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Two Math Teachers Consider Giving Up Grades

Throwing out grades can be a tough sell to many educators. I've heard teachers say, "kids need grades, how else will they know how they are doing?"

Often, some of the most critical folks have been math pedagogues and to that end, I've opened a dialogue with two math teachers at my school to try and understand the apprehension.

Fortunately, both Christina Apeler and Ernie Lai share a publication elective with me and have kept an open mind in implementing standards-based grading as well as the feedback approach to working with students as opposed to providing grades on assignments.

Students work in class on their advertising projects in teams of three or four and each of us has 6-8 groups of students in our rooms. While the students work, we meet with the groups to provide feedback along the way on assignments such as creative briefs, print ad campaigns, and a radio spot.

At the completion of each leg of the process, students are expected to write a standards-based reflection about their learning and their process and how they have contributed to their group's product.

Once the semester deadlines were in sight, a Google Form was sent to students asking them to self-assess their experience and learning in the class. Each child converted their work and progress into a traditional letter grade and was given the opportunity to conference with us about their learning, showing evidence to support their grade.

E or exceeding standards is showing mastery which would be an A

M or meeting standards is showing proficiency which would be a B

A or approaching standards would be a C

Then variations of how many standards they are meeting or approaching or mastering would determine the plusses or minuses.

Working together has been a real pleasure. Since we all teach the class at the same time, and share a wall in between the rooms, we are able to communicate not only outside of class but during class as needed.

We plan together. We teach together. We assess together. The three of us, together with the students, have planned and revised the curriculum and have determined "grading" criteria.

Throughout the process, we've all been learning together through open conversation about how things run in the class and through observations of the students' experiences.

As the first term is nearing its close, I took the opportunity to check in my colleagues about their experiences and this is what they had so say. Christina Apeler answered the questions directly while Ernie Lai and I had an informal conversation and therefore tidbits of what he shared will be presented.

Q1: What has been your experience in the elective with no grades?

Apeler: "So far it has been very interesting. I have learned a lot about my students, but also about myself as a teacher. It has definitely been difficult to give up grades. All my life I have gotten grades and to be honest, I like grades (probably because I always got good grades)."

Lai: He still feels like we are giving grades despite the shift from traditional grading to standards. There is still a value attached which we agreed was problematic.

Q2: How did you find the in-class conferences with students to discuss grades?

Apeler: "I really liked to talk to each student. It took 3 class periods to get to all of them, while they were working on their self-assessment. I think this would be more difficult if they would have worked on the next part of the project and needed help. Some of them didn't take the conferences serious (and it wasn't a surprise), but other students were really into it and enjoyed talking about what they have accomplished."

Lai: Didn't enjoy the conference process because he felt the kids who wanted the conference wanted input into the grade, but ultimately he was still applying his judgment to the process. The justice mindset was hard to get past. If one student set the bar for an A-, it was hard to see a student of lesser quality being able to have earned the same grade.

Q3: How has providing feedback on a regular basis improved student learning?

Apeler: "I think overall it has improved learning, but it is all about how seriously students take the feedback. I encountered several students during the conferences, who hadn't seen the feedback because they do not use PupilPath."

Lai: "I don't think I'm good at giving feedback per se, but I can answer any question the students have to help improve their understanding."

Q4: Can you see areas this could improve your math classes?

Apeler: "I certainly see the merit in the practices we have been using and I have tried to incorporate as much as I can into my math classes. I use reflection on a regular basis (in different formats). I have looked into the standard based grade book, but having two different sets of standards makes it really difficult to implement it and I feel I would confuse the students."

Lai: "I already don't grade things like homework, class participation or classwork. Math is all about practice and that shouldn't be graded, but it does put more emphasis on the few tests that students take throughout the year because the grade is based on those few tests. Ideally, I wouldn't give a grade at all, but allow the state Regents exam to be the final grade as it would be an indicator of what the student knows about the subject."

Q5: What challenges do you face with the no-grades approach?

Apeler: "Time is definitely a factor. The amount of material I have to teach doesn't allow me to conference for 3 days with the students. I also have 30-34 students in my Algebra 2 classes, which makes it difficult to give individual attention to every student. In Algebra 1 it would work a lot better, but we are teaching a brand new curriculum and we are still trying to work out the kinks. The curriculum for Algebra 1 is extremely challenging for the students and it is set up for longer periods. We have to shorten most of the lessons. I think I would be more comfortable using Standards-Based grading next year when I'm more comfortable with the new curriculum."

Lai: "Students don't have a realistic view of themselves as learners."

With the many different issues teachers have to deal with, it isn't that they aren't open to trying new things a lot of the time. Sometimes it is just about balancing the already many new directives that have been offered that create the tension.

For all of us folks interested in getting rid of grades, it must start with a conversation. So talk to your colleagues and administrators and friends and listen to what they have to say. Once we start the conversation, then inroads for change are possible.

Who have you talked to about changing the grading system with today? How'd it go?

*This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in January of 2015

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