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The Game-Changing Move: Why Schools Should Embrace a Gradeless System

As schools care for students post-COVID, expand SEL initiatives, and embrace EdTech, they have a special chance to make a huge leap forward.
Gerard Dawson
February 17, 2021

In his book The Audacity of Hope, former American President Barack Obama said public education was, “stuck between those who want to dismantle the system and those who would defend an indefensible status quo.”

Since those words were published almost two decades ago, there may be more open-minds who are re-imagining how schools work. However, most schools still measure and report learning with the “indefensible status quo” of traditional grades.

Fortunately, there’s never been a better time to change that.

Major events, such as introducing the Common Core Standards, are often the only way to make fast change at a large scale in education.

Now, a new set of major events demand that schools take a close look at how teachers teach and how students learn.

Specifically, now is the time for teachers, schools and districts to replace traditional grades with feedback, reflection and authentic assessment.

There are three main trends that make now the time to make this change:

1. The growing focus on SEL
2. Learning loss from COVID-19 school closures
3. EdTech tools for formative assessment and digital portfolios

These three forces are interrelated, too. If districts embrace a more innovative way to assess their students, they will be addressing and working through all three of these important situations in education.

Students have experienced learning loss from the pandemic

Since many schools closed in the spring of 2020, students have had drastically different experiences, both in school and life, through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Consider three hypothetical students. All three experienced school closures in the spring. During this time, they had both synchronous instruction with a teacher and asynchronous work to do on their own.

But then the new school year arrived, and:

• One was back in the building for the first day of school in the fall, and besides a few days out, has had a relatively normal school year.

• The second has been attending school in a hybrid format, where they attend school 2-3 days a week for instruction, then complete asynchronous work on the other days.

• The second has been attending classes remotely all year, and also has to watch their younger sibling, who is doing the same thing.

There is no doubt that these students will have different learning outcomes than if they had been attending school full-time in person during a typical school year.

As a result of these experiences, these kids will possibly experience several effects:

• They may not meet grade-level expectations when schools return to a normal schedule.

• They may have had traumatic and/or stressful experiences throughout the year.

Now, why does this disruption in students’ lives mean schools should go gradeless?

Returning to a system based on grades will only make these students’ experiences worse.

Even worse, the students who suffered most during the pandemic will be the most negatively affected by the grading system, which often does not take into account students’ personal lives.

There are two ways that grades will exacerbate the negative effects of school closures:

A grades-based system may impede students’ academic recovery

It’s unreasonable to apply typical grade-level expectations to students, and grade them based on those expectations, after over a year of interrupted schooling.

If schools are focused on helping students to learn, they need to use an approach that will encourage them to learn! A system based on grades is simply not the way.

A literature review in a study published by ETS said that “evidence from several studies that investigated the effect of differential feedback on learning suggested that using grades to improve learning was simply not effective.”

A grades-based system may negatively impact students’ mental health

Students’ mental health has been detrimentally affected by the pandemic, and continuing a system of grades that already leads to students stress may only make it worse.

The Washington Post reported on findings from a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that showed that students in environments with intense competition to earn good grades are an at-risk group, experiencing negative mental health symptoms “at least two to three times the national average.”

If there is growing research to suggest that a traditional grading system is bad for students academic progress and emotional well-being, then it is likely not the best approach for helping students recover, emotionally or academically.

Why a no-grades classroom may help students recover the effects from school closures

While it may be easy to point out a problem, it’s important to also offer a suggestion for a solution.

Said another way, how would teaching without grades help students recover from the COVID-19 pandemic?

There are several arguments from an academic and learning perspective for why teaching without grades is a smart move for schools as they plan to bounce back from COVID-19 school closures.

A no-grades classroom encourages teachers to create an environment that motivates students to learn. In a no-grades classroom, students experience many of the factors that are proven to lead to improve the motivation to learn, including:

• Autonomy

• Choice, and

• A focus on improvement

With a focus on revision and real learning, a no-grades system will make it clear to students that the focus is on their growth and academic progress, not on racing to catch up to an arbitrary letter or number.

For students whose mental health has been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, a no-grades system prioritizes open lines of communication.

No-grades classrooms are places of connectedness. To make a no-grades classroom function, there is an open flow of information between teacher, student, parent and guidance counselor, as well as a place where students learn to reflect, and be in conversation with themselves.

By definition then, a no-grades classroom is a place of connectedness, which is a positive factor in mental health. As the CDC states, “Connectedness is an important protective factor for youth that can reduce the likelihood of poor mental health.”

No-grades classrooms also encourage self-reflection. Self-reflection happens as students individually write about their own learning process as well as through conferences with the teacher. It is a form of mindfulness, which has multiple mental health benefits.

Overall, teaching without grades supports students' social-emotional well being, which we’ll get to in the next bullet point.

Social-emotional learning gets a boost when schools stop grading

It’s important to frame changes in education in practical ways that begin from a pragmatic understanding of how schools operate today.

This is why the connection between teaching without grades and the SEL movement is so important. School leaders, parents and teachers are growing ever-more aware of what social-emotional learning is, what it looks like, and why it needs to be part of daily life in schools and at home.

Making the connection between social-emotional learning initiatives and teaching without grades, then, helps everyone involved in a child’s education more clearly see how a no-grades classroom is the best choice for students’ overall wellbeing and success.

The gold standard of social-emotional learning is the CASEL framework of core competencies.

From this list of five skills that educators and learners develop as part of a social-emotional learning program, three of them are heavily connected to a no-grades classroom and are directly practiced in the no-grades environment.

Even more, an objective comparison of a traditional classroom to a no-grades classroom reveals that a no-grades classroom does more to encourage these three competencies, while traditional grading classrooms actually work against students’ development of these skills. The three competencies are self-awareness, self-management, and responsible decision making.

In a no-grades classroom, students develop self-awareness

As I’ve written about before, in my no-grades classroom, students were responsible for giving themselves final grades. For this process to happen, students needed to evaluate the expectations set forth in the class, and then take an honest look at the extent to which they met those expectations.

Compare this assessment process to what often happens in a traditional grades classroom. Students hand in their work to the teachers and ask “what did I get?” They not only focus on their grade over their learning, but they are seemingly unaware of how well their work measures up to expectations.

Instead, consider a student reflecting on her essay, then comparing it to a rubric highlighting the skills taught by an ELA teacher, and also holding it up next to 2-3 student examples of varying levels of success. Using this information, the student comes to her own conclusion about where she stands in the development of her writing skills, and may even have ideas for how she can improve.

Who has more self-awareness: the student who asks “what did I get?” or the student who can assess their own work?

Students in a no-grades classroom develop self-management as they learn to manage deadlines and revisions of their work

In no-grades classrooms, there are often laxer deadlines (or no deadlines at all). Additionally, students have the opportunity to re-do and revise their past attempts at demonstrating mastery of skills or content. In these situations, the students are encouraged to make decisions and plans for themselves about when to do their work and the best way to do it.

Again, let’s compare this situation to a traditional grades classroom: Typically, students are told exactly what they have to do, how they have to do it and when they have to do it by. Students are completely managed by the teacher instead of learning to manage themselves. A no-grades classroom helps to undo this process and encourage self-management.

Students in a no-grades classrooms practice responsible decision-making. When students don’t have the immediate threat of a bad grade, they may at first be tempted to try getting away with not doing their assignments or not putting as much effort into them as they normally would.

Hopefully, the students have choice, autonomy and other conditions in the class that motivate them to work. However, a no-grades classroom is still more of a trust-based system where students are expected to complete their work and seek out help from the teacher as needed.

Despite the benefits that a no-grades classroom may have for helping schools to better address students’ needs post-COVID, as well as help schools to develop students’ social-emotional learning competencies, there is still a real challenge that teachers face:

How will teachers manage all of the work that goes into giving students feedback on their work and help them show their progress in portfolios?

EdTech makes feedback, assessment and digital portfolios easier

Five years ago, a surprising number of people in schools might not know what the abbreviation “EdTech” even stands for. That changed rapidly in the spring of 2020.

While the circumstances for the change were tragic, some of the secondary results will serve as a benefit for schools and student learning. One of these unexpected benefits is that almost all teachers now have an increased understanding of education technology and how to best apply it to their instruction.

For schools, this is a great savings in resources. Teachers and school leaders have increased capacity to learn new platforms or embrace new approaches that require the use of possibly unfamiliar EdTech. When it comes to embracing a no-grades classroom in a sustainable way, this comfort with EdTech is a game changer.

Read: Empowering Students with Feedback

Why the no-grades classroom runs on EdTech

A real challenge for teachers who want to embrace the no-grades classroom is figuring out how to make the shift from putting points and numbers on students’ assignments to giving them actionable, frequent feedback that helps them revise their work and keep learning.

Even when teachers know how to give good feedback, using approaches like “SE2R” described in Mark Barnes’s book Assessment 3.0, there is still the challenge of actually putting in the time and creating the systems that will allow teachers to make the feedback happen.

Fortunately, there are more tools available to teachers than ever before to help them give students meaningful feedback on their work in a robust, time-efficient way. Additionally, there are better tools available to help teachers guide students in creating meaningful digital portfolios to demonstrate their learning and growth over time.

Here are some of the tools that are available to help teachers better formatively assess students and provide feedback throughout the learning process:

Kahoot - teachers can choose from a massive library of question sets, or create their own, and Kahoot will present the questions to the class in a fun interactive quiz game.

Socrative - teachers can set-up quick formative assessment questions (multiple choice, short answer, true/false). You can also set it so students can anonymously view each others’ responses, then vote on their favorites.

SpacesEDU - SpacesEDU is an easy-to-use digital portfolio that enables anytime, anywhere learning. Richard Byrne of Free Technology for Teachers recently shared an in-depth write-up of why SpacesEDU is the best tool for digital portfolios.

Read: SpacesEDU Getting Started Guide for Teachers

No better place than here, no better time than now

Making a big change in how schools operate is never easy. Like many such changes, it may never feel like the perfect time.

But we must consider the current circumstances. Student needs are colliding with social-emotional learning initiatives and more awareness and availability of EdTech. Now is the time for schools and districts to seriously consider re-thinking how they measure and report on student learning.

Now is the time for schools to give up grades.

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