Intriguing Idea for Summer Reflection: Going Gradeless

Removing the fear for students and parents about grades during the learning process has brought me one step closer to the idea of achieving a gradeless environment where learning is the focus instead of points while ensuring that all students complete our learning activities to enhance their understanding of science concepts.

The idea of going gradeless in my 6th grade Science classroom is intriguing. We are aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards, and proficiency is the ability to demonstrate knowledge or skills. In my second year of using the standards, it is easy to determine that a student can either do the assigned performance tasks or cannot. So, it is the learning that leads up to the tasks that has become the focus of my exploration in going gradeless.  I am not at a gradeless point yet, but I have made a change where the scores given for these activities represent a student’s true learning process rather than a specific grade. 

The activities we do in class build necessary knowledge, so it is important that students experience the learning.

One of my biggest concerns in going gradeless is how to give students and parents feedback. The activities we do in class build necessary knowledge, so it is important that students experience the learning. How many times have students not done an assignment to receive a score of a zero, and then never get the opportunity to be part of the learning experience? As we journey toward being gradeless, I still need to keep track of who has completed activities, not to be punitive, but to ensure that each student’s understanding has had the opportunity to grow. By default, grades are the easiest, but they are arbitrary. How is a 95% different from a 94%? How is a rubric score of proficient not a type of grade? If I merely give students feedback, how do they use that to improve their understanding? How does the phrase “developing” impacting their learning? 

If I merely give students feedback, how do they use that to improve their understanding? How does the phrase “developing” impacting their learning? 

Having experimented with different assessment scenarios, I have come to the conclusion that a grade of some sort- whether it be a percent, letter, word, feedback- has to be given to students. And perhaps the word “grade” itself should be changed to “score”, “feedback”, or “level of understanding.” Whatever data is given to students and parents has to be valuable and understandable. Unfortunately, to most, that equates to a percentage and letter grade.

My solution to that has been to change the meaning of the “grades” used with the learning activities that we do; instead of final points, I use them as markers. 6th graders come in to our middle school and are shell-shocked by how much responsibility they have to take on. Students have a hard time developing study skills and organizational habits because their day is completely different than what it was in elementary school. So, in an attempt to make the traditional idea of grades meaningless, I allow students to redo any assignments that lead up to our summatives. Because it is the learning that is important, this gives students and parents time to figure out what strategies work best for that student in their academic journey. And, because it is possible for students to get a 100% on anything, there are no questions about extra credit, there is no worry if someone didn’t understand a concept; they can still develop. I have seen students who never received a “good” score on things suddenly become more self-efficacious because they could and they did, he or she just needed a little more time to develop an understanding. 

This is not truly going gradeless, because there is still a grade, but the grade is more of a placeholder regarding a certain skill or concept. Removing the fear for students and parents about grades during the learning process has brought me one step closer to the idea of achieving a gradeless environment where learning is the focus instead of points while ensuring that all students complete our learning activities to enhance their understanding of science concepts.

Dr. Sheila Kohl is a 6th grade teacher in the West De Pere School District. She remains interested in exploring teacher self-efficacy and teacher leadership to determine how they impact student learning. Read more of her work at her Genius Hour blog.