Diving into Portfolios in a Gradeless Biology Classroom
I teach ninth-grade Biology and Intensified Biology in a school in an affluent neighborhood, where students are extremely driven and parents will do whatever it takes to make sure their kids are successful.
This is my first year teaching in this school and I feel like a first-year teacher again. While I had grown accustomed to Standards-based Grading in my old school, going gradeless was a split-second decision I made at the beginning of the school year, without really knowing what it meant. Luckily, the shoe fit. I agree with the philosophy of the gradeless classroom wholeheartedly. But I really hit the ground running this year with a lot of “firsts.” It’s been a roller coaster ride to say the least. Here I will share some of my struggles in implementing a gradeless classroom, and how student portfolios reinvigorated the learning environment.
In the beginning of the school year, when I first got on board with the cohort of gradeless teachers at my school, I had been told that a portfolio was the best way to create the county-required letter grade for the quarter. I liked the idea, but the thought of adding one more thing to my plate while I was adjusting to a new school and new grading system seemed overwhelming, so I put it off for later.
At the end of the first quarter, I spent two weeks with little to no sleep. It’s true my classroom was “gradeless,” but, still working under the standards-based grading construct I’d used in the past, I managed to create for myself a tiresome grading system of endless scoring. Essentially, in an unsuccessful attempt to implement the gradeless philosophy, I tracked students’ progress with scores, but didn’t share those scores with students. I tried to do everything as fairly as possible, telling students not to worry about their grades, but of course, they did. Despite my complex data tracking system, it felt like each grade often came down to sort of a hunch. But I worked tirelessly to measure students’ success fairly, and ended up completely overextending myself.
When the grades were posted, I ended up with many unhappy students. One student, in particular, felt deceived after she’d tried multiple times to demonstrate her learning, but was told that the work she submitted was still under par. When she saw her mark of “C” for the quarter, she came to my office and cried in anger. I listened as she screamed at me, “but I AM NOT a C student!” I was still focused on being a fair assessor, so I stuck to my guns. But it became clear at that moment that for my students, grades were no less than a measure of personal identity.
My secretive assessment system resulted in a two-week nightmare scenario for me in which unhappy parents and students complained relentlessly to the administration about how awful gradeless classrooms are, and what a terrible teacher I am. One family even threatened to go to the school board if their daughter wasn’t transferred to another class. Were these parents just out to get me? It felt like parents in this new school didn’t care about learning and growth. They only seemed to care that their kids got As.
Eventually, things died down, but it took me a while to mentally recover. For weeks, I felt anxious entering my own classroom, fearful that any little mistake I’d made would be used against me and my “gradeless” system.
After talking things over with several colleagues and teacher friends, I finally started to see things from the parents’ perspective. I had made their kids feel stressed, uncertain, and anxious. Why wouldn’t they be upset? Their underlying message finally came through to me: they wanted their kids to be happy and successful, which is what I wanted, too. So, I asked around for some help and began making some changes.
The first solution was to keep students and parents better-informed by entering more information into the online parent portal and teaching them how to interpret the information. I enter every assignment now as C or IC for Complete or Incomplete, which allows parents to see if their kids are keeping up with their assignments. To communicate achievement, I now create a fake assignment for each unit called “UNIT PROFICIENCY,” which allows parents to have a kind of check-point throughout the quarter. If it says “proficient,” you’re good to go. If it says “developing proficiency,” your kid has some work to do. If it says “insufficient evidence,” this is like a red danger light and it’s time to have a conference. I also took a snapshot of how the gradebook looks in the parent portal online with a key for how to interpret what they were seeing. This was a big winner among parents. Many sent emails thanking me.
Second, I held interim conferences with students. These were short, 5 minute conferences in which I went over the entries in the gradebook one-on-one with each student. I asked if they knew what each mark meant if they understood where they stand in the class, and what they might want to do to improve.
The third change did not come so easily. About a month before grades were due, my principal called together all the gradeless teachers in our school for a meeting on how to provide parents with clear, consistent communication. The meeting went well, but more importantly for me, I got to reflect with some of the other gradeless teachers for the first time since the beginning of the school year. I expressed the dread I was feeling about the end of the quarter and vented to one colleague that I still needed to grade several assignments, like the students’ Onion lab write ups. If you’ve never graded a lab write, let’s just say there’s a reason a lot of science teachers don’t often assign them. She recommended trying the student portfolio. But, I need ways to SAVE time, not spend time creating a portfolio plan on top of the mountain of labs to assess. I kept explaining to her all my struggles, planning and grading over 100 labs in addition to projects, and she finally asked me, “but why do you need to grade it?”
I explained the importance of giving students feedback but realized it wouldn’t be much use since there really was no opportunity for improvement. It was more about making sure each student had met each standard. She pressed me further, “but why do you need to be the judge of that? Have them evaluate it themselves.”
My thoughts ran wild…but then, what would I use to determine their grades? I wasn’t going to give the labs a letter grade, only a rubric score, so it’s still gradeless, right? And how could I hold students accountable to a standard learning objective if I don’t have a record of their level of mastery?
She kept pressing me and asking me, why? Why? Why?
I was exhausted and frustrated and left the meeting feeling like I still had no idea how to assess everything before quarter’s end. But she had planted a bug in my ear, and her question kept running through my mind, “Why do you have to grade it?”
I came up with a lot of excuses, but there was really no way around it: “grading” the students work—giving feedback only for assessment purposes—was NOT going to help them learn, and it would put me squarely in the position as sole-arbiter of their success… again.
Finally, a moment of clarity came. A student portfolio was really the ONLY option, but… But…I had so many fears. Was this going to open up a can of worms? Would students take this as an opportunity to haggle for higher grades, when they hadn’t really mastered the content? Would my classroom grades be inflated compared to other teachers? Would some students skip the portfolio completely? What if the conferences take too long and I don’t finish before the quarter ends?
At some point I just said to myself, “What have I got to lose? Here goes!” and I dove in, head first. I whipped up an imperfect, but functional portfolio plan to share with students the very next day.
Long story short, it worked beautifully. The portfolio process was far from flawless. But the outcome was the most validating, fulfilling thing I’ve done in my teaching career. For a week and a half I ran one-on-one conferences with my students and listened to them share their struggles and successes throughout the quarter. I was able to “assess” on the spot, with the students help, as we navigated the grading rubric together, and they filled in the missing pieces for me that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.
The conferences were exhausting, but I got to know my students better and hear more about what was going on from their perspective. To my surprise, many students were able to share details they’d learned in each unit, but hadn’t been able to demonstrate in classroom tests, due to test anxiety. Other students revealed how they’d been using my class materials to make huge improvements in their study habits. For the first time, I was able to see how much of my hard work really was helping my students grow as learners.
I did end up giving mostly As and Bs for the second quarter. But, it wasn’t due to the students’ haggling, as I’d feared. Given the opportunity to present their learning to me anew, many students went back and re-studied their weaker units and really LEARNED the material, which is really the goal of the gradeless classroom, to focus students on learning instead of scores.
The students were noticeably happier, too. Even those who earned a C—considered a poor mark in my school—felt more in control of the outcome. Unlike the first quarter, these students now understood that the grade was not a random judgement call, but a representation of the amount of material they’d mastered- about half.
Students who didn’t earn at least a C got a mark of “Incomplete,” accompanied by a Learning Plan with after school study sessions. Rather than feeling their identities were under attack, these students saw a new opportunity for success, which they greatly appreciated. And now, over a month after the quarter ended, I’m extremely happy that two students who were in danger of failing the second quarter have learned the material so well that I was compelled to change their grades both to Bs.
And the perks don’t end there. The portfolio conferences changed the underlying message students were getting in my classroom, from “guess what the teacher is thinking” to “let’s work through this together.” My classroom finally felt like an inviting, comfortable place to learn.
The students grew from the process as well. The portfolio reflection helped students see how to better use class tools, like study guides and learning logs, and focused their attention on the learning objectives. They also felt proud to create a product that they can keep for years to come, a portfolio celebrating their many achievements.
But, best of all for me was that there was NO GRADING at the end of the quarter! No assessing. Nada. Just listening and learning from my students.
As I said, there are quite a few obstacles I’m still working through, like how to give students my undivided attention during their one-on-one conferences, while still giving the rest of the class meaningful Biology lessons. But even with some kinks to work out, I’m going into the third quarter portfolios feeling eager instead of anxious, knowing I will once again have the pleasure to learn more about my students and celebrate their growth.
Tamara Molina is a 9th grade Biology teacher in Arlington, Virginia. Her interests range from sports to coding to dance to social justice, passions which she shares with her students whenever possible. She started the first water polo club at T.C. Williams high school in Alexandria, VA and currently sponsors her school’s Girls Who Code club. You can find more of her work at https://sites.google.com/site/tamaramolinaeducator/