To Change Everything While Changing Nothing: Going Gradeless
This is the first in a series of posts exploring teaching and learning in the de-graded and de-tested language arts classroom.
The first thing I tell teachers about removing grades is that it changes everything while simultaneously changing nothing. Students still come to class, complete assignments, and receive feedback. Hyper-students, kids who have successfully mastered the convergent thinking and mimicry of traditional schooling, continue their institutionally and culturally-sanctioned quest to acquire as many points as possible. Students who struggle to play along with the game of school’s idiosyncratic and often artificial demands continue to struggle. Students might report an atmosphere of reduced classroom pressure, but for the most part everything functions as it always has.
From my perspective, the decision to remove grades, quizzes, and tests led to two major changes in how I operate as a teacher. First, I had to learn to manage student behavior without using grades as leverage. No longer could I “remind” a disengaged student that the end of the quarter was coming up and that their parents were expecting honor roll. Without that leverage, I was forced to rethink every assignment. Each lesson needed to serve a specific purpose, something larger than the acquisition or maintenance of a number. This was the second shift. I needed to be able to articulate a convincing and meaningful answer to the ubiquitous student question of “Why do I have to do this?” Authentic learning and grades aren’t mutually exclusive, but the absence of the latter heightens the teacher’s responsibility to foster the former.
The first time I told my students I would no longer be grading any of their assignments, it did not go as I had planned. In my mind, I expected to be greeted as a hero, a classroom revolutionary fighting against punitive systems of assessment. Having just read books and articles by Alfie Kohn, Mark Barnes, and Paul Thomas, I delivered a sermon to my first period class on the tyranny of numbers and letters. No longer would students need to worry about the pressures of report cards or quarterly honor roll lists. Beaming, I faced my students, eager to celebrate what was sure to be a new era of unencumbered learning and intellectual freedom.
Instead, I was greeted by blank stares and barely contained rage.
Some students stood up from their desks and berated me, their small hands balled up at their sides. Others glanced at each other and exchanged looks of “This guy can’t be serious.” Most students, however, responded with indifference. At the time, I didn’t understand. Everything I had read about de-grading the classroom stressed the importance of transparency. Of speaking with your students about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Yet the more I tried to explain myself, the more upset students seemed to become. Stumbling over my words, I attempted to mollify the room by explaining how everyone would be responsible for coming up with their own grade. This didn’t help. Grades rewarded good behavior, many protested, and allowing the kid who rarely turned in work to end up with the same grade as the student who dutifully completed every assignment was unfair. The picture at the top of this piece comes from one such student.
Looking back, I now realize I was experiencing what Paul Thomas described as students’ disconnect between “their behavior as students as opposed to learners” (246). By removing the dominant motivator and purpose of school without warning, many students understandably felt cheated and betrayed. I had done little to foster dialogue around issues of assessment and equity with my classes. If anything, I had gone in the opposite direction; I just wanted everyone to think exactly like I did, an irony lost on me at the time. Rather than encouraging students to discuss issues of assessment, grades, and equity, I was attempting to indoctrinate them with my own ideology. Despite the rocky start, I was able to stumble through my attempts at quarterly portfolios and individual grade conferences.
I took a similar approach with my administration. I decided to wait until I had removed every possible grade, quiz, and test from my classroom before bringing it up to my evaluator, one of the assistant principals. I was terrified. I had no clue what I was doing, and I didn’t want to derail the process before I was able to work some things out for myself. The day I introduced the first quarterly portfolio assessment to the students was also the day I revealed everything to my administration. That morning before classes had started, I shuffled into my administrator’s office. Eyes glued to the carpet, I unloaded a stream of consciousness speech about everything I had been doing. As penance, I begged him to come and observe my portfolio roll-out. He didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no, either.
With most of my students and administrators cautiously on board, I was set. As the weeks went by, I realized what Paul Thomas meant when he wrote, “Non-traditional practices in any classroom make direct and indirect commentaries on other classrooms, the practices in those classrooms, and the teachers/professors leading those classrooms” (248). Over time, I came to feel like the entire school building was against me. Honor roll lists and admonitions to “do your best on the test!” plastered the halls. Students were routinely told that school was their job and that grades were their paycheck. Parent-teacher conferences were shackled by a language of learning that emphasized measurable progress and little else.
I became known as the easy teacher among some students and even a few colleagues. I don’t blame them. As Karen Surman Paley writes, “Any pedagogy that results in grading students, ranking them in their class, and providing the basis for records…is part of capitalist relations of power and authority” (26). Without points to fight for and assignments to dominate, it’s easy to paint my class as “soft.” I’ve come to accept that regardless of how hard I push my students to read, write, think, and speak critically, a certain segment of the school population will always think my class is easy because students don’t receive marks.
My district does, however, require me to input at least one grade for every quarter. I’ve handled this a few different ways. For instance, students and I have worked together to create criteria that they use to assess themselves during the portfolio process. Most students give themselves B’s. Anything higher risks extra teacher scrutiny, while anything lower has the possibility to cause parental strife. I’ve also tried limiting final grades to only A’s, B’s, and C’s. Most recently, I’ve experimented with giving everyone an A. The less thought I devote to parsing out who deserves what, the more time I can devote to planning meaningful lessons and providing effective feedback.
Now, the only time I discuss my grading policy with students and parents is during back to school night. I explain to families that their students won’t be taking any quizzes or tests, but that they will receive constant feedback about their performance. I hold up a couple of old student portfolios, go over feedback protocols, and try to do everything I can to convince families that their children are in good hands. The only question that continues to stump me is when parents ask how they’ll be able to stay on top of their child’s performance. I have a difficult time answering this question without launching into a diatribe about how traditional grades offer only an illusion of reporting. I want to ask families if they interrogate quiz and test grades with the same level of skepticism. But this is only because I’m self-conscious about my inability to provide a clear and direct answer to the essential and timeless question of “How will I know how my child is doing?” Since dropping grades, I’ve implemented assignments such as Family Dialogue Journals to try to keep parents informed of what’s happening in the classroom, but the situation remains far from perfect. Like everything else, this is a process, and I’m in it for the long haul.