Starting from Scratch- #IMMOOC Round 2

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So here I am blogging for Week #1 of the second round of #IMMOOC. It was such a great experience last time that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn some more from all of the participants. I have “met” so many dedicated educators as a result of the first #IMMOOC and will be forever grateful to George Couros and Katie Martin for taking their time to put these on. So…let’s get to the point of this blog post…If I was starting from scratch what would my school look like? What would stay and what would go?

Obviously the answer to this question can and does fill whole books so I will deal with just one major change…getting rid of grades! I say this having given the topic a lot of thought over the last year. Grades just seem to be one of the root cause of the issues that we have in schools. This is a hot topic that causes much disagreement among educators and the public. Grades, not true learning, are what motivate many students. Grades are the way that schools say, “see what our students know.” Grades in and of themselves aren’t bad, but it is the power that we have given them over time that has become detrimental. If I were to look back anecdotally over my twenty-three years in the classroom, high grades were many times not a true reflection of the talent of a student. There were many instances where those with the high grades simply knew how to play the game of school while those with lower grades had a myriad of reasons for not getting higher grades. Many of those were related to boredom and/or home issues.

The popular feeling among many educators that failure is necessary for student growth runs head on with most grading systems that involve the idea of punishment for making mistakes. The punishment is a set number of points deducted from 100. These lost points are never able to be retrieved. Don’t even get me started on extra credit! The motivation for students is to not lose points. That sounds great until you look at how this plays out in the real world. Every point is a battle! It is a battle in the mind of the teacher, student, and parents. I cannot count the number of times that I had discussions with students or parents about one or two points. From a teacher’s perspective, they have taken the time to grade according to a rubric or set of standards. Through this lens, those one or two points seem to be a carefully arrived at through something akin to the scientific process. Truly being honest with ourselves would allow us to be able to admit that this is fantasy. As much as we try to be consistent and fair with grading, there are too many variables present. Did I grade the first papers when I was relaxed and motivated? Did I finish a class of papers at 2:00 am? Add to the mix that there are some schools who give only letter grades, while some give percentage grades. To make it even more confusing, some grading scales use 90-100 to earn an A where others use 93-100. The district in which I work has college credit granting courses that use different grading scales for the high school and college credit. Earn a 92% and you will receive an A for the college portion and a B+ for the high school credit. Imagine how that goes over with students and parents!!

There are many more examples of the negative impact of grades on the educational system. When I bring this idea up to other teachers and administrators the reaction is almost always same…”Yeah but that’s how it has always been and it is what colleges look at when deciding on acceptance standards. It is so ingrained in how we educate students that there is no way that it can or will change.” But…I have been given the power of a blank slate, a tabula rasa! Standards based grading seems to me to be the best system for being able to hold students accountable for their learning. In a perfect world, there would have to be no accountability because everyone would learn because they wanted to and were motivated. While that would be awesome, I am not so pie-in-the-sky as to believe that is ever really possible. Teachers would learn to evaluate student work according to standards on a scale from not-meeting to exceeding. This would be much “easier” than applying a percentage grade to student work. This work would be looked at in terms of standards that were attempted.  I would personally use a system where a student would always be judged by their best work as to further encourage progress over points. There wouldn’t be a penalty for scoring low on an early attempt at a standard, only room for growth. Quality narrative feedback would help guide students to areas where growth was needed. This would truly allow students to experience the benefit of “failure” in leading toward mastering a standard.

A whole new societal mindset would be needed to throw out grades. There are individuals who are trying, but society as a whole still clings to grades. Starting in elementary/middle schools would probably be easier simply from the standpoint of colleges not being involved.  High schools have the added problem of doing what colleges expect. Until colleges change their focus on grades, high schools will have a tough time trying to reform grading practices. But, I can still dream!

Don Sturm

12 thoughts on “Starting from Scratch- #IMMOOC Round 2

  1. I would also love to do away with grades. I try to give my students feedback and comments before I let them see any numbers.

    To apply for college, a portfolio should suffice. Have you read Ken O’Connor? He has some great ideas for what to do if we are stuck with grades.

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  2. I agree that feedback is so much more meaningful than grades, but I’m just not sure how realistic it is to think they can be done away with completely. When a university has 60,000 applicants, for example, there must be some sort of shorthand to help wade through them all. I do think that thoughtful feedback does much more to improve performance while at the same time building those connections that are the most powerful part of education.

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  3. I love this! Grades often are not a reflection of what kids know. I agree that it will take time and a societal shift to really generate a grading system that is fair and really measures the learning process, not just the end result. Like John Spencer said in this week’s YouTube chat, tests are a really poor feedback because it happens after the learning is supposed to be done. Standards-based grading that maybe are away from a letter grade, but instead tied to mastery could be a step in the right direction, but I think there will always be some discrepancy as to what qualifies as mastery.

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  4. I too would love to get rid of grades. Just yesterday, the book club at my school met to discuss Drive: The Surprising Truth About what Motives Us by Daniel H. Pink. During our discussion of intrinsic motivation, we discussed how we feel that grades take away from the value of education. Many of us expressed our frustration with trying to figure out how to assess students. Our students often seem to be driven by a number, but we want them to be driven by the joy of learning. We want students to engage in activities without worrying about the numerical value attached to the activity.
    At the same time, we recognized that students who want to get into their college of choice have to have a certain GPA, which is obtained through their grades. We recognized that we couldn’t just cut out grades (as much as we want to), so we discussed ways to make the work more meaningful and ways that we could try and inspire our students beyond a numerical value. One teacher did mention standards-based grading, and I use mastery learning in my class. But, these strategies cannot be fully effective when we have to put a grade on a report card every nine weeks.

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    • We have created a monster by tying so much to grades. However, I am always happy to hear of colleges that are starting to use portfolios and other alternative methods for their acceptance policies. There are enough schools that are looking at going gradeless that I am hopeful we will continue to see more positive changes. There is a teacher I have been working with who is doing a standards based approach in her 12th grade writing class. Students only see a grade at mid-term and end-of-term. As George Couros suggests, she has to innovate with the box! She provides narrative comments on work toward standards mastery and uses a 4 point rubric. These rubric numbers are always the best work of the student. It has gone well so far and I am anxious to see how it turns out in the end. She has proven that her students do not have to see a letter or number to know how they are progressing. Thanks for your comments!

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      • I would love to just provide 2 grades a year and use standards based feedback as the best indication of what students are learning. One of my teammates has used mastery learning before and we have discussed moving more in that direction. Perhaps this is an initiative we should take on for the next school year (since we only have 1 more quarter left this school year). 😊

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  5. I’m not opposed to getting rid of grades. I taught grade-less in special ed for several years before they made me give grades like regular ed. However, within the reality of a regular education classroom in our district, to do the amount of reading and math, with the district’s current required materials (especially math), it would be difficult, particularly with class sizes the way they are currently.

    I assume the alternative is standards based grading, part of which is to only count their best examples. Theoretically this increases student motivation, but with young kids I didn’t experience that. At the elementary level, unmotivated kids can demonstrate a skill inconsistently, but still look good on paper because they have the basic skills.

    I look for ways to push kids beyond where they are now, whether they are below standards, at standards or above. My third graders get report card grades in Reading, Language Arts, Math, and Spelling, but their grades are more important to their parents than they are to my students. Grades are not creating or killing effort in my classroom. I can sometimes coerce all students into doing their best, but over time most students show a pattern of motivation and work ethic. I don’t believe having grades or getting rid of them would change that significantly. I’m doubtful that anything would ever make four-digit subtraction regrouping intrinsically motivating.

    I’m curious which of the people commenting above me are teaching elementary or secondary. I’m sure there is much more concern with grades at secondary, especially where college-bound students want every grade point they can get. In lower elementary, grades are an adult construct that isn’t particularly meaningful to kids outside of their parents concern.

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  6. I don’t completely understand the relationship of class size to getting rid of grades. I think you make a great point about how grades are not the motivating factor for kids at the grade level you teach. If they aren’t a motivating factor, why do we have them? Parents…that’s why! Parents are not the ones in school so we shouldn’t tailor our motivation techniques to them. Don’t get me wrong, parents deserve to know how their kids are progressing, but it doesn’t have to be grades. As a parent, I would have loved nothing more than to be able to log into something like SeeSaw and listen to my child PROVE to me that they understood the topic rather than just see a grade on a report card. We start down a bad path when we use grades as parental motivation, and it only gets worse as their kids progress through school.

    Playing devil’s advocate here (for those who might read this I know @unfoldingfromthefog…she teaches in my district😁), what activities can we provide to make subtraction more exciting for them or show them more relevance? Might they learn it on a deeper level if it was set up and taught differently? I think about all of those topics that teachers (myself included) say that there isn’t anything that can make this exciting. When this type of thought comes up, educators should pose two questions: 1. Is this skill/topic necessary to continue teaching? 2. Is there a different way that I could teach the skill/topic? If the answer is yes, we need to continue teaching the skill, then the answer to #2 becomes really important. What are others doing to help students take a more active part in the process so that the skills becomes something other than drudgery? This is why I like PLNs so much. Put that question out on Twitter, Pinterest, FaceBook, etc. and see what kind of ideas are suggested.

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  7. Don, the teaching of 4-digit subtraction with regrouping is generally not the non-motivating factor. The instruction/exploration/concept construction at the beginning can be structured multiple ways that can be very motivating to students. I was merely referring to the practice it takes for the skill to stick. Maybe I’m not being creative enough, but you really have to do a lot of problems to master the skill.

    When I mention class size, I was thinking about creating old school portfolios, although commenting to you, I should have been thinking online portfolios like SeeSaw. 😉 I do love SeeSaw, but I can’t imagine making it the main place to keep track of kids’ achievement.

    Anyway, now we’re off topic. My semi-reluctance to give up grades has much more to do with what the district would require us to use in its stead than with actually giving up the grades. Guess I didn’t say that well enough. If you can convince the-powers-that-be to give up grades without going to standards based report cards, I might back you up. 🙂

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  8. I would LOVE to get rid of grades. Grades do not inform parents of a student’s learning but simply if they turned in assignments on time and the percentage correct at that moment. Our district has moved to a standards based grading system (kind of) the only real difference between this type of grade card and our former one is the descriptors are longer but in “teacher speak” and instead of Mastery, Progressing, Approaching we now assign a number between 1 and 3 as to how well they have mastered the standard. Our district majorly missed the mark with the attempted change. I want a parent report where I can clearly communicate to parents what their child has mastered and goals for the next month etc.

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