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Toss the grades.

Get rid of grades.

Learners don’t need grades.

Throw out grades.

Over the past few weeks these statements have flittered across my twitter feed.

Many teachers I know are shifting and changing how assessment is done in their classroom. Many teachers I have worked with have already made this shift and are moving on. Although it may be something that isn’t common, it definitely isn’t new.

Fixing Grading 

Ten years ago now, the school division I was working in began to move away from letter, percentage and other similar forms of grading in K – 8. Ken O’Connor’s book A Repair Kit: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades  began a conversation about changing grading practices.  Removing zeroes from assessment, allowing for flexible deadlines, creating rubrics and exemplars for students, providing formative assessment throughout the learning experience, Student Led Conferences, digital learning portfolios and online reporting were some of the shifts that took place as teachers moved away from traditional grades. It didn’t mean tossing report cards or jettisoning the use of tests but it did mean that teachers had to shift away from traditional grading practices, alter their assessment practices and shift away from testing.

Along the way, some teachers resisted, arguing that grades provided rigour and zeroes were a necessary as an incentive for students who didn’t hand in work. They resisted adopting a different mindset. Parents and students were also resistant – this wasn’t part of their worldview of school and learning.

Resistance Is Futile

Over time, those teachers who were resistant began to make changes to their assessment practices  by changing their teaching practices and adopting such practices as peer feedback, self & peer assessment, formative assessment, and continuous feedback. This became the standard mode of operation as teachers shifted their teaching practices and restructured their planning. This happened through supporting and encouraging teachers through various PD experiences including division-wide inservice, conferences and developing PLC’s in schools. School leadership was a vital component of making a shift and helping to develop new cultures of learning in schools.

As a teacher, I have given very few tests over the past 15 years. My classes were project/inquiry based with a minimal amount of lecturing. Final grades were a combination of student/teacher  input in senior classes while any middle years classes used a totally different approach to reporting on outcomes. This was not unusual for many teachers I have known who began to shift and integrate technology in the classroom, adopting

As an administrator, providing teachers with the necessary supports so they could transition from the traditional system was important because my own transition was supported through my own PD and learning. In the past 10 years I have worked in two schools were there were no letter/percentage grades in the K – 8.  In grades 9 – 12 percentages were still provided at the end of the semester as they are required but assessment and reporting practices shifted to adopt continuous feedback throughout the learning experience. Project Based Learning and Inquiry were used by many teachers with formative assessment being provided on a continuous basis. Rubrics and feedback were used in all grades as was the use of digital portfolios. But assessment was not the focus – learning was.

The Future Has Arrived

For many teachers I work with, the shift away from traditional assessment began years ago.  Students and parents have access to online information about student progress, online portfolios are shared with parents with regular updates of student work – they are developing a Portfolio Lifestyle as outlined by Jeff Goin – discussions about learning focus on growth and development not on grades. Student Led Conferences and Celebrations of Learning are opportunities for students to share their learning. Conversations revolve around improvement, learning from mistakes, support and growth. Marks are only discussed because of the need to provide them for reporting in grades 9 – 12. Formative assessment is part of every classroom with teachers using various tools to develop and improve the feedback and discussion that they are having with students.

This isn’t something to look forward to because it’s already been done –  across whole divisions – successfully. The grading practices have shifted from the “test for mark” system to continuous feedback where formative assessment is incorporated into the planning, continuous access to growth is provided parents through online portals and portfolios, and testing is not the norm. Granted it’s not everywhere but it isn’t just a few random teachers who are trying to make change – it’s what all teachers are expected.

In making this shift, the discussion about education needed to change. Trying to convince people to change their worldview about grades and grading is very hard if that is where you begin the discussion.

Reward Risk-taking Not Failure

In the podcast the Accidental CreativeTodd Henry explores how creativity can be developed and cultivated. In his recent interview with Ron Friedman, they discuss his latest book The Best Place to Work. One of things that really struck me was the idea that many people and companies say they want people to be risk-takers and innovative yet they don’t reward people for being risk-takers and innovators. Instead, the pervasive climate of efficiency and the bottom-line continue to dominate the workplace. In schools, we hear the same thing. We want students to be innovative and take-risks but instead of focusing on creating the optimal space for doing this and developing a story for students to be risk-takers and innovators, we continue to discuss the same bottom line – assessment. The thru-line of the story is not risk-taking or innovation – it’s assessment and reporting.

Changing the story to allow for teachers and students to be risk-takers and innovators requires a change in mindset. It also requires that the focus of schools be learning where risk-taking and innovation are the focus of the story not the assessment. Maybe throwing out grades eliminates the punitive assessment practices but it still focuses on assessment. To create a climate for risk-taking and innovation, a focus on learning as a whole is critical to helping to change the mindset of people – a new story where risk-taking and innovation are central to the learning needs to be told.

Talk About the Learning

Many people have a fixed mindset when it comes to grading and grades. In other words they have “a set of beliefs or way of thinking that determine’s one’s behaviour, outlook and mental attitude.”   It’s part of their cultural worldview and, as Seth Godin points out, getting people to change their worldview is very difficult – it’s admitting they’re wrong.

In my experience over the last 10 years with shifting mindsets and school cultures away from traditional practices, talking about grading and grades is the least effective way to create a shift. Instead, talk about learning.

When you discuss learning, it’s leads to a discussion of including and using formative assessment, the effective use of digital portfolios, the focus on taking risks, making mistakes, creativity and development, the use of differentiation for all students and the use of maker space/genius hour/inquiry/problem based learning.

It allows the conversation to examine the different skills that people will need in the future and how these skills are built into learning through the use of collaboration, peer-assessments, continuous formative feedback, differentiation and the opportunities for redo’s where learning isn’t finite but truly life-long. Talking about assessment and grades misses out on the important part of the story – the learning.

Change the Story of School

Many people have a very static picture of school. Too often I hear/read about students still in desks, where rote copying off the board is the norm and weeks of standardized testing take place every year. Honestly, I have no idea what that is like. My own transition began 15 years ago when I removed the desks from my grade 7 classroom and began to explore Inquiry Learning. I quit giving finals 10 years ago when I once again began teaching senior Social Studies and PAA classes. My own experiences reinforced that talking about grading and grades was beginning with the wrong end of the learning story.

As an administrator, changing the story of what happens in school is important. Connecting parents with classes and the school via social media  allows parents to see that the story of school and the story of learning are changing and changing for the better for their children. Helping parents and students who were use to the traditional forms of learning and assessment is essential in helping a school culture transition. Telling a different story allows people to see themselves in a new way within the storyline. Without telling a complete story, but starting with assessment and grading, people are disconnected from the changes taking place in classrooms and the school, imposing their own story of learning which is incompatible with the changing story of assessment.

I Wonder….

My work with teachers and their stories of connection and change through connecting online make me more appreciative of the need to listen to the stories that people are telling about school and learning. In a world that is hyper-focused on assessment and grading, the story of learning is a by-line when it should be the headline. For decades the focus has been on test results, so much so that the current educational environment seems to rarely focus on the learning – it’s all about assessment. Maybe it’s time to change the story…..

…. what would happen if learning and development were the focus of discussion rather than assessment and changing grading?

….. why people continue to only tell a small part of the learning story with a focus on the end instead of the journey?

…. what would happen if teachers were asked to focus on learning and innovation as much as they are being told to focus on assessment and assessment practices?

….. what if the assessment rhetoric shifted to focusing on learning, risk-taking and innovation?

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