that struggle is exactly what are brain needs for long term retention. If we grade everything will students be willing to take chances? Will students value the struggle that is indicative of real learning if there are such high stakes with every test, quiz, and project? In my observations this high-stake environment produces strategies for short term memorization that allow students to do well on a test but not well for retention and fluency.

2.    Grades bring a competitive nature that is not inclusive to learning: You pass back a test and what is the first thing students do? Well if your students are like mine they look at their grade and start comparing themselves to the rest of the class. Instead of looking at what they got wrong and how they can improve they look at a score and determine their success. If my students aren’t comparing themselves to each other they are assessing their self-worth to their score. “I got a C, I must be stupid.” Or “I got an A, I must be smart” What if the student who got a C was making their best better but the person who got an A didn’t challenge themselves at all, who was more successful? How does grades help motivate either of these students to keep challenging themselves to make their best better? Even students who get an A on a test have room to improve. Instead students who got an A sometimes limit themselves to their full potential because of a score. I have also found that grades put student vs teacher. I want to be a student’s biggest support, guide, and their biggest fan.  Grades just put a wedge in that relationship, especially in the students who struggle academically. I can’t tell you how many of my students felt like I didn’t like them or cared for them because I gave them a poor mark. If we ended grading I think students would just focus on producing their best work.

3.    Students due the minimalist task to get that A: When I assign a project, my students first question is “What can I do to get an A?” Since the students are so focused on a grade and not learning they pick the easiest task to get that A. Essentially the students are learning how to game a system that is not representative to the world they will live and work in. Grades tell the absolute minimum about their abilities but instead tell them if they have earned enough points under the teacher’s rubric.

4.    Employees and colleagues are putting less importance of grades: A few years ago, our school started looking at the data between grades and the ACT score. We found that students who on average got A’s performed lower than expected. We also found out that our students who got D’s and C’s actually scored higher then what their grades would suggest. Essentially, grades are not accurate indicator of performance. During this year’s career day a job recruiter told me that the top 4 things that employers are looking for form college graduates.
1)      Volunteer Experience
2)      International experience
3)      Work Experience
4)      Sports Experience
Did you notice what was missing? The recruiter would go on to tell me that some employers don’t like to see a 4.0 because it might show that a new hire hasn’t been challenged or doesn’t know how to handle setbacks. My mom was a project manager for a Fortune 500 company for over 20 years. At no time did my mom get a grade or give a grade to any of her employers. Instead my Mom managed by setting goals, evaluating progress, developing relationships, and mentoring her employees on how to improve.*EDIT*I guess technically that is not true, she did give performance reviews on a scale from 1-5. I guess some might say that is some sort of a grade but the only difference is that according to my mom if you as an employee are doing everything that is required of you the best score you could get is a 3. She said many of her employees struggled with this because they had hard time understanding the concept of going above and beyond. I think that mindset is a reflection of our educational system. People are use to figuring out the the bare minimum to get an A and when they get out and practice that mentality it doesn't measure up with business. In business a 3 or average is our A. Do we really want to be promoting a system that produces average workers? *EDIT*

Tips and Strategies
1.    Stop Grading: Seriously! Just stop. Hand back the next few exams with just feedback and no score and see what happens. Ideally if we could move our school systems to a gradeless system this would be the best for all of our stakeholders. I don’t understand why my son, who is in first grade, does not have grades and seems to learn and perform just fine. Why at third grade do we say we need to start having grades? I heard one of the reasons why is that we need to get students ready for middle school; middle school grades because they want to get students ready for high school; high school grades to get students ready for college; college grades because…Just because someone else that practices a bad habit doesn’t mean we should too.

2.    Grade Conferences:  OK, I know we live in the real world and at the end of the semester I am still going to have to give a grade. What can I do about it? I was inspired recently by this blog post, by Adam Halliahn, where he outlined why he is going gradeless and using grade conferences. I am still new to this concept of using grade conferences but I want to try this out next semester. Basically, you have a conference at the end of the semester with each student and you let them choose their grade, which I can accept or not. What I like about this is students have to defend and explain the grade they want against the learning objectives. I want to use the interactive notebooks, that I started doing this year, as a portfolio of their learning. Not sure why I haven’t thought about this earlier with the notebooks and this could help with some of my students grumbling on using them.

3.   Diagnostic Feedback: instead of just writing a grade on assignments you give comments that help the learner stay on track of the learning objective. I have played around with this concept last semester in two forms. The first method is on assessment I give students comments on what they needed to improve on. Even for students who got everything correct I would leave a comment of how they can extend their learning i.e. “how can you represent this information on a graph?” What I like about this that even getting a 100% makes students think and find ways to improve. One way I would help facilitate this is I would have a printout of comments of common errors or extensions and would highlight the correct feedback for each student. The second method is I would give the correct answer and comments. I started doing this because some of my students were having trouble understanding if they got the problem correct or not and when they tried to rework the problem the wanted the correct answer to check their work. The only thing I didn’t like is students tend to just focus on what they got right and wrong and don’t reflect on how to improve. I ask sometimes “Why do I take so much time to leave feedback to students if they just look at their score and throw away their paper?”

4.    Delayed Grades: Wait to the end of a unit to post students grades. Especially if you are doing Standards Based Grading and allowing retakes this will give more of an accurate representation of the student’s grade. This also forces students to focus on the feedback you give them instead of their grade. I will say that sometimes this feels like not doing best practices but I do feel like it is at least better then putting scores on everything you hand back.

5.    Personal Growth Reports: This concept I got from Dane Ehlert. He explains this concept in his blog post. This strategy is giving students a report every month that tells students how they are doing for each learning objective in growth mindset language. Each report also has extra practice and challenge exercise to get better. I started doing Personal Growth Days this year but need to refine how I am doing this.  They take a lot of work to do and I didn’t feel like the students value them because I started posting grades online. If I go to a complete gradeless system Personal Growth Reports will be essential. My hope is that students would look at their Personal Growth Reports and take ownership in which learning objective they want to improve. Instead of the learning being teacher directed the Personal Growth Reports can allow for a more student-centered learning environment.

Articles that have inspired me
1.       Aligning Assessment to Brain Science (YouCubed)
3.       The Emotional Weight of Being Graded (Linda Flanagan)
4.       The Case Against Grades (Alfie Kohn)
6.       Why Do Schools Use Grades That Teach Nothing? (Jonathan Lash)

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