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Teachers Throwing Out Grades: It's Happening For Real

Grades used to be a power I wielded. Proudly I held them over my students' heads, deducting points whenever they dared to be late, or worse, wrong.

I used to brag about how many kids I failed like it was the mark of my rigor and those too weak to meet the challenge.

Why do I share this?

Because like so many, compliance used to be the name of my game. 

I'm ashamed to admit I did any of this and for how long I did it for.

Several years ago, I started questioning everything about my teaching practice. Nothing was safe. So when I realized that grading wasn't helping my students, it was time to get rid of the numbers and letters and start focusing on true achievement.

And at just the right moment, Mark Barnes and I kind of bumped into each other metaphorically. I read his first book for Corwin Connected Educator Series and really connected with what he wrote about. Spotting similarities in our beliefs, I reached out to him and we began talking. Mark did many of the things I wanted to do, things I was ready to do and so it was time.

The Teachers Throwing Out Grades Movement had already started, and Mark was kind enough to involve me in it.

Read an interview with Mark Barnes below to see how he came up with the idea (and understand why I hitched myself to it!)

How did you come up with the idea for TTOG?

I was working on my book, Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grades and Inspire Learning (Corwin, 2015), and I wanted to generate awareness of the no-grades classroom. I was participating in some successful education groups on Facebook and thought a group might be a good way to excite people about changing how we assess learning. It grew into much more than I had anticipated.

When did you throw out grades in your own classroom?

After about 14 years as a classroom teacher, I threw out grades. It just hit me one year that traditional assessment wasn't helping my students. I did some research over the summer and decided I was going to try it the next year. I never looked back.

What challenges did you face when you started?

The concept was completely foreign to students and their parents, so it was a tough sell at first. The biggest challenge, though, wasn't the pushback; students and parents adjusted pretty quickly. The real challenge was operating a no-grades classroom in a traditional grades school. I had to work within a system that called for letter grades on report cards, and in the beginning, it was tough balancing a feedback-based class with a system that called for letter grades on report cards. It didn't take long for me to learn that the best way to strike a working balance was to allow students to grade themselves. This way, we could discuss learning throughout the marking period, and in order to appease a bureaucracy that called for traditional grades, we decided what grade should go on report card together.

Starting a movement - how did you know it was time to get others involved?

At first, the TTOG Facebook group was designed to market my book. The group grew rapidly, though, and members began taking the ideas we discussed back to their classrooms. When I saw that what was really just an idea I'd thought of many years ago was something people were using effectively in their own classrooms, I knew this could turn into a legitimate movement. This is when I started promoting the Facebook group as part of an education reform movement.

Where do you see the no grades movement going? (what goals do you have?)

The goal is the complete elimination of traditional grades—numbers, percentages, letters, and the GPA—from education. Report cards must be replaced by digital portfolios, filled with work samples, feedback about learning, and letters of recommendation. Many people scoff at this, suggesting it will never happen. There was a time when students answered questions on a slate, and now the notebook and pencil are dying. Teaching and learning have gone digital. Who believed this could happen even 10 years ago? Many changes are inevitable. They can't be stopped, and I believe the no-grades classroom and school represent this kind of change.

Anything else you'd like to share?

It is impossible to measure learning. I can't ask kids to demonstrate what they know about the Civil War and then tell them they know 60 percent of it, based on how many questions they answer correctly on a test. Any assessment that uses numbers or percentages or letters is subjective. While one student may answer all 25 questions on a test correctly, another who only answers 15 may know the material just as well. There are far too many variables involved in this kind of assessment. If we don't discuss learning with students, we are cheating them out of the best chance to demonstrate mastery.

Working with Mark Barnes has been an awesome journey for me. The support that I've received from the group in my own journey is unbelievable. And to think it all started with this:

Are you ready to join the movement? What's stopping you? Please share - and join us with your questions on #TTOG on Twitter, maybe you're more ready than you think.

*This post originally ran on my Education Week blog in April of 2015. It has been modified.

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