Student Well-Being Opinion

Dropping Grades One Baby Step at a Time

By Starr Sackstein — September 27, 2016 3 min read
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Although we may not all agree that grades should go the way of the dinosaurs, I’m sure we can all agree that we want students to fundamentally shift their focus away from the numbers that are used to label them and focus more on the feedback inherent in the learning process.

Since where I am now is not as far along in that journey as where I was before, I’ve started over with shifting the mindset. Initial conversations about what a growth mindset is and how to proactively cultivate it have been at the front of our conversations.

Although I currently can’t adjust the online grading platform we use, I have modified how I’m using and teaching kids explicitly how to interact with it.

The first modifications are in the way of what numbers are being used. I simply won’t grade the kids out of 100 or take points out for nonsense like lateness or poor participation. Student learning will be assessed based on mastery and their levels against the shared standards in class.

Using a four point scale, was the first modification that was in my reach. Of course students were still focusing on the percentages because the numbers are automatically being averaged. (Again, since I’m not an admin on the system, I don’t have access to adjust these controls, but I’m still making do). I explained the following to my students:

When you achieve a 4 in Pupilpath, it means you have mastered the assignment, but this alone is not that important. Although it likely satisfying to see that you have been successful on the task, you must start to focus on the feedback. Since I’m still unable to attach standards to my assignments, I have defaulted to using the commenting feature to share this essential and necessary feedback.

Achieving a 3 means that you are proficient in the skills being assessed in the task and specific feedback will be provided to help you achieve mastery moving forward.

Achieving a 2 means you are approaching the standards, and specific directives will be given for improvement.

Achieving a 1 means you are emerging and simply haven’t met the standards yet. You need supports and I’m here to help with them. This can often result because a task is incomplete or there isn’t enough information for me to assess your level of learning.

From this discussion we talked about the feedback tracking protocol that I’d like them to employ:

Students were asked to start a section of their notebook or a Google document where they would begin to track the feedback they receive in Pupilpath.

Each night they are expected to check the system and see if new feedback has been provided. Typically, one day is allotted for when they submit their work til when the feedback is uploaded.

First they are to write the date and title of the assignment and the feedback provided in the narrative comment field. Then they are to write a plan to start correcting the feedback based on strategies we are working on in class. If the first strategy doesn’t work, students are encouraged to try another and if they are continually unsuccessful, a teacher conference will be set up on third try.

Students are also encouraged to email me directly through the system or on Twitter if they have a question about specific feedback they don’t understand.

I will make it a point to check student notebooks to ensure that the feedback is being tracked and the third and fourth columns in the chart are being filled in regularly.

Since students are able to resubmit work after redoing, more feedback will appear in the same field after the date where they will know if the new strategy has worked.

The goal is that over time, students will be able to self-assess based on the school-wide rubrics and will be able to discuss where they are in the process based on the evidence found in their work.

Teaching reflection and self-assessment in a culture that isn’t used to doing it takes time. But for a gradeless classroom to be successful, students must know success criteria and how to identify it in their own work. These baby steps will allow students to start looking at their work with help and then with their peers and then on their own.

Until then, it is my responsibility as their teacher to make sure the feedback is clear, that they have many opportunities to practice and that I continue to be patient with them in their infancy with this work.

How can we really break down this essential process so that students can be successful moving away from grades and focusing on their learning? Share your best practices or challenges.

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