Reflections on a Year (Mostly) without Grades

With the school year over, I think it’s so important to take some time to reflect. So this will be the first of several posts designed to help me think back on the year: what I noticed, what I learned, and what I want to think about or change next year. This first post is going to focus specifically on the new assessment plan I implemented this year.

First a brief recap of the changes I made. First, I stopped grading individual assignments, focusing instead of providing feedback along the way. Then, at the end of each quarter, I met with students to determine their grades for reading and writing. First quarter, everyone had the same criteria. For the last three quarters, their grades were based on their progress towards the reading and writing goals we had set together at the start of the quarter. The exception was that during 4th quarter, I tried something a bit different in writing, which I write about here.

I kept parents informed by using the Notes section in our school’s online gradebook to post shortened versions of the feedback students were getting and to post weekly updates for writing, summarizing something we talked about that week in a writing conference or what the student was working on that week. At the end of each quarter, then, I typed up a Teacher Evaluation Form, where I wrote out notes on the students accomplishments, progress, and other notes from their work that quarter.

Overall, I was happy with how the system worked. Only talking about grades for one week a quarter instead of them constantly consuming so much time and attention was a vast improvement. I also think the system for communicating information to parents, if they took the time to read it, provided them with much more information about their child’s progress than they were getting before. Most students, at least by the end of the year, liked having the opportunity to be involved in the grading process, and some even mentioned that they liked how they were forced to justify their grade with evidence from their work that quarter, that it gave them a much better idea of how they were doing.

For the most part, the assessment conferences went well. Most students, as I expected them to be, were pretty accurate in terms of how they graded themselves. There were a few who tried all year to make the evidence say what they wanted it to say (i.e. to make it say they should get an A even when it didn’t show that), and another student or two who consistently graded themselves much lower than the evidence said they deserved. But overall, at least 90-95% of the time, my assessment was pretty close to that of the students.

The thing I didn’t like the most is, unfortunately, the only thing I can’t change about this system: the fact that we still had to attach a grade at the end. As we went through this process this year, I was repeatedly made aware of how much better this whole process would be if we didn’t have to decide on a letter grade. Because I don’t want this process to consume too much of our workshop time, I’m limited in terms of how much time I have to sit down with each student. That means that every minute we spend talking about a grade is one less minute we get to actually assess how they’re doing. I would love to be able to sit down with each student, talk about how they’re doing in the different areas we assess, examine the progress they’ve made towards their reading and writing goals, discuss what they most need to work on next quarter, and create new goals for them to works towards next. And then just stop there. Unfortunately, we don’t get to dig into all of those areas in as much detail as I’d like because we have to spend some of that time deciding on what the students’ grade will be. Now, as the year went on, I did start finding ways to work around this. I went through the students planning sheet and evidence ahead of time, and if it was obvious that the student had earned an A, we didn’t bother talking about the grade. I want to do that more from the start next year.

The other problem with this system is that no matter how much I try to deemphasize this grade, this is still the way that too many students decide if they’ve had a good quarter or not. No matter how much self-assessment they do, these grades becomes their validation. If a student gets an A, then he can feel good about the quarter he had. If a student gets a B, then she can feel okay about it. If someone, GASP, gets a C, then that student feels like he had a bad quarter. I hate this, that a stupid letter has the power to decide how students feel about their quarter. And it’s not just students who feel like they did poorly. I hate that students who did great don’t feel good about all the amazing things they accomplished, only that they got A’s.

This year at the end of the year, I asked students what they achieved as readers and writers that they were most proud of, and I created certificates that I handed out on the last day (an idea based on something Pernille Ripp does in her class). I was also so impressed with the thoughtfulness so many students put into the final reflections they wrote after we had finished all of our assessment conferences. I asked students to answer this question: Think about yourself when school started in August compared to yourself now. How have you grown or changed as a writer and reader since then? What helped you? What changed you? What made you the writer and reader you are today?

I have to find as many ways as possible to help students not just be aware of what they’ve achieved, but somehow to help this become what they focus on. I also have to be more intentional about regularly encouraging parents to not focus on the grade so much. I’ve already started thinking about ways to do that next year, and I’m sure that will become a blog post later this summer.

Eventually, we will be implementing a standards-based report card in the junior high and eliminating letter grades (this type of report card is making its way up our school’s elementary now and will get to us at some point). Until that happens, I want to continue finding more ways to help students and parents put their focus on the right things.

Thoughts on Using Grades to Keep Kids Motivated at the End of the Year

This week, I’ve been thinking back to previous years when a teacher from a nearby district would complain about how early their grades had to be in at the end of the year. Final grades were due before the year was over, and kids new this. I used to think this would be bad too. I thought I needed to keep grading right up to the end of the year to motivate students. Otherwise, what would make them stay focused and keep trying? I’ve changed my mind about this, though. Now, this is just another problem, one of many, with grades being our main source of motivation for students.

This year, as I’ve written about quite often, I’m no longer grading individual assignments. Students’ quarter grades, which are solely based on their progress towards their reading and writing goals, are decided during a conference between the student and me. As I thought about the end of the year, I didn’t want to end the year talking to students about grades. As a result, we’re having these conferences at the start of next week, meaning there will be over a week left after students’ final grades have been determined. Am I worried that the week will become chaotic because grades are decided? Not a bit.

This past week, we had our final roundtable discussion, with students discussing the things that make books memorable and talking about the books they had read this year that would stay with them the most. At the end of the discussions, I asked students to reflect on the differences they saw between our most recent discussions and the ones we had at the start of the year. A couple of them shared in each class. My favorite response came from a boy in my last block. He said that at the beginning of the year, they mostly talked because they were supposed to and wanted to get credit for contributing. Now, they talked because they wanted to and had ideas to share. They weren’t worrying about grades anymore.

My only regret about our assessment conferences is that we didn’t have them sooner, which would have given us more than a week free of grades. The only reason we’re choosing a grade is that we have to put one on the report card. However, there’s no rule about when grades can be finalized. Next year, I want to have our final assessment conferences earlier to give students a couple weeks to come to class, to read, write, and talk while being truly free of grades. I wish that this year we would have decided on grades already and then had this final roundtable discussion afterwards.

While the assessment conferences have been a major upgrade from how grades used to be determined in my class, I’m looking forward to finishing them and being able to enjoy being with my students for the last week or so that we’ll have left once these conferences are finished. And next year, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with a couple weeks completely free of grades. I think it’ll make for a great end to the year.