Learning Scales, Amusement Parks, and Trusting Your Gut
Sometimes I feel like a revolutionary, leading my savvy, open minded teacher troops into battle against the vicious traditional, fixed mindset creating letter grades. But more often, I feel more like I'm on an intense episode of Food Network's Chopped, except I'm not one of the talented chefs. I'm one of the ingredients. Will I be employed to a recipe? Or will I be forgotten and left off the plate altogether.
I have a band of teachers on the journey with me this year. Some are exploring with me because they are keenly interested in going gradeless. Others have been implored by our administration to make the journey because they’ve drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid. Envision an amusement park. There are those who are white knuckling the roller coaster safety bar, screaming with fear. Others are contemplating whether they have the stomach for the height of the Ferris wheel or should stick with Tilt-o-whirl. And there's a few savoring the candy apples and indulging in the mini donuts. It’s a hodgepodge of attitudes and enthusiasm.
Before developing my fully gradeless classroom, I experimented with some quasi-gradeless pedagogy, paying particular attention to the importance of descriptive feedback on learning, eliminating zeros from the gradebook, scaffolding instruction to allow for deeper, richer learning of key concepts and skills with a quality over quantity mindset, project-based learning forms and functions, and the impact of assessment for, as and of learning, differentiated and inclusive instruction, and standards-based grading. A reflection of this journey shows that I have not taught or assessed a course in the same manner two years in a row. I’m ridiculously open to new ideas and I cannot avoid the temptation of tweaking my practice if I think a new idea might meet the needs of my students in a positive way. Meticulousness weighs heavily on me. I’ve been called a workhorse and that is a justifiable label.
I should also be clear as to what gradeless looks like to me and how it is trying to look in my school. Gradeless is about finding a clearer way to communicate student learning. What does a B mean anyways? Traditional grading practices no longer work due to vast changes in curriculum. Reforms are needed, but that means drastically changing assessment, and with that mindsets and approaches to curriculum. To better communicate student learning, language is needed to be effective.
Standards-based assessment, whether you love it or hate it, plays a part in this communication of student learning. In British Columbia, our new curriculum is focused on curricular competencies (like standards), a series of skills, with content playing an important but more foundational role. In order to communicate student learning and give teachers a platform for this communication, I developed a learning scale that was adapted from the elementary model (K-7) already being used in my school district with the addition of some language for secondary teachers at my school (in this case grades 7-12). The intention of the scale is to assist in the assessment of student performance and better communicate student learning. Letter grades do not assess student performance, they conclude a collective of student performance. Grades are finite. In gradeless, there are no numbers, but there is plenty of descriptive feedback and formative assessments. The focus is on the language beneath each heading, not the headings themselves. In this process, we present a snapshot of learning to parents and students. It’s a continuum. It's not perfect...but it's so much better than the alternative.
The Pros to Going Gradeless
I am more aware of what I’m supposed to be teaching
Going gradeless actually has made me more aware of what I am supposed to be teaching and assessing. I have to examine the language of each competency with some precision. I use Bloom’s Taxonomy to deep dive into the verb of each competency. Sometimes, I realize that an old assignment or test might not actually perpetuate the competency to its potential. That forces me to re-engineer my assignments, lessons, and units so that they authentically assess the competency. It's important to recognize the difference between competencies and not assume old lessons will automatically mesh.
This little learning scale and gradeless mindset has turned my teaching on its head… in a good way. I feel like I am teaching the curriculum more faithfully. I feel like I can authentically justify what I’m doing in the classroom. I've removed redundant matching sections from tests that should assess analysis, I've tweaked expectations for synthesis, and so on and so forth.
What gets put in the grade book is meaningful
When I do put assessments in my grading program, it is more meaningful now. I prefer, now, to use a portfolio approach to assessment. I provide evidence of that learning in the portfolio. I use gradeless, descriptive feedback to explain how proficient the student is in that skill area and what they need to work on next. Those next steps have transformed how students view assessment. I decide to what extent the student shows proficiency in that competency by using the learning scale, but I use the language to explain why and the next steps. This is assessment for learning. Students never feel that an assessment is finite in this regard.
I modify those assessments as students show growth. I don’t put everything in my grade book, as I once did, especially assignments that don’t actually assess specific competencies. Gone are those fussy little headings in my grade book too (Tests/Quizzes 25%, Assignments 35%, etc.) and I have replaced them with curricular competency assessments for, as and of learning. I’ve done away with marks completely. Now, I use descriptive feedback and the learning scale to show them where they are in the learning. It’s a snapshot. This is assessment of learning.
Students also use the learning scale to assess their own work. Self-assessment allows for great accountability and buy in. I have found that students are brutally honest about their work. I always appreciate using the learning scale while they are working or even before they hand work in. I’ll say, “let’s take a look at the scale,” and we go through where they think they are and I am able to intervene with ideas on how to level up so that they can provide their very best work. The learning scales allow assessment as learning.
Quality Over Quantity
Because my focus is now on the skills and feedback to foster a learning mindset, I am more in tune with what my students are doing to show proficiency. I have slowed down my teaching instead of hammering so much content or requesting so much work. I can often accurately assess a competency with fewer assignments, especially if I give timely feedback and keep a keen eye on where students are on the learning scale. If this snapshot of learning is not proficient enough, even for just one particular student, I can create a new assignment for them to work on that competency. I am excited to give opportunities to level up or work on the stretches in the learning scale. Every learner has the opportunity to grow their skills. There is no such thing as good enough which is exactly what letter grades cannot accurately communicate.
Communication With Parents and Students
Student learning is easier to communicate to parents once they are schooled in the language, the mission, and the rationale. The scale makes it easier if teachers embed the language into their vocabulary and continually use it every day and in every facet of the learning process. It may seem difficult right now because it is different and because it’s so convenient to tell parents that their child has a C+, but tradition and sentimentality shouldn’t limit teachers from exploring the greater good that comes from gradeless assessing. Archaic beliefs associated with letter grades put up roadblocks to learning. They are tattooed into our culture. We should celebrate improvement instead of unreasonable letter grade goals.
Patience and a commitment to the language are needed to make positive changes happen. When a parent asks me, what is their child's grade I take the time to explain the reason why I am using gradeless assessment and that it allows students to be assessed and re-assessed without the letter grade expectation. Once all the curricular competencies are assessed, I will be confident in the letter grade I put on their report card.
To be honest, these conversations have been few and far between now because I’m invested in the language and process in my classroom. It often comes as a shock to other teachers when I tell them that I seldom get asked about student’s overall marks, and even if I do get asked, I stand by my philosophy that they’ll find out at the end.
It’s even easier to communicate student learning to students. Letter grades and percentages are so limiting. But again, that has taken a shift in language in my classroom to become fruitful. In my room, the words, “level up,” “how full is your cup,” “snapshot in time,” and “curricular competency” are used throughout the lessons and are a natural part of the assignments and projects. I take the standard learning scale and tailor instruction to each competency.
The notion that students will not work hard unless a mark is attached is extraordinarily unfounded. In fact, remove numbers from the equation and students work more to their potential. Bring the learning scale into the process, and students set personal goals. Something amazing happens when students look at the scale. The overachievers aim high. Struggling learners aim higher than if they used to know what a pass was. The focus becomes on learning.
In my classroom, Drama or Humanities, students know there are many ways they can show me their learning. Conferencing with students allows me to use verbal descriptive feedback in addition to written descriptive feedback in order to communicate what I want them to work on. It also allows them the opportunity to show me their learning in case it is missed on paper or in a group assessment. We have the learning scale in front of us, on the board or on paper. We talk about where they are at and next steps. The conference lends itself as an opportunity for both parties to have a voice in the assessment. And I always, always, ALWAYS tell my students that they will have the opportunity to show improvement and change the assessments. That communication relieves pressure, anxiety, and fear commonly associated with letter grades.
The Cons of Going Gradeless
Gradeless Reporting vs. Gradeless Pedagogy
Gradeless assessment and descriptive feedback must go hand in hand. Putting a Developing or Applying on the page doesn’t hold the same water as using the language of the learning scale. I might as well use a letter grade if don’t explain why, offer descriptive feedback, or give the opportunity to level up. Using the language in the classroom is key to effective, genuine gradeless assessment. It makes no sense to report out using the learning scale but give marks, percentages, and letter grades in classroom. The result will almost always be a group of irritated parents and students who have absolutely no idea where students are in their learning.
A gradeless pedagogy means buying into the ideal that gradeless assessments lead to a learning mindset instead of a grade’s mindset. If the ultimate goal is a learning mindset, using marks, percentages, and letter grades in class won’t lead us there. Grades don’t motivate, so it’s important to get marks, percentages and letter grades out of the picture.
The downside is that descriptive feedback to foster a learning mindset takes a bit of time, and that can be a deterrence. Imagine 90+ papers requiring feedback.Whoa! Seems like a time suck. The reality is, when one invests in the descriptive feedback, students use the feedback and learning goes up. In fact, as much as it feels like a lot of work up front, in the end, I actually use less time to assess lengthy assignments like essays. Students show improvement much faster than if there is no feedback.
A few years ago, as part of a descriptive feedback study, I experimented on a group of my Humanities 8 students. I handed back paragraphs at three different times: once with grades and feedback, once with grades only, and once with feedback only. At each time, I asked students to look over their work and then I took the work away. I gave them a sticky note and asked them to comment on their evaluation. Only when I gave them their work with feedback and no grades, could students explain or demonstrate their next steps in the writing process. When a grade was attached, even in addition to feedback, they could not. It was as if the grade dammed any motivation to use the feedback. Ever since that study, I have made a habit of investing in feedback like this in all my courses. The results are always worth the time. The fact is, in the end, I have to get kids to do fewer assignments for better results. So, time is a con, but the investment of time is really a win.
The Parents Who Just Want a Mark
Some parents just want a mark and there is no budging their mindset. In my experience, these are parents who feel burned by a system that hasn’t communicated student learning effectively or haven’t met their child’s needs. Sometimes, they feel an enormous amount of stress just hoping their child will graduate from high school and get into a good college or university. Marks mean everything to them because many post-secondary institutions require a transcript with a certain grade point average. Why learn a new grading system then?
Investing in gradeless means investing in learning, which in turn always leads to good...no better...overall marks. But, with gradeless, there isn’t the usual thread of letter grades to knit a warm security blanket for parents to tuck into. This is a hurdle for gradeless teachers.
I’m a parent. I understand the stress that comes with being a parent. I have to remember that parents are important players in this whole assessment process. It’s a team effort between parent, teacher and student. I will use the gradeless process in my classroom with their child, but I will tiptoe a bit around parents who think gradeless is hokey. This might irritate me, but as the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey. Hopefully, with time, they will understand the gradeless rationale. In the meantime, it’s important to be patient with parents.
The Letter Grade Burden
Sadly, eventually, we have to put a mark on a report card. In a traditional grade book, when the focus is on numbers, more seems better, but it ultimately results in a mark we are dissatisfied with (see Cameron, C. and Gregory, K, Rethinking Letter Grades, ©2014). Like using the learning scale, itself, teachers should take a step back and analyze all the curricular competency assessments before deciding on a final letter grade. There are no hard and fast algorithms to work with when you’re gradeless. Teachers hold the power to decide the letter grade for a course.
Many teachers would prefer to know how each category translates, eventually, into a mark. Understanding what mark makes sense for the learning scale, can ease the burden when deciding an eventual final mark, but it is important to navigate those numbers at the end of a semester and not view them as categorical headings in a marks program right now. Knowing what each category represents in terms of a percent can snare teachers into a numbers trap again.
Let’s say, hypothetically, we decide that Extending is 100%, Applying 90%, Developing 75%, Beginning 50%, and Emerging 30%. At the end of a course, we can add up all the curricular competency assessments and see a final mark. That's easy, right? The teacher still has the final say and can tweak as necessary. Sounds good too. The problem lies when teachers stop assessing to what extent is this child showing proficiency in that curricular competency using the language in the learning scale and instead see each heading in the learning scale like a category in a marks book. So now, Student X wrote a quiz and got 19/20, so they get Applying because Applying is 90-99%. Whoa! That’s not assessing the skill? The numerical trap now renders the learning scale pointless.
I tell teachers, stick with the language. Don’t give up on the language. Don’t fall back into the numbers abyss. Tally up numbers at the end (if you have to). But for now, don't. Give it time. It will come together. It will also make sense. I've hit semester end and viewed how my program generated an overall mark, and you know what? They were virtually bang on to where both the student and I placed them in terms of a grade.
It’s A Slow Process
The implementation of gradeless at my school hasn’t been all root beer and jelly beans. The learning scale isn’t perfect. It’s different. But there have been many who have been working very hard to implement it in the classroom. Despite their struggles, they are plugging away. I can’t walk down the hallway without being stopped to talk about a scale they had created or a question about how to explain the gradeless structure to parents, etc. I absolutely adore that part of my role this year. It lights me up to find out that there were teachers in my building who not only would buy in to the learning scale, but wanted to know how to take it further. They are willing to try and fail and try again. It’s been cool. I love them a lot.
Word is getting around, but it’s slow. Teachers who have fully embraced the gradeless system are sharing their journey, especially the positives with those who aren’t there yet. I can feel a shift in the school like a small wave building. It’s slow, but it is happening.
I want the shift to happen more quickly because I think that gradeless is more powerful if more teachers in the same building experience it together. We can collaborate. We can share struggles. We can bat around ways to interpret the learning scale. As a small group, it's tough. It can feel very lonely. I'm cautiously optimistic that the wave will become tidal and magnificent someday. For now, I'm incredibly devoted to my Professional Learning Network on Twitter and Facebook who motivate me every day to keep doing what I'm doing.
Following Your Gut Is Hard
I know gradeless is the right thing. I know marks don’t motivate. I know my learning scale works when teachers completely invest in its language. My gut tells me it’s what’s best for kids.
It’s hard to do what’s right. When surrounded by those who are die hard traditionalists, who claim to have read all the books, insist that marks motivate and don’t mind telling me that my ideas are whacky and unfounded, it’s hard to stand your ground and keep trudging ahead. It’s exhausting. I’ve had moments when I’ve wanted to abandon ship and drop the entire gradeless notion altogether. Right now, as I finish writing this piece, my head is spinning, my stomach is churning and I’m terrified for the repercussions of my point of view. It comes with the territory of the subject matter, I suppose. Assessment is persnickety.
I have to remain focused. I have to remember that there are teachers in the building counting on me to stand by them on this journey. I have to reflect on all the positives and not let negativity carry me away. When it comes to those who don’t wish to join the movement, there is no persuasive jackhammer in the world that will pry them away from their position. Leave ‘em.
When classrooms are gradeless, the focus becomes on learning, not marks. Learners are thinkers. Thinkers will rule the world. That’s what a growth mindset is. It is a teacher’s responsibility to instill a growth mindset in their learners. Only teachers can do that.
I said it before. I want gradeless to be on everyone’s plate. But these things take time. I will continue to foster my love for gradeless assessment to anyone who wants to hear about it. I will stand on my proverbial soap box. I will continue to travel this road with my own growth mindset. I will cling to my PLN who give me the fortitude to plug away at it.
Go gradeless…for the pros and the cons.