Education Week - January 10, 2018 - 15
fail; they just didn't complete the work. And I never
gave them a chance to complete it.
The next year, I switched to an assessment system
based on observation, feedback, iteration, and student
self-evaluation. Students began completing all
assignments, became more engaged learners, and even
passed standardized tests at higher rates than their
peers in classrooms with traditional grades.
"Students would become
driven by curiosity and
inspiration rather than by
the empty promise of a
'good' grade or the threat
of a 'bad' one."
There are four steps to creating a no-grades
classroom that educators should follow:
1. Be accountable first to students. We owe students
the best chance to learn, regardless of any overarching
mandates we receive about grading. Don't worry so
much about what colleagues might think and focus on
what works for your students.
2. Tell parents exactly why you want to eliminate
grades. When you explain that you want to provide
detailed feedback on all activities and give kids a
chance for real mastery learning, how can parents
argue? Address their concerns and be transparent
about how this will help students.
3. Team up with school and community leaders.
Approach the decisionmakers with details about your
plan to eliminate number and letter grades. Remind
them that you're not eliminating the evaluation of
learning. Outline the benefits of making assessment
an ongoing, meaningful conversation that leads to
4. Bring students into the report-card conversation.
If your district mandates report cards, you might not
be able to escape assigning a number altogether. Sit
down with your students at the end of each marking
period and discuss: What work did they complete,
and what skills did they acquire over time? How did
students handle your feedback? Then, simply ask them
to grade themselves.
Alternative assessment might sound like a daunting
idea. But when we give students a break from fixating
on an anxiety-producing score, we allow true learning
to be the focus-not what's going in the grade book. n
BY KATE STOLTZFUS
The No-Grades Movement
ne of the most hotly debated questions in education
is the role of grades: How do teachers effectively
assess student learning, and how do schools gauge
progress in fair and adequate ways? Research
has shown that grading is a solid predictor of
student-success outcomes, but it is not always an accurate
representation of what students actually know; in fact, it can
both increase cheating and hurt student-teacher or peer-topeer relationships.
Though educators have played with alternative forms of
assessment for decades, school districts, individual teachers,
and even states are increasingly questioning and replacing
long-favored methods with more experimental practices. A
driving force for the changes is the effect of grades on student
motivation. As Alfie Kohn, a well-known critic of grades and
test scores, has maintained, students often focus on earning a
good grade at the expense of learning.
While alternative efforts have similar philosophies, they vary
in execution. Standards-based grading, which is more common
in elementary schools and picking up steam for older students,
favors detailed feedback reflecting how well students grasp
specific course objectives. Competency-based learning, for
which students earn credit for mastering learning at their own
speed, has also been gaining ground. The most radical of these
approaches is the small but growing movement to dispense
with grades altogether.
This is where Mark Barnes' work comes in. Barnes is the
founder of Times 10 Publications, known for its widely popular
Hack Learning series of more than a dozen books that reimagine teaching and learning. Written by teachers, principals,
superintendents, and instructional coaches, the books cover
topics such as literacy, leadership, stress reduction, and
project-based learning. Barnes is also the creator of the global
Facebook group Teachers Throwing Out Grades.
The goal of the no-grades movement is to steer students
away from passive learning and into a more active role in their
schooling. The focus is on the learning process rather than the
score, the pressure of performance replaced by an environment
where students feel free to make mistakes, continuously selfevaluate, and develop deeper understanding. It also champions
increased parent involvement and teacher feedback.
In an education system that counts on accountability, some
parents and school leaders remain skeptical of such practices,
especially for middle and high school students. Their concerns
are over how students will receive fair credit and how higher
and continuing education programs that require a GPA will
view students without one. Evaluations can also be confusing to
parents who are more used to the traditional A-F system.
The answer for the best route to assessment is not easy.
But as more schools and teachers think about assessment in
broader terms, there's clear recognition that the oft-used
scales are not the only way, or perhaps the best, to measure
what students know. n
10 Big Ideas / www.edweek.org/go/bigideas