On Going Gradeless



“No Grades” does not mean “no assessments”.

On the contrary, it potentially means much better assessments.

The primary reasons for moving away from grades seem, for many teachers, to be the following:

  • There is a growing recognition that standardised exams do not do a good job of testing the things that we should actually care about in education.

  • High-stakes testing causes high levels of anxiety in students.

However, this sounds to some like a compromise: We’re giving up our valuable test results, our rigour, for the sake of comfort, or throwing out a model because it’s not good enough without something to replace it with.

This does not have to be the case. Instead, removing the focus from grades actually allows us the freedom to design much more valuable assessments.

How?

When designing assessments, the main question on teachers’ minds is, “how do I grade this?” And grading in the traditional sense—usually applying numbers, percentages or letters—actually limits the scope of an assessment.

Not all things can be easily quantified in the form of grades. It doesn’t seem appropriate to apply a number or a letter to “creativity” for example. So that means that graded tests generally don’t account for “creativity”.

Sometimes, teachers will try grading these aspects. For example, you’ll likely remember receiving a grade for effort at some point in your schooling, and finding that a rather weird concept. How can effort really be graded? Can effort be seen from output? Perhaps to an extent, but I know purely from my own experience as a student that I could make exactly the same amount of effort in two different subjects and get wildly different outcomes, simply because I found one subject easier than the other. So grades for effort are usually more indicative of the teacher’s expectations and biases than anything else.

Another attempt that teachers often make to account for these intangibles is “docking points” or “extra credit”. Very often, I would receive a score for work I had handed it, but it would be a few points lower because I had failed to meet the deadline. You might think that’s fair—many do—but I certainly disagree.

A score that I receive for a piece of work should represent my ability with relation to the task. It should be a numerical representation of how much I know about that subject or how skilled I am. As soon as points are added or subtracted for something like timeliness, the score is no longer represents that. A score of 97 in Maths does not mean I am “97% good at Maths” if that also 97 incorporates my effort, my attitude, my timekeeping, my ability to work with my partner and so on.

Am I saying that these things are not important? No. In fact, I might even suggest that these are the things we should actually care most about. Nevertheless, they have nothing to do with mathematical prowess. 

Not to mention that applying a numerical value to these very complex, intangible and in many cases highly subjective concepts can seem somewhat absurd.

Where I teach, in Indonesia, a new curriculum was introduced back in 2013. The new curriculum was introduced as favouring a more student-centred approach, and it incorporated a focus on student characteristics, such as leadership, entrepreneurship and generosity. An inventory of 18 characteristics was included in the documentation.

But in a system where the score is the only thing that counts, you have two choices: grade it or ignore it.

Eschewing grades seems to suggest to some teachers less stringency, less rigour, less attention being paid to the students’ abilities. But in fact, quite the opposite can be true.

By removing the focus on grades, we are in a much stronger position to evaluate our students’ behaviour. How so?

Now, I can talk about my students’ ability and their attitude and other aspects without one impacting on the other by adjusting the score;

Now, I don’t have to assign concrete grades to things that should be abstract and subjective;

Now I don’t need to ignore the things that are not easily quantified.

Now, I can describe each different aspect of my students’ ability and performance in its own terms. 

I can talk specifically about what my student knows about the subject and what relevant abilities they have, and rather than just giving it a score, which is not very expressive or enlightening, I can describe precisely how the student has demonstrated that knowledge and ability.

I can then do the same with the other aspects, characteristics and so on . Rather than trying to assign a score to something that is inherently abstract and subjective, instead I and simply describe how the student has demonstrated these skills, abilities or traits. 

For example, instead of giving a student 87% for Leadership—which really is rather meaningless—I can write about how that student has demonstrated leadership in the classroom with explicit examples.

And I can present each of these things separately, so that anybody reading my feedback can see on the one hand how capable the student is with respect to the subject of learning, and they can also see some valuable, qualitative feedback about that student’s attitude but without that affecting what we know about their academic ability.

Now, the scope of my assessments is much more comprehensive, the feedback I offer is more valuable, and each factor is addressed in its own right, untainted by other factors. If I have a student who shows great communicative skills but poor work ethic, that cannot be expressed in a single collated score, but if I address each trait and its manifestation separately, then we are able to give a complete picture of the student.

In addition to this, research has quite definitively shown that a system of high-stakes, standardised testing actually reduces performance… More on this is a future post.


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