Going “Gradeless” in Glacier Park

I have never really been comfortable with the way I grade student work. I regularly feel like a fraud.

Of all the learning transformations we are attempting in the City of Glacier Park, the one that I was the most sceptical of trialling was the concept of going “gradeless”. This is not an idea I had ever considered because I keep SO much data. The BEST data. Evidence to offset every polite enquiry that never came my way. And I do mean never, because strangely (luckily?) in recent years, rarely has a parent questioned my assessment methods or outcomes.

I have poured literally countless hours (I shudder thinking about it) into building elaborate rubrics, grading work samples, reading every word written in genre texts, testing, re-testing, and using this data to create pretty colourful spreadsheets which either banished students to the fearful fate of D’s & E’s, elevated them to the safety of C’s, or if they really knocked it out of the park, delivered them to the rarefied air of B’s & A’s.

But, what if this time was better spent doing something that REALLY contributed to improving learning and achievement outcomes? Can I take failure off the table as an option for students?

I have been constantly frustrated in the past that students didn’t read and apply the feedback I spent precious time preparing/writing for them. They were interested (or not) in the grade they were given, and usually, that was it. For some it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, they were bad at/bored with/or were going to fail ‘said subject’ anyway, so why bother trying. Put in as little effort as possible, maybe just enough to keep the teacher off your back, and accept the fateful grade, before moving onto the next failure.

For a while I stopped giving a grade AND feedback, focusing on one or the other. But again, this seemed to achieve little in regards to student outcomes. Maybe it saved me a little time. Add to this, Freddy didn’t hand his work up (E), Sally & Billy were seriously late and parts were missing (D), and sorry folks, it’s deadline day, we have to move on. Better luck next time. Even when I offered to re-mark work that was resubmitted, students rarely took up the opportunity without a parent breathing directly down their polo top.

So for a while I’ve known there has to be a better way to work, I just didn’t know what it was.

Some people find John Hattie’s ideas and use of data somewhat contentious (like the effect of classroom size), but he suggests that student self-reported grading had THE greatest influence on student achievement outcomes. So this seemed like a logical concept to explore. This led me to Arthur Chiaravalli & Aaron Blackwelder who are responsible for a group called “Teachers Going Gradeless“.

This has been an eye-opening group to be part of. While many of the strongest advocates are based in the US and Europe, their work is based on considerable pedagogical research and many of their opinions and stories are compelling. To some teachers, going gradeless means actually grading less, for others, it really does mean going gradeless. I’ve been giving full gradeless a run. I haven’t marked a piece of work in 6 weeks at the time of writing. And I have to say I’ve been happily surprised to see the positive change in thinking and the improvement in many students. More about this later.

In four years of university and virtually since beginning my teaching career eleven years ago, my assessment methods and consistency have gone largely unchecked. Keep in mind that this teaching career thing is a big boat, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only passenger. Don’t even get me started about setting outcome goals for students with Individual/Negotiated Education Plans (IEP/NEP’s) let alone reporting against them. “What do you mean the student with the global delay/processing problem/ASD/Dyslexia/*insert 10 other issues here* didn’t meet the explicit goals that I set out for them within weeks of meeting them?”

Now, I’m not saying that I don’t have some professional expertise in working with parents/carers & outside providers to set and assess against goals, because after 11 years, clearly, I should have. But even now, this is a grading area that I struggle with. How do I give a kid a “D” for failing to meet a goal that I helped set with the best intentions of providing a challenge within what is considered “their abilities”. Countless issues could contribute to that missed goal, including possibly my own error in judgement, but no one is grading my effort and achievement at years end, so only one of us ends up wearing it.

Another problem is that most parents don’t seem to share the same enthusiasm for the sheer weight of data that I collect during a year. Which makes me question why I spend all that time collecting it at all. At student conferences, most parents just want to know if their child is working hard, making progress and get this, engaged in learning. But look, pretty spreadsheets!

This feels like dangerous territory for a teacher. On this blog, I have now openly admitted that I am doing far less explicit teaching (my job) and I’ve stopped grading work almost entirely (also my job). Quick, sack him. Heck, he probably sacked himself. Well hold on there, it’s a small sample size, but strangely enough, this might just be working. And honestly, I’m not even sure if all of my students have even realised I stopped marking their work!

I’m not grading anything at present. Done. But I’ve got 25 little helpers who are doing a whole mess of marking. Self and peer assessing have become the order of the day. This has been tedious, messy, and just straight up frustrating at times, but it does appear to be working. Taking time to upskill students to be critical of their own and others work has resulted in some significant gains, particularly for students who normally ‘struggle’. Coincidence? So what am I doing with all of this new found free time? Discussing, conferencing, providing written and verbal feedback, checking in on progress, sharing learning etc. I’ve never had so much time to work one-to-one with students.

Recently, students spent several days self-assessing poetry they had written (it was painful to watch!) But at the end of the process, they owned the work, and the learning that occurred during the assessment phase was almost certainly deeper than the explicit lessons taught in the lead-up. Some students went away and wrote more poems so that they could complete some missing elements of the assessment and show evidence of their learning. Others actually applied what they learnt to our next learning task. And almost all of it was finished within a “soft-deadline” target. But thing is, not one grade was given. Poems were shared on student blogs, uploaded as videos to FlipGrid, read aloud in assembly, but I didn’t assign a single letter, number or percentage.

In the Arts, students are collecting evidence of their learning in a portfolio and we are going to conference so they can give us a letter grade we can all agree on for their mid-term report. Students are becoming familiar with the curriculum, seeking out completed artworks/sketches, discussing outcomes with staff, which is all pretty weird from where I sit. And I’m backing them. You’re an A student, awesome, prove it! I have heard many will under-score themselves as a sort of self-handicapping defence mechanism, others will need support to collect evidence, but it will certainly be an interesting couple of weeks.

I have more questions than answers at the moment, but these are for another day. I’m under no illusions that what I am currently doing is anywhere near best practice yet, or where this will all end up, but it is a start.

Some light reading for anyone without a life who has made it this far:







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