So Are Grades Broken? Going Gradeless Part II

So are grades broken?

I’m a HPE teacher at heart. When people ask what I teach I still identify as such. Then I tell them I’m a classroom teacher at the moment. But really, I’m a contract teacher. I never know year to year whether I have a job to come back to. But I’m totally ok with that. It has given me choice. Flexibility. My employer too. If I am not the right person for the job, move me on. Likewise I can exercise that right should I not like where the ship is headed. This is a photo of me in 2005 (with hair!) right before I graduated from the University of Tasmania with a Bachelor of Human Movement in education.

A few years into my career, my principal at a previous school said he couldn’t offer me an ongoing HPE position, but because no permanent staff wanted to tackle the troublesome year 6/7 class, I could move into the classroom. It was a low socio-economic school in a challenging part of the city. I mentioned to him that I had zero training in ANY of the subject areas that I was to teach and maybe I wasn’t the best choice. He replied that I “did relationships well” and I could learn the rest. He valued relationships over content. Looking back now, this brave decision has largely shaped where I find myself today.

My biggest strength has also been my biggest weakness. I came into classroom teaching with zero preconceived ideas about what I should be doing, and got on with figuring out what actually worked. In those early days, it was the students (sorry kids) who had to endure my muddling practice of worksheets, grades and compliance. I’ve always been ok with change. Flexible. But, if I didn’t have relationships, I was literally dead in the water. I still contend that my principal was a little nuts. But he believed in me and my intentions were good. I largely entertained those kids and tried to build something of a community. But it really was worksheet world, and realistically, I shouldn’t have been in the job. Survival was the goal. Maybe some learning.

But I did survive. So did the kids. No one was irrevocably scarred. By the end of my third year I had some idea of what I was doing. Problem is, I spent those three years grading with wonderful intentions but with barely a competent understanding of curriculum. There were no real checks then, and there have been no real checks in the six years since.

So, again, are our current grading practices broken? Yep.

And I have been part of the problem. Now I would like to be part of the solution.

Over the years I have seen teachers grade based on attitude rather than understanding. I know classrooms exist where the neatness of work is held in higher regard than the thinking behind it. I have had kids come into my class and try and “game” me with pretty work, and who can blame them if it had worked in the past.

Grades are confusing. I’m happy to admit I am regularly confused. Take a look at the Australian Curriculum for a composite year 6/7 class and tell me with a straight face that there is consistency in a single classroom across all those subject areas, let alone across the state or the entire country. I think not. In our district we are focused on moderating student learning so we can agree on the differences between an A-E grade for students. Question is, how does this help drive and improve learning for students?

We are increasingly data driven. PAT tests. NAPLAN. I once overheard a parent say they would never send their child to X school because the NAPLAN scores were too low. The best learning that happens in our classroom cannot, and will not, ever be measured by a NAPLAN test. Unless someone invents a standardized test to measure empathy, perseverance, collaboration, communication, creativity etc.

What evidence is there that traditional grading drives growth or proficiency? Anecdotally, I have seen grading demotivate struggling students far more regularly than I have seen it used for motivation. Heck, I’ve been the judge, jury and executioner. I’ve known that entering a “failing” grade into the gradebook would do nothing to help a student. But I didn’t realise I had another option. I’ve tried to soften the blow at times, lose a grade here and there, but at the end of the day the student gets what they deserve don’t they?


Going “Gradeless” for the past term has been liberating for students and me. It has forced me to slow down and assess what I value, not value what I assess. Students are focused on mastery of skills, not cutting corners and just doing enough to get by. They are motivated by a desire to learn, not compliance or a desire to avoid detention. They are collaborating. Assessing each other and even students from other classes. Creating rubrics. Discussing what excellence looks like in a piece of work. Behaviour issues have reduced. Independent learning skills are improving. Time management and prioritising learning. If our little “invented” city project hasn’t been some kind of success, then I’m not sitting here.

We were contacted by TouchCast recently who liked that we had used their Studio iPad App in a pretty unique and unintended way. They invited us to create an video to explain our learning which they intend to share online and in their newsletter. This was a great example of authentic learning by connecting with the real world. The students involved worked hard to script, storyboard and record the video.

This week we also connected with Monte Syrie who has captured the imagination of students with his guaranteed “A” Project 180. We have organised an AMA (Ask Me Anything) over FlipGrid so that we can have a conversation across time and place. Monte’s journey was part of Hailey’s inspiration to write a profound reflection of her learning this week. For three days she poured over a piece of writing that wasn’t compulsory and was never going to be assessed.

She did because she wanted her voice to be heard. Because something resonated with her and she wanted to try and make sense of it. Awesome. It went a little bit viral and even became one of those inspirational posters, read and shared amongst the Twitterverse by teachers and educators all over. A 12 year old girl from Hallett Cove South wrote something that had people thinking all around the world.

I wonder what grade I should give her for that?

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