Teaching with Technology

Panel: Ditch Grades Now, Focus on Student Learning

Teach without grades. Teach without tests. Teach without homework. That's the message from a growing number of educators who are not only advocating but actually making substantial changes in their classroom practices by eliminating grades and scores entirely.

Sound like fantasy in this age of ubiquitous high-stakes standardized testing and "accountability" mandates?

It's actually happening.

In American schools.

And it's working for many of those who are trying it.

Educator and Hack Learning creator Mark Barnes is a leading voice in the movement to eliminate grades and test scores from students' lives. For him, the transition from grading hasn't been easy. But it has been necessary.

At a panel held at the SXSWedu conference last week in Austin, Barnes described how he came to question his own teaching practices that eventually led him to adopt gradeless teaching.

Shifting to Gradeless
For the first 15 years in his career in education, Barnes was, as he described himself, a very traditional teacher, and one who was failing far too many students year after year.

"My answer in the past when people would say, 'Why do you have so many [students with] poor grades?' was: 'Well, the kids just don't do the work.' Or: 'The kids are lazy.' Or: 'Their parents don't bring them to school on time, and they fall behind. Their parents don't make them do their homework. And all of these things lead to them not turning in their work, and they're zeroed.' So it was blame, blame, blame. It's their fault or their parents' fault; it's not my fault."

But, he said, after several years of that — and after a particularly gruesome year in which some 60 percent of his students received failing grades — "Finally, I took a long, hard look in the mirror and said, 'This can't always be their fault. It can't always be their parents' fault.... It's got to be my fault.'"

He decided he either had to change or had to "get out" of the teaching profession "because it couldn't continue to go that way," Barnes said.

So he spent the summer reflecting on his teaching, researching alternative practices, learning about methods other teachers were using to help their students succeed and decided, simply, to do away with all traditional teaching methods, including homework, summative tests and all forms of grading — except, of course, the final grade that all teachers are compelled to provide. (More on that later.)

Giving Students Voice
So why gradeless? And what took the place of the traditional methods he'd abandoned?

Instead of grading students on their work, Barnes had "a conversation" with them. He used an online gradebook, but instead of applying grades or points or percentages, he recorded feedback and discussions with students. Instead of judging his students' abilities at an arbitrary point in time by assigning a score, he guided them through a checklist that was designed to help them progress to where they needed to be. Instead of homework, he assigned projects that did not have a deadline or point value. In the gradeless classroom, there's no "extra credit" because students aren't working for points. There are no summative assessments. There are no zeroes. There's only information that's used to help drive the student forward.

"That's what this is really about today," he said, "shifting the conversation away from the traditional grade to a conversation, to transparency, to digital learning...."

(Barnes is particularly adamant about assigning zeroes for work that was not turned in by a student. As he noted, "We just don't know" if the students have mastered the subject matter or not because "we haven't seen the work. We don't truly know what kids know [when they fail to turn in homework]. Quite frankly, that makes us failures. That's a really tough pill to swallow. Once you do it, it really leads to incredible things.")

More Work for the Teacher
The process is not an easy one. Eliminating grades and homework doesn't mean less work for teachers. It generally means more, since the teacher has to create meaningful dialog with the students.

"A lot of what educators use, the traditional stuff, becomes a kind of crutch. It gets pretty easy," he said during his well attended session at SXSWedu. "If you have a folder full of worksheets you can give students each year, that's easy. If you have a bubble test that you can run through a machine, that's easy. You just put the number on your online program, and it translates to a grade. That's easy. But it's not really good for kids."

Switching to a gradeless system, Barnes said, requires a "systems change": You can't simply keep handing out the same old worksheets and simply decide you're not going to grade them.

"You have to engage kids in learning," he said. And that means project-based learning and using "checklists" to ensure that students get to where they need to be. Instead of judging, as Barnes explained it, it involves telling kids, "Here's what I see," then asking questions: "What would have happened if you had done this differently?" So it's not about right or wrong on a set of problems. It's about leading the student to understanding without judgement along the way.

And more work isn't the only issue. In the first year of his new gradeless teaching practice, Barnes said, there was pushback from students, parents and administrators. But they all came around.

"What everybody started seeing was an incredible environment that was a little bit messy, a little bit chaotic, but was a place that was rich with independent learning," he said.

That independence is what it's all about: giving students the voice in their own education.

How Technology Helps
Barnes advocates the use of technology, including digital portfolios, to enable gradeless instruction. Portfolios, he explained, can also help keep parents in the loop on their children's education.

"The best way to engage parents in the conversation," he explained, "is to use a digital portfolio that makes it easy for them to be part of the conversation — it needs to be one-click, because we're all so busy and overwhelmed with e-mail and social media 'pings.' Something like FreshGrade, which provides Web and mobile platforms, makes it easy because updates to each child's portfolio are automatically sent to parents, and they can reply directly within the tool. Plus, it's important for teachers to actively engage parents by asking questions and inviting feedback."

He added that there's so much in the digital space now that helps make it easier to capture learning and create those conversations with students and parents.

Peter Bencivenga, educator and president and COO of DataCation (a division of CaseNEX), shared the SXSWedu stage with Barnes. He noted the multitude of tools available to educators, so many of which are available without any financial investment whatsoever for the school (Google Apps, for example), that can help teachers with the one aspect of gradeless teaching that is absolutely essential: communication.

"There are so many tools that can be used to enhance this in your classroom," he said. "What you see is that when you start having that communication with a student, and you start having ... a conversation about learning, instead of, 'Did you do this?' — compliance — ... you change the discussion [from grades to] learning. Compliance becomes a non-issue when you take out grades and have a conversation."

Grading: Real-World Requirements
Now, a final grade for the students' transcripts is, of course, compulsory. But for end of term grades, Barnes said he would not rely on the average of a set of scores compiled over the semester. Rather, he said, he would sit down with students and discuss what their final grade should be with them.

But even with the compulsory end-of-term grades, according to Barnes, students in gradeless classes are coming away with something more than a reductionist label representing a semester's worth or work.

"We have something far better than scores when report card time rolls around," he explained. "We have artifacts and feedback that provide a clear picture of learning. When a teacher reviews the body of work from a student and asks, 'Where does this fit on a traditional grade scale?' the student understands and provides accurate responses in almost every instance — at least as accurate as a traditional grade can provide."

A Growing Movement That Needs Help from Higher Education
Since starting on this journey, Barnes has written several books on the subject of teaching without grades, and his ideas are catching on. He's the founder of the Facebook Group Teachers Throwing Out Grades, or TTOG, which has so far attracted more than 5,500 members. Within online community, teachers share their individual stories, their declarations of independence from grading, their hopes, their fears, their best practices and their tips and techniques. And Barnes isn't the only major voice in the movement. Author Starr Sackstein, who also blogs at Education Week, is a proponent of gradeless teaching. She's also co-moderator of the TTOG Facebook group.

Barnes said the Facebook group has grown to its current size in just one year, and interest in the movement has reached the global scale, spanning a range of subjects, from English/language arts to math.

The limit on the movement's right now is transcripts and the requirements imposed on teachers by policymakers and the universities that continue to require grade-based transcripts. That could change though with a little help from outside the K-12 system.

"It's hard to make movements and strides," Bencivenga said, "when the university level has not made those changes yet on how they're accepting kids."

"We need the help of all key stakeholders," Barnes said. "Anyone at the college level, especially administrators, who show interest in shifting the conversation away from grades would be huge for the movement."