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Is Teaching Without Grades the Key to Unlocking Your Students' Potential?

Innovative teachers are empowering students to learn authentically by going gradeless. These stories from three educators can help you do it, too.
Gerard Dawson
March 18, 2021

“Where’s the vocab test?”

Bonnie Nieves, a high school biology teacher in Massachusetts, often hears this from her students on the first day of class.

Massachusetts requires students to pass a biology test to graduate. This, she says, leads to test-driven teaching and assessment. Lots of vocab tests, too.

Bonnie takes a different approach, which helps her students enjoy science and learn more.

Instead of a vocab test, Bonnie says, “I’m going to talk to you everyday, and we’re going to use academic language everyday. That’s where the assessment comes from.”

The results are clear.

“Kids unprovoked will tell me how much they prefer this approach. They are curious about the next biology topic. It’s just a different mindset,” Bonnie said.

Fortunately, Bonnie is not alone in her approach to learning and assessment. 

There’s a growing list of educators empowering students by throwing out traditional grades.

Two more of those educators are Starr Sackstein, an experienced English and Journalism educator from New York, and Arthur Chiavaralli, an English teacher turned House Director at a high school in Vermont. 

Starr, Bonnie and Arthur have unique reasons for throwing out grades. They have unique ways of making it happen.

However, they share a belief that traditional grades are harmful to learning. They believe teaching without grades or “ungrading” transforms the environment in the classroom. 

Below, Bonnie, Arthur and Starr share why they ditched grades, how they think about the process, and what tips you can follow in your classroom or school to get started.

Why should teachers and schools give up grades?

No more participation points

“If students can share knowledge or show a skill on the spot, that’s more valuable than cramming for a test to learn a few terms,” Bonnie said.

She recalls a student upset about not earning participating points after making a cake for a project. Bonnie’s initial response was, “exactly!”

In other words, participating on its own was not the way to show learning in her class. The focus on grades and participation points has the effect of turning the role of student into a role a to be played.

Student is not a verb. That’s not what this is,” Bonnie said.

Bonnie also believes in interest-led learning. She finds that choice and grades don’t mix well.

Through a project-based approach with narrative feedback instead of grades, students show mastery using their unique interests and skills.

A son’s report card starts a revolution

For Starr, her teaching first looked like her own life as a student. She spent her few years teaching as a self-described perfectionist. Grades were proof that her class was hard.

After seeing her son’s report card, though, she began to change her mind. His school was standards-based, and Starr found the narrative feedback more valuable than a letter or number.

“I can have six kids with an average of ‘B,’ and that can mean very different things for each of those kids,” Starr said.

We know grades harm learning

As research builds the case against grades, Arthur believes the clear choice is to progress towards a different system.

“We know rating things and grading things has such a negative effect on student learning - why bother?” Arthur said.

In his current role as a House Director, similar to an assistant principal, he sees how embracing a gradeless system as an administrator can have a powerful impact at the classroom level.

His school is following a mastery transcript, which means students earned credit for specific courses with no letter or number grade attached.

He believes this approach is “an opportunity to communicate truthfully and accurately what's happening in the classroom.”

How can educators think about giving up grades?

When class is like a movie

Solve fun problems and answer hard questions. For Bonnie, this is the recipe for engaging students in a no-grades classroom.

She works hard to make her class worth attending. This helps students focus on learning instead of the final grade placed on their transcript at the end of the semester.

“You need to make your class worth going to,” Bonnie said. “Like a movie trailer, you need to build anticipation in your lessons.”

By taking this approach, Bonnie’s students are constantly thinking about what they’re learning, instead of scrambling to memorize out-of-context terms.

The Grades-Identity Connection 

According to Starr there are two things that reveal an educator’s values: “what we spend time on, and what we say about what we spend time on.”

This means that Starr has focused on having in-depth conversations with students about the connection between identity and academic achievement, and how students tie their self-worth to their grades.

“They would put the assignment in my hand, and the first thing they say is ‘what did I get?’”

Starr noticed students’ intelligence level was not always representative of their grades. While some kids were “chasing the carrot,” other bright kids did not get good grades. 

Then she changed her system. Students got multiple attempts to show mastery. They reflected on their performance. They had conversations about their progress. After these changes, she saw a shift in kids’ behavior.

In addition to helping kids to adjust their mindsets, Starr also had to adjust her own mindset about her role as teacher after throwing out grades.

This mindset shift manifested in other visible changes, such as moving her desk off to the side, allowing students to sit anywhere in the room in order to better communicate and collaborate, and adjusting her lesson plans almost daily based on observations she had about student progress. 

“I started to see kids as learners, and it became about how to meet them where they are and move them to where they need to go.”

Going gradeless isn’t all or nothing

Humans tend to think in binary terms. However, Arthur encourages teachers to think about going gradeless as a process. 

He sees a spectrum between traditional grades and no grades with many stops in between. 

Arthur notes that “there’s talk in education about disruption, but often the kids who are harmed the most from disruption are the ones who are already disadvantaged in various ways.”

Because of this, he believes, “teachers have to use some prudence when going gradeless.”

What do you do when you’ve given up grades?

Give kids choice and a problem to solve

Bonnie uses a simple system to assess students’ progress on the standards for her class.

“I base the grade on a single-point rubric: met, exceeded, or not met yet. We work together to figure out where they are on the standard,” Bonnie said.

She gives kids choices for how they demonstrate mastery of the standards. 

For example, in a unit about water, the class could begin by looking at the UN Sustainable Development Goal for water. After learning about the filtering, chemistry and saniation of water, she will pose a question to the class: How does the water where we live compare to the water in another country?

From there, she would encourage students to ask questions about water, the filtering process, the chemistry of water, and water sanitation. 

Then, students choose to explore the water system in a location of their choice. 

Start by testing the waters

Starr encourages teachers to consider their tenure status before going gradeless. Non-tenured teachers, she says, often need to “color inside the lines.”

This means going gradeless for a unit or project, delaying grades, or getting students involved in conversations about grades.

Starr tested her no-grades system in a journalism class, which had students selecting topics, publishing workin the student newspaper, and managing their own deadlines.

After teachers and administrators saw her success with this system, she made the leap with her AP class, too. 

Begin by improving the grading process

Arthur, founder of the group Teachers Going Gradeless, encourages teachers to take gradual steps toward de-emphasizing and removing grades instead of doing it all at once. 

He notes that there are several concrete actions educators can take, such as: 

  • Not penalizing students’ for late work
  • Separating discipline from academic grades  
  • Giving students multiple attempts to show mastery 
  • Embracing “the case against the zero” if using a 100-point scale
  • Delaying grades by giving feedback on practice assignments or drafts

Through following these steps, Arthur believes educators can begin to think more critically about grades and their impact on learning, without causing a big disruption to students’ experiences.

Take the first steps on the journey to gradeless

The biggest belief that Bonnie, Arthur and share is that going gradeless is a journey, not a one-time decision.

One of the first concrete steps Bonnie suggests for educators is to get students reflecting on what they’ve learned instead of going through assignments just to “check the box.”

“This is a progression,” Bonnie said, “and I encourage more teachers to start using portfolios. It’s empowering for students to reflect on what they’ve learned during the course of the year and their academic career.”

As teachers take the first steps towards rethinking assessment in the classroom, Arthur believes that seeing many examples of what works in the classroom is most helpful for teachers.

“There’s a dignity to teaching that doesn’t accept one-size-fits-all solutions,” Arthur said. “We should show teachers a lot of different stories about what other teachers are doing,” Arthur said. 

The idea of going gradeless sounds impossible to some teachers because it’s such a big change.

By reflecting on the stories of these three educators and borrowing your favorite of their ideas, you can begin to rethink the role of assessment in your teaching and take the first step towards going gradeless.

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