Going Gradeless in Urban Ed


Years and years ago, I was first introduced to the concept of “going gradeless,” it seemed like a revolutionary concept—which it is. I was working in a somewhat traditional suburban school district. Nothing folks were doing was particularly different or revolutionary. Although the idea of going gradeless seemed interesting, in the name of consistency, everyone had to do the same thing, so nobody rocked the boat or brought up the idea of seriously trying something new.

That was five years ago.

In my current environment, working in the only urban school district in my state, nothing is different. Teachers are given a curriculum map and grading guidelines, directions on how to post, and that’s basically it. There is little to no research done on innovative or new grading methods, and nobody I know of tampers with the tried-and-true method of using points as a way to incentivize learning.

All teachers are expected to get students to produce results on standardized tests equivalent to their white counterparts (in completely different settings).  If the results do not come back as expected, teachers and programs will be deemed failures, schools will be closed. We all bear the heavy burden of responsibility for our school’s fate across our shoulders each day, along with the mark of being a “RED” aka “FAILING” school. We are regularly reminded of these facts.

It’s generally assumed that with regard to grading practices, we have to provide consistency for students so that everything is fair, and students are consistently evaluated with regard to their achievements, no matter what school they attend.  

The fact is that this is pretend. Consistency is illusory.

In my school, we have tried to get on the same page numerous times, but there will always be a component of subjectivity when it comes to grading practices and policies that teachers employ and enforce because we are individuals. No matter how hard the system tries to bring us all in line, educators are unique creatures. We will not be tamed.

Though trends like standards-based grading may come and go, we still mold grading practices to suit our own ideas of what is fair, which is why teachers going gradeless is a logical evolution away from traditional systems of evaluation, and toward a new system centering students in the process of measuring mastery and acting on feedback.  

In an environment like mine—an environment that was not designed for black and brown students to succeed in any capacity—going gradeless remains a distant dream for most teachers, rather than an actionable reality. Lack of communication, high teacher turnover, mandatory procedures, oppressive evaluation practices (both for students and teachers) all serve as a perfect storm that most often reduces the classroom experience to a clinical, lifeless exchange between teacher and student. Sound dramatic? Ask the students. They will tell you the truth if you can be quiet long enough to listen.

As all of us working in urban schools know, there are lots of so-called “accountability measures” that I and the students must abide by. Though there are so many of these, at the same time, there are astonishingly so few measures in place to make sure grades actually stand for the same level of achievement from one class to another. We all know it is possible for teachers to grade students based upon how they “feel” a student has done in their class. As much as it pains me to say this, and as unethical as it sounds, I know there are folks out there who give grades as “gifts.” They “reward” students with A’s and B’s without using any student assignments to determine that grade. 

As a result, many students become resentful when they get into a class where they discover they have to “earn” a grade by meeting certain standards. There are other classes where students believe, “As long as I do all the work, I should get an A. The quality of the work doesn’t matter.” In still other scenarios, students have no idea how the standards align to their assignments. They learn that if they do what their (mostly white) teachers tell them to, they’ll be rewarded with a passing grade. 

If this isn’t indoctrination into a system of blind obedience, I don’t know what is.

This is what comes from everyone—students and teachers—knowing that the current grading system is a great big chess game, complete with winners and losers. Ditch too many classes, ignore too many assignments, and you will be a casualty of the system and your teacher’s sword of truth (and justice). Have nice handwriting and turn every assignment in early—you’ll be rewarded in ways you can’t even imagine—and most definitely know you don’t deserve.

Students know this “hidden curriculum” well. They have figured out how to play the game so that they can get what they want from winning it. The sad part is that little learning happens if students are merely performing compliance-based tasks and conforming to the demands of a system that uses grades as punishments and rewards. 

If I follow district directives, I will post grade trackers on the walls of my classroom, publicly declaring “losers” and “winners” for all to see—to encourage “healthy competition.” If I follow school mandates, I will post grades every week after I put assignments into Schoology (also in Infinite Campus) for athletic eligibility purposes.  It is widely believed that the grade equals feedback, and students need regular feedback.  I’ve never heard anyone discuss the fact that students themselves can provide valid feedback, and that grades are the most basic and simplistic type of feedback.

So how does one begin to “go gradeless” in such an environment? My goal is always to have systems in place that empower students to accurately grade themselves. They know what mastery looks like and can provide evidence to support whatever grade they give themselves—with me to help guide and support them. But how do I encourage independence when students are conditioned to crave constant validation and feedback from me?

How do I go gradeless in a system that relies so heavily on standardized tests as a measurement of success that my school’s very survival depends on those results?

It’s a lot of weight to carry.

Every quarter, I have my students respond to a series of questions in a reflection form. This data doesn’t really do much for my end-of-year Student Learning Objective data meetings, because it is qualitative. However, the questions are designed to generate reflection on unit goals and essential questions. I don’t collect student data in Google forms with the goal of providing evidence of my greatness in my end-of-year evaluation meetings. In no way do I want students to come to my class feeling that it’s all a game—one they pass by showing me what I want to see, but many still do feel this way—a feeling reinforced by the fact that we are not consistent with regard to grading practices, policies, and procedures.

Furthermore, as my friend and colleague Marian Dingle has said in the comments for this post,

“As a Black female educator, I have to acknowledge that grades have become a gatekeeper for opportunities for them, and obsession with them is taught to children by their parents as a means for survival, legitimacy, and the pathway to “success.”  

As the majority of my students come from Black or Hispanic families with strong work ethics embedded in their family culture, I know I have to tread carefully when dealing with family and cultural norms or traditions. It is insensitive at best, and ignorant at worst, to prioritize my desire to “push the envelope” and be “progressive” over a family’s desire to see their child succeed in a way they can understand—by achieving the highest grades. Many of my families see a high GPA or all A’s as a mark of distinction. Students communicate respect to their families and garner self-worth from their class ranking and position. Their focus is on the GPA as a gateway to college and a better life—social mobility. It means that success is attainable not only for their white counterparts, but for them as well. When the belief that a grade equals self-worth is so ingrained, it becomes challenging to shift mindsets around what grades “should” mean.

I have to be honest, I have received feedback on evaluations that says, “Students are still showing a high level of dependence on the teacher.” This is hard feedback to receive, especially because the ultimate goal is no dependence on the teacher. The ultimate goal is empowerment through independence. I can make excuses and say that students are so unprepared for the demands of AP English Language and Composition by the time they get to my class, that I feel I have no choice but to front-load them with information, but is this really accurate?  

The only way that I can know what they take away from each quarter is by asking them.  My Google form has some of the following questions:

  • How did you challenge thinking in our classroom? 

  • How did you contribute to the conversations that are already happening?

  • What skills did you learn this semester?

  • Which do you feel you could teach someone else?

  • What new knowledge did you gain?

  • How has your thinking transformed?

  • In what ways will you continue the learning that has just begun?

These are not questions that will generate data the district wants, but they provide invaluable data points for further conversation with students (and reflection about my practice) for me. I outline my thinking about this more fully in a Twitter moment here:

This is the ultimate goal of learning in my classroom, and I look forward to a day when those of us in urban education are free to fully commit ourselves to this practice. Though many of us believe in education as a practice of liberation, the current system continues to oppress us all—it also turns us into tools of oppression.

Some would say that, “There has to be some tool for measurement, and this is the best we’ve got.” I don’t disagree that there has to be a way for determining mastery so students can know whether they progressing toward a goal. But I don’t agree that we have to keep going with a system that is broken because that is what tradition dictates.

I know that students have to evaluate themselves somehow. But when you’ve worked with students who are crippled with insecurity due to constant messages that their best simply isn’t good enough, it’s hard to comply every week with the “professional expectation” to further label and oppress them through assigning grades. I feel like I’m commodifying their learning, reducing all that is good about what we’ve done that week to a number and letter that usually doesn’t fully reflect their academic progress. It’s difficult to feel that pressure from the system—along with the expectation from the students (because they’ve been conditioned)—to provide a grade as the carrot at the end of the stick.

So where do we go from here? There are so many barriers to progress that have to be considered. Those who are first- or second-year teachers from Teach for America (as a lot of our staff are) are just figuring out how to teach with a lot of oversight and very little useful support. The last thing on their minds is figuring out how to organize and implement a progressive new way of grading. We often say that starting as a new teacher in our district is like drinking from a fire hose. Perhaps this is why few of them last more than two or three years.

Another obstacle is that students who have been conditioned to learn for grades will and do push back when their self worth and family identity has been carefully constructed around the idea that they are “A” students. Dismantling this ethos or cultural practice is a daring move to make, one that requires knowledge of and communication with students, their parents, and the community. When the only communication home is a reprimand or advisement of disciplinary action, neither trust nor good relationships between students, parents, and schools exist.

Sharing best practices is also a good start. However, a lot of folks assume that what works in suburban white-dominated spaces are “best practices” that set the bar by which all other practices are measured. It is assumed that since these progressive practices work in schools with predominantly white student and staff populations, they must work for everybody.

This simply isn’t so.

In order for us to make actual progress, I offer the following:

  1. Go into schools in your area that are considered “urban” and get a sense for what the teachers and students there are dealing with regarding expectations, habits, and beliefs around who can and who can’t succeed.

  2. Consider practices and beliefs held there that might also useful to students in suburban schools. You might be surprised at what you discover. It should be an exchange without the presumption of an environment being “better” or “worse” than the other.

  3. Speak to the students in each environment. Gather evidence about what works for them and what doesn’t regarding grading practices, including any cultural values and beliefs around grades.

  4. Remember that no progressive change that includes only some of us can possibly be good for all of us. If you believe in a true revolution, make sure you are extending the reach of the work so that it benefits all, even those in other schools on the other side of town.

2018-03-10 - Torres - Raised Fists

2018-03-10 - Torres - Raised Fists

Julia E. Torres is a Language Arts teacher at a public high school in Denver, Colorado. Her work is grounded in empowering students to use the Language Arts to fuel resistance and social transformation. You can read more of her work at juliaetorres.blog.

What do you think? Sound off in the comments below or continue the conversation on Facebook. And please join Julia and co-moderator Marian Dingle for a follow-up #tg2chat on urban education this Sunday, March 11 at 9 p.m. EST/7 p.m. MST.