De-emphasizing Grades in Secondary Science: A Shift in Perspective
The first time I was introduced to the idea of ‘going gradeless’ I was intrigued. At that time I had been teaching for 12 years, and had recently taken a job as an instructional resource teacher at our school board. Colleagues of mine were working with a group of teachers who wanted to explore the idea of a gradeless classroom. Most of the teachers involved were elementary teachers; others were secondary teachers in the Arts. I loved hearing about what they were learning and doing. I had seen the effects of grades on my daughters’ attitudes toward school, learning, and their self-worth. It made sense to me that kids should not be labeled with numbers. With every new story that was shared, I became more interested. Despite this, I was certain of one thing: going gradeless would never work in my classroom.
I have an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and a graduate degree in Biomedical Engineering. My Science education trained me to measure, quantify, and prove. Numbers are often crucial to supporting scientific claims, and numbers are an incredibly powerful way to make sense of the universe. Even though being a scientist requires persistence, creativity, and a deep understanding of concepts it is often mathematical analyses that we rely on to convince the scientific community that our ideas are valid. When I became a Science teacher, my mentors taught me to be just as analytical in my assessment of student understanding. As a teacher, I taught mostly senior Biology and Chemistry, and had been analyzing student achievement numerically for more than 10 years. A gradeless classroom seemed like a great idea for Art or English, but certainly not Science. Making art and writing are process-based – a gradeless classroom seemed to fit the natural cycle of improvement in these disciplines. Science is about the knowing facts, analyzing information, and determining the correct answer. I didn’t see any room for iteration or second chances.
Luckily, I had fierce and brilliant colleagues who challenged my opinion that a gradeless classroom wasn’t for me. They pushed back at my thinking every time the topic came up. They were insistent that the subject matter was not the issue; that this was something I could do if I truly wanted. I thought, “they don’t know what it’s like to teach secondary Science. If only they knew: the extraordinary amount of content, the pressure to provide grades to nervous university applicants, the demands from parents to justify final grades with solid, computational proof.” I was certain that someone who wasn’t a Science teacher could never understand the systemic barriers I faced.
Another barrier was my certainty that I was very good at what I did, that I did an exemplary job using numbers to measure my students’ learning. I had refined my grading practice over the years. I was fair and flexible. I had calculated grades in many different ways, looking for the ‘best’ way to analyze students’ progress. I never gave zeroes, knowing how they unfairly damaged a students’ average. I had everything figured out. How could I possibly do a better job determining grades than I already was? It is only now that I realize how much my ego was getting in my way.
For two more years I worked centrally, primarily supporting a board-wide ‘STEAM’ initiative. Our team helped teachers bring more hands-on Science and Math to their classrooms. We witnessed teachers and students using robots to support numeracy and literacy. We emphasized the value of explicitly making connections between Art, Music, and Math. We helped teachers focus on global competencies to support the development of skills like collaboration, communication, and citizenship. These years had a profound effect on the way I perceived schools and learning. Working in elementary schools for the first time in my career, I was reminded of the enthusiasm for learning that exists before we extinguish natural curiosity with structures, grades, and labels deeply embedded in the educational system. Sitting alongside 10- and 11-year olds made me realize how high school culture was stifling my students’ creativity and risk-taking. Students played it safe in my class because their grades mattered more than their learning. There was no room for thinking outside the box.
When the time came to return to my classroom, I had to decide how I would change my practice as a result of my recent experience. I had spent three years drinking from a firehose of ideas – the best PD anyone could ask for – and I knew I had to make careful choices about how to proceed. I knew that I wanted an increased focus on feedback to support student learning. I knew that I wanted to support the development of metacognition to empower learners in my room. I knew that I wanted to try standards-based grading, as I believed it would give me deeper insights into my students’ strengths and needs. I visualized how these things might look like in my classroom. Hours were spent digging into course standards and curating resources and strategies to support metacognition and feedback. It became clear to me during this time that my return to school was a turning point: if I didn’t make a big change now, I was at risk of sliding back into old habits. Schools are busy – life is busy – and it would not be easy to reinvent myself as a teacher without a concrete plan in place.
Craving a lasting shift in practice, I found myself reconsidering the idea of going gradeless. In the matter of two or three days it became clear to me that reducing or eliminating grades would be the best way to accomplish my goals. At the same time, it would create a safety net that would prevent me from falling back into old patterns. If I took out numeric grades, I would not be able to easily grab an old quiz or lab from the past. I would be forced to actively think about how I was communicating feedback to students. It would be necessary to rethink everything, from how students demonstrated their learning to how I assessed and tracked their progress.
My first semester back, I was assigned two sections of grade 12 University Preparation Chemistry. I was worried. Grade 12 students are not usually happy when their teachers experiment on them; their grades determine their acceptance to Canadian university programs. As a rule, these students fight for every point on every assignment. It would be an understatement to say that they did not appreciate being used as guinea pigs. I was scared, but at the same time I knew that if I could succeed with them that I could succeed with any other class. I was ready to take the leap.For many high school seniors, grades have been the primary mode of teacher-student communication. Grades are concrete. Grades don’t leave room for conversation or debate. Grades measure and rank you. Even if you don’t like the number a teacher writes on your paper, there is an authority in that number that limits your ability to question. The number is, in effect, the end of a one-sided conversation. Usually, if a student completes a unit test, it is returned to them with a grade that is written into the teacher’s gradebook with permanent ink. If someone gets 74% on that test, they have no motivation to revisit things they missed because the learning opportunity has passed. So students cram, write tests, and forget. Every few weeks repeating this cycle. Without grades as a tool for communication, I was left with feedback. Feedback is a powerful tool for learners. It answers the question ‘how can I improve?’ rather than ‘how am I doing?’ After 11 years of knowing exactly how they were ‘doing,’ a shift away from grades was bound to create anxiety in my students. I knew that feedback-focused assessment would require a significant amount of trust.
So, I spent the first few weeks building trust. I faced questions and even some tears, but I did not let them slow me down. Instead, every conversation became an opportunity to address a problem and make an improvement. Usually it was my improvement to make, as I knew little about how to provide students with a structure that would help them feel secure in a gradeless environment. This first group of students taught me a great deal. As you might imagine, my biggest critics had the most amazing suggestions for improving the structures I had put in place. Others quietly thanked me for giving them a space to learn where marks on quizzes didn’t make them feel stupid. After our four months together I took their feedback into the spring semester, making changes so that my new crop of students would feel better supported than the last.
Four more months have passed now. I still have doubts – big ones, sometimes – but I feel strongly that this is a good path for me. I know my students better because of the time we spend conferencing. I have much more insight into what each of my students’ strengths and needs are. Not all of the feedback from students was positive – several students remained unconvinced at the end of the semester, stating that they would very much prefer to have grades on their work. One student accused me of treating them like ‘six year olds.’ Comments like these are hard to take, but I know they come from a place of uncertainty and anxiety. These students had learned to play the game of school, and I had changed the rules on them. They were uncomfortable in my classroom because I required them to reflect on what they knew rather than just telling them what I thought they knew. I think I can do more to support my students, and can only hope that the ones I taught this year know that I have had their best interest in mind. Luckily, not all of the semester-end feedback was negative. Some of my end-of-semester conferences lifted me up, as did some of the written feedback – keep in mind that these comments are from university-bound Biology students:
“Was skeptical at first, but felt prepared by the end. Overall, I feel prepared for what university will be like, and I think more academic level teachers should develop a teaching technique more geared towards getting kids ready for university and just having to know the material without always having marks.”
“It really motivated me to actually learn and understand what i was doing instead of just memorizing.”
“I was a little anxious about it at first, but that was because I haven’t had that happen to me before. Overall, I’ve come to really like it, not having grades on pieces of work. It’s nice to have my understanding be what my mark is based off of, not a calculated average.”
The reality of my position is that I have to report percentage marks twice each semester. In my classes, I have decided to meet with students and discuss mark ‘ranges’ at the end of each major learning cycle – about once each month. Grades are still a part of my teaching reality. Despite that, I cannot imagine ever putting a numeric grade on an individual piece of student work again. Assessment has taken on a much more human quality that has become rather addicting.
Four years ago, the idea of giving up grades seemed ridiculous to me. I am grateful to those who pushed my thinking at that time. Without those professional conversations, I would never have considered shifting my practice. What began as an experiment in September transformed my teaching for good. Assessment has morphed from a purely analytical task into something personalized and meaningful. This change continues to demand an incredible amount of hard work and reflection on my part, but when I am assessing portfolios and conferencing with students I can see the enormous benefits in terms of their growth as self-directed learners.
Amy teaches Biology and Chemistry in Barrie, Ontario. She stopped putting grades on student work last year and can’t imagine going back. Amy blogs at https://szerminska.wordpress.com/and her Tweets can be found at @szwildcat.
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