School & District Management Opinion

How Eliminating Grades Changed Everything in My Classroom

By Starr Sackstein — January 21, 2015 4 min read
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This is a guest post by Mark Barnes, an international speaker and author of five education books, including Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grade Book and Inspire Learning (Corwin, 2015). Mark co-moderates the global facebook group Teachers Throwing Out Grades and the #TTOG Twitter chat and is the publisher of the popular education blog, Brilliant or Insane: Education on the Edge. Follow him on Twitter at @markbarnes19.

Grades are just a math game. This is what I told students many years ago. “If you know how to work the numbers, you can get a good grade.” As I lectured 30 seventh graders about improving their poor grades, a graphic illustration of the math that was beamed onto an interactive whiteboard punctuated the lesson.

This bizarre instruction continued for 20 minutes, the 12 year olds studied the graphic, which demonstrated how zeroes were, as I dramatically explained, “the devils behind the F’s” that many in the audience had received on their recent report cards. If a student’s zeroes were turned into even half credit on all of the assignments, she would pass. Essentially, I told these already reluctant learners that they could put in a lazy effort and receive a passing grade--maybe even a C.

When the worst school year I’d experienced in more than a decade of teaching ended, I realized that I wasn’t teaching students anything, except failure or, worse, how to manipulate traditional grades enough to build report cards that would be acceptable at home. Something had to change, if I were to remain in the education profession.

Doing the unthinkable

I entered the next year both enthusiastic and nervous. A new group of students would meet a teacher and a classroom that my colleagues wouldn’t recognize. Gone were rows of desks, worksheets, lecture, and multiple choice tests. The most eye-popping change, though, was the complete elimination of traditional grades. “I’ll never put a number, percentage, or letter on any activity or project you complete,” I announced to surprisingly silent students that first day.

Students who had only experienced traditional grades throughout their school lives were asked to discuss learning, to reflect and, ultimately, to evaluate themselves. Many were shocked, when we discussed an activity, and I asked them to return to prior learning, to rethink what they had done, and rework the activity for further discussion. An amazing and enriching ongoing conversation about learning was born.

I would review each student’s work, summarize and explain what I had observed, and ask questions. “Did you consider doing it this way?” I might inquire. “What would it look like if you tried this instead?” Soon, students had these informative conversations with each other, as they grew into enthusiastic, independent learners, who never feared a bad grade, because there were no grades. They never asked for extra credit, because there was no credit; there were only learning opportunities. Learning for the sake of learning.

What about report cards?

When the marking period ended, it was time for report cards. For my colleagues, still residing in the traditional grades world, this was easy. A computerized grade program did the work. All points on individual activities and tests were added and a final grade was calculated. Once again, it was all about the math. In my no-grades language arts class, we had no numbers or percentages for a computer program to turn into a grade.

Still, my districted mandated grades, so students needed one for their report cards. How, though, do you assign a letter grade to learning in a class without grades? This was a problem for a short time, until one day during a crucial discussion with a student about an assignment. “If I did this in a class with grades,” he wondered, “what grade do you think it would get?”

His question triggered an epiphany. “I don’t know,” I answered. “What grade would you give it and why?” As this important conversation continued, I realized that I didn’t have to assign a report grade to my students. They had been part of the discussion all year, why not have them grade themselves?

Students as critics of learning

The last week of the grading period, I sat down with every student individually, and we reflected on the work that was done during a nine-week quarter. We revisited in-class activities and projects and talked about the feedback they’d received and how they handled any redirection.

After conversations that lasted five to eight minutes, I asked one simple question: “What grade should you get?” I was astonished by the quality of self-evaluation from young people, who had never before been asked to grade themselves. Some even said that they deserved failing grades, because they didn’t work as hard as they could have. While I hated the idea of placing a label on my students, the discussions about what they had accomplished and what they wanted to improve upon were invaluable.

One year after I considered leaving education because I felt like I was failing my students, everything had changed. On the last day of school, we chatted about the impact of a no-grades classroom on learning, and I was happy to know that the students loved it. This was the last question from a student that remarkable year: “Mr. Barnes, why don’t all teachers throw out grades and give us feedback about our learning?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer, but I knew the question meant that change was inevitable.

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.