Going Grade-less: An Update

We are 8 months into a pandemic that really has changed how we can teach. Now it hasn’t change how many folks do but it has made some things seem less important. Back in March/April as we were told that we could not impact a student grade in a negative way because “online teaching was not equitable” and standardized tests were cancelled I realized that the assessment practices that we held so tightly to were really… pretty much trash. We were not really measuring learning, we were measuring compliance, we were measuring memorization, we were measuring who could “do school”. I had heard a lot about teachers going grade-less and I was interested in the idea but I also was a realist. It seemed like it would be really hard to do. Reading Point-Less by Dr.Sarah M. Zerwin gave me a framework and approach that I thought would be doable.

From day one we focused on feedback, we focused on determining areas that we needed to grow and the unique learners we are. We wrote a ton and talked about what we were seeing and my students writing improved. But beyond that there was this collective exhale. Grades hang above our students heads. They have never really informed us of anything. I mean really, can anyone tell me what an 83% on a paper is versus 87% how about the difference between an A and a B? With some descriptive feedback, please let me know. But this shift away from number and letters, towards conversations and reflection has been so meaningful.

We have spent the last few months building our grade-less understanding but there is always a plot twist and for me it is a report card that needs a grade attached. Thankfully Dr. Zerwin talks about here requirement to have a grade for those students moving on to University and grade conferences. So the last week or so I have been sitting down with my students to talk about how they are doing. In the past I just calculated all their grades and that was it. Now we talk, we look at the learning goals and we report on them. Students are reflecting and being honest in what they think they have earned. Do we have some bumps in the road where a student’s expectations are very distant from the reality of where they are at? Sure but not many, and when we do it is a great chance to have a conversation. Students are more aware of where they are and where they need to be and because of these chats they are learning how to get there. A Grade never served as such a powerful record of learning.

Grades were never meant to serve our students, they were meant to control them. The stress kids have to get those 90s and 100s is oppressive. They are controlled by the expectation to achieve high honours but couldn’t explain what that means. Today as I sat with students as they explained why they deserved that 92% I knew they understood why they deserve that achievement in the same way the student who self reported in the 70% range could recognize what they needed to improve on.

This work is new to me, I chose to pursue this learning in a pandemic. It has been a good choice.

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