How To Ungrade Gradelessly In Two Steps

I’ve been told that going gradeless and ungrading are different. While that’s certainly possible, I haven’t seen a clear difference so far. That is, between blogs, Facebook groups, books, and the rare research report under either term (plus more), the similarities stand out way more than any notable differences. There’s quite a bit of consensus among even the most discerning of grading systems related to reducing or eliminating grades. Even a few systems that fall under a generic “standards-based” approach have basically the same features as those that fall under the “gradeless/ungraded.” Whatever you want to call these approaches, this post will show you how to get rid of all the points, scores, and assignment grades while keeping the focus on learning. There are two basic steps:

  1. Have students put all their classwork, assignments, and assessments into a portfolio.
  2. Students self-grade, citing evidence from the portfolio.
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Documentation Of Participation vs. Evidence Of Learning

I came across a 1993 article on student self-reporting (Darrow, et al.), and spent some time thinking about the idea that became the title of this blog post. As I’ve begun diving deeper into the “ungrading/gradeless” sphere of self-assessment, self-grading, and portfolios, I can say that at first I pretty much was getting the former documentation of participation, not the latter evidence of learning. Earlier this year, my student teacher and I spotted students uploading some questionable “learning evidence” into their portfolio, like notebook pictures with the day’s greeting copied from the board during the first five minutes of class.

This is not evidence of learning.

I’d go as far to say it’s a stretch to even call this something like participating. Copying is the absolute lowest writing skill for first year high school language learners, and this 5-minute routine merely sets up actual participation once class really begins. So, that was obviously documentation of some kind (vs. evidence of learning), and we then steered students towards a more productive direction of getting us evidence of learning. However, not everything students uploaded was as obvious. Take, for example, a Read & Summarize statement. Yes, the student was doing something in class, but was that necessarily doing anything for learning? It’s certainly possible, but just as likely not. The point here is that the difference between documentation of participation and evidence of learning really depends on the quality of what students add to their portfolio. If we just treat it as completion, that’s basically what we’ll continue to get: documentation of participation, which can actually lead to disengagement and lack of participation. As much as school can be school, kids really do find meaningless work worthless, and tend to find meaningful learning valuable. Even the cool kids. It’s important in a portfolio system to provide feedback on what students add so that you ensure meaningful learning occurs.

Easier said than done, but it’s time well spent.

As far as I can tell, there are only two ways to determine if what students add to their portfolio is, indeed, evidence of learning (and not documentation of participation). The first is an objective comparison to previous work, whether that’s on the teacher or the student, and the second is an honest rationale from the student’s end (explaining why what was added shows learning). I find the former tricky in a language class. For example, if you were to use the same text and have students keep submitting assignments based on that throughout the grading term, how sure are you that students are even processing the language anymore (vs. based on memorized English understanding of the text)? One cumbersome way could be to use a core set of vocabulary at the start of the term, and then write different texts with that same core set throughout the grading term that students interact with and complete assignments for. That might do the trick, but even then you’ve got to look at the students who ace the assignments in the beginning. How could they possibly show learning if they’ve already…learned…all that from the start? Also, a picture of a Quick Quiz result or something might just be participation, even if the student is showing you they understood all the Latin. Understanding Latin for 10 minutes during one class isn’t necessarily evidence of learning. Again, you’d need to compare those results over time to make the claim.

So, the comparison to previous work is tricky if not just time-consuming. That’s why I prefer getting students to write some honest rationales explaining why what was added shows learning. It’s all going to be individual anyway. Might as well embrace that.

Punished By Rewards & Advantages To The Single-Point Rubric

As if researching how to eliminate grading and reduce assessment couldn’t get much better, I’ve now got something else. Alfie Kohn’s 1993 masterpiece really ought to be required reading for every educator. Coming up on its 30 year anniversary, the author at the time reviewed studies dating just as far back to the 1960s. This post is gonna focus on self-assessments. When it comes to students self-assessing, evidence suggests that the more students think about HOW WELL they’re doing (vs. WHAT they’re doing), they do it poorly.

That’s crazy-unintuitive, right?!

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Grades: Going, Going, Gone!

Here’s a quick report having gone nearly 100% gradeless. I say nearly because at my school, the halfway point of the quarter (i.e., progress reports) requires a grade. So, as of right now there’s a course grade that shows up. This practice isn’t quite in line with a true ungrading approach that would have a grade only at the very end of the grading period. I’m nearly there, and have a feeling this is as far as I’ll go, too. But that’s not a problem. There’s already been a big difference in the most important areas, and I expect things to get even better.

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No More Reading At Home! & Look, Listen, Ask: What’s Your Focus?

On my path towards simplifying everything I possibly can about teaching, this next grading idea is quite promising. Don’t get me wrong, my expectations-based grading rubric has worked wonders in terms of flexibility, equity, and efficiency. This new idea just complements the rubric by aligning more of what is expected during class with arriving at the course grade. It also adds more varied gradebook evidence.

In this most-unusual of teaching years, one problem we ran into was how to get evidence of learning, especially when students weren’t in class. The best solution I used was called My Time, the form students filled out to get equal credit by reading on their own and showing their understanding. Otherwise, the typical evidence I collected was fairly simple: upload/share a picture of the day’s “work” done in the notebook. At some point, though, I noticed that students weren’t reading daily from the digital class library—a major course expectation—so I replaced that weekly notebook pic with checking the digital library (Google Doc) and reporting how many days students accessed it. To my disappointment, though not to my surprise, very few students were spending any time at all in the Google Doc. Admittedly, there’s no way to know if the students who did WERE reading, and we gotta take that on faith, but the majority weren’t even accessing the document! So, effective immediately, I’m removing all expectations of students reading at home. This is BIG! However, I’m still maintaining the expectation of reading something old and something new, every day which means the adjustment is to build this into class time for about 5-10 minutes. This is different from FVR (Free Voluntary Reading), which lasts 15-20 on one to two days a week. I like “Free Reading Fridays” and then “Read Whatever Wednesdays” when it really gets rolling. Also, it doesn’t matter if a kid goes home to a peaceful room and naps, then spends hours reading for school, if they go directly to a part-time job, or if they take care of family members. This update is more equitable, and maintains a focus on reading. A simple Google Form follow-up (“What Did You Read?”) is evidence for the gradebook.

But the brain craves novelty

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If teachers were to just stop grading grammar…

Here’s the third post this week with thoughts on assessment in addition to Friday’s on self-grading & batch assessments, and Thursday’s on averaging & delayed assessments.

If teachers were to just stop grading grammar, Latin (and other languages) would instantly become more accessible to students, as well as afford more planning time for teachers.

This is no joke.

There are some teachers excited about grammar and want to share that with students. Go ahead! I’m not saying they shouldn’t, but I’ve observed many (all?) of the negative effects of doing so, especially in K-12 public education, which mostly begin with grading. If you want to teach grammar, just don’t grade it. Here’s why…

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