Why I’m Quitting Grading

I’ve been trying to write this post for a long time. I started this draft nearly a year ago. Perhaps the most intriguing–and divisive–topic in education is grading. Why we do it, how we go about it, and when we report it are all issues of contention among educators, parents, and students. Figuring out assessment and its role in your school is a vital struggle for being able to do effective work in the system where you teach.

If you’ve ever set foot into a college Education classroom, you’ve probably heard of Alife Kohn. Maybe you’ve even read excerpts from Punished by Rewards or No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning. To a traditionalist, these concepts are heresy. The more “rigor” the better. Students should be under the weight of more content, deeper assignments, and even steeper bell curves if they are going to be able to compete in our economy.

Sounds familiar right? It’s been the standard message of “work-harder-endure-the-torture” education reformers status quo proponents for over a century. Kohn stands in opposition to those ideals, but he’s only a theorist and easy to write off. I love theory, but in my own journey through exploring learning, I sought out a more real-world teacher example.

That’s when I came across Joe Bower, a teacher from Canada on a mission to abolish grading, rating, and ranking in his classroom, have the tough conversations with parents, students, and administrators, and really explore what Kohn only writes about.

As a new teacher, rocking the boat is usually the last thing you want to do. Whether it’s standing up to blatant censorship or defending your own fledgling beliefs, it’s hard to not think of your mounting student loans, rent, and bills. You’d like to keep your job, ethics be damned.

That’s why, until now, I’ve stayed away from writing about this idea. I didn’t necessarily think I’d be let go, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to have the ensuing conversations with those above me. Joe has a list of people on his website who are participating in a Moratorium on Grading; they’ve each written about their decision and position in the process. I sent Joe a message on Twitter and explained that I was taking my time to write a thoughtful and intentional response before going public.

What spurred me to finally sit down and write about this last Summer was the AMC show Mad Men. I’m not the first person to write about education and this show. Education advocate and writer Sam Chaltain has written two pieces about democracy, capitalism, and education in the show, one for Huffington Post and the other on his blog. His pieces explore the important role that choice and desire play in our lives.

My ah-ha moment came about when Don, the bold protagonist and ad man, goes against his entire agency–and profession–to stand up to Big Tobacco. His firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce had Lucky Strike as a client for three decades and they represented half of their business cash flow. When they left unexpectedly, the company was thrown into turmoil. After work that day, Don sits at his typewriter writing into the wee hours of the morning. His character is an objective capitalist, but also deeply philosophical and pondering. The product of his scheming is this earth-shaking ad he places in the New York Times:

Seeing the effects of this on Draper and his firm was eye-opening; a true foil for my own profession’s struggles as Kohn, Bower, and others see them. His ad forced a sea change, something “rich and strange” as Ariel sings in The Tempest.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Ding-dong.
Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell.

I knew I had to write my own letter to the world, to my profession. I felt ready to plunge into the cold black sea, no matter how unforgiving it may seem. Writing his letter led Don’s firm into an ad campaign with the American Cancer Society in direct opposition to Big Tobacco. Maybe mine will help me start some real conversations about learning rather than grading. Maybe people will start to think beyond the false choice of carrots or sticks and start thinking about true assessment, which really means “to sit beside.”

12 thoughts on “Why I’m Quitting Grading

  1. I have lost at least as much sleep as you over this issue. I’m all for stopping grading. But then it needs to be replaced with some other kinds of feedback that help students learn what’s necessary in time for the next standardized test. I do a lot of grading still, for the simple reason that I haven’t found anything useful or efficient enough to replace it.

    I agree, theorists don’t do much for me, simply because they usually aren’t doing anything besides thinking. Their ideas may be interesting, but often woefully impractical, or at least incomplete.

  2. Pingback: Shifting the Conversation from Grades to Learning « Hi, I’m Steve Moore

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful reply Paul. I think the “well, what next?” question is #1 for everyone.

    I just posted my follow-up to this post that attempts to give a sample of what I’ve tried in my classroom. I still have grades too, but I’m working to shift the conversation away from them. The less we talk about them, the more the kids actually start learning, then if they do take a standardized test or write a paper, they are more likely to do well.

    I don’t have a system to replace grades, I still put things in the grade book, but I actively work to change people’s minds about the use of grades in our thinking and planning.

    I think it’s ultimately about intrinsic motivation and figuring out how to uncover opportunities with each kid to build that in them. There’s no grade for that. There’s only the pursuit of it I guess.

  4. Hi Steve.

    Thanks for writing this interesting post.

    In my UK special education classroom grades would be pretty meaningless. What matters most is that my students know what they have to do to improve.

    In many cases they have failed in other settings – for me this really means that the system has failed them. In order to build them back up as learners, I look for the small steps that will move them on in their learning.

    Some might call this assessment for learning (AfL); and I suppose I’m lucky to be in a setting that is not so interested in grades and assessment of learning.

    I strongly believe that what is good for students who face difficulties, is good for all students. So I think you have made a courageous step. Good luck!

    Best wishes,

    Paul

  5. Paul, your comment makes me glad I decided to share this challenge publicly. I am with you 100% on what works for students who fall through the cracks works for all. I like the keywording you provide too (AfL). That term may help me to have clearer conversations in the future.

  6. Love the civil “disobedience” in your post! Electronic portfolios is where I am heading…

    Students own their progress. Parents see exactly what is accomplished (or not). I had a student this year establish her own website and post daily progress in Science, Math, Reading and Writing. Her love of learning, because she clearly documented her educational journey, rejuvenated her. The sad news…she did this through homeschooling…and that’s my goal for this year…bring this to all students.

    Let’s keep talking. Thanks.

  7. Fantastic post, Steve. I will be adding this to the Grading Moratorium. Thank you for such a thoughtful post.

    Keep fighting the good fight

    Joe

  8. Steve
    Our school district went to a standards-based assessment system two years ago and reporting (no more A, B, Cs, etc. — instead it is M, P, B, N) and to be honest, it has been mixed. Parents are upset that they don’t quite understand the new multi-page report card (now called a progress report) and to be honest, what we see as teachers is that many students now lack the internal motivation for high quality projects because, well, there is no grade.
    The M (meets standard) does not hold the power of an A, nor does the B (beginning to meet standard) hold the negative element of a D.
    On the other hand, I do like that learning is assessed across specific areas, so a B as a final grade in ELA isn’t just an average. You should be able to see specific strengths and weaknesses in specific areas under the standards-based system.
    But, it’s a tricky business.
    Good luck
    Kevin

  9. It strikes me that a large part of the opposition to the abandonment of traditional grading is that it requires more work, particularly on the part of students and parents. A ‘D’ means “I didn’t do well.” Either panic, or “who cares,” depending on personal and family values, but everyone thinks they know what it means. But “fails to meet standards” is meaningless unless one actually looks at the standard. This puts the students and parents in the position of having to take responsibility for understanding what needs to be learned, for intentionally following the threads in the standards. It also means that teachers will need to go beyond rubrics, to explaining how a particular assignment supports the standard. A huge amount of work, with limited incentives for the stakeholders, and no ideas presented about how to train, not only the teachers, but the parents as well.

    Given that basis, the other issue is how, exactly, abandoning traditional grading will benefit the students currently at the bottom. In essence, if you didn’t do well because you didn’t know what you were supposed to be learning, a change may provide benefit. However, if you just didn’t care, changing assessment will, in all probability, merely give you something different to not care about.

  10. Steve,

    Bravo!!

    This frees you to try other things more creative
    to help learners learn.

    It pays to kill, rest to death bed, old antiquated
    practices.

    Ray

  11. Thank you Ray! Helping learners learn…if only that potent idea were more prevalent in our schools. I truly think a lot of people want it to be, but are just stuck where they are.

  12. Great post.

    I’m a graduate student at UT Austin, but taught elementary Art in Ohio for five years. The district next to our’s went through a painful process of getting community support to abolish letter grades on report cards… and did it. The community was at first angry and divided- and after a few years came to use it as a selling point for their school district. It was classic Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, they they fight you, then you win.”

    I thought I would comment to say that this kind of thing is rare, but is starting to happen… a pep talk before plunging into the cold black sea.

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