Transitioning away from traditional grades and towards progressive assessment practices stokes worry in a lot of people. Our job as progressive educators is to be ready for this pushback. We’re not going to get anywhere unless we’re willing to listen and learn along with our colleagues, our students, and their parents.
The pushback and questions about moving away from traditional grades generally share some commonalities, and the following three questions are my best and most current attempt at addressing what I believe to be at the root of people’s worries.
Question 1: How will they be held accountable if we don’t have grades?
When I first started making the transition away from decontextualized point totals and letter grades, I wondered the same thing. Now that I don’t have grades, how will I make them care about their school work?
This worry is built on a false assumption that grades make kids care about their work. Sure, grades might scare them into compliance, but they doesn’t actually build long-term intrinsic motivation–and this is especially true of our most vulnerable learners.
Daniel Pink, author of Drive, states that intrinsic motivation consists of three key components: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In order for our kids to care about school, we need to take these three things into consideration when planning. Getting kids to “care” about school and learning doesn’t lie in grading policies; it lies in our ability to build engaging units of instruction where students are able to make their voices heard.
To promote autonomy, embed choice into your units. For instance, in writing, allow students to pick their topics within a genre study. In reading, encourage them to choose their own books, all the while focusing on class-wide skills. And in math, let them use methods and tools that work for them. In essence, strong differentiation supports autonomy in the classroom.
Mastery is a nuanced concept. When used colloquially, many think it means that kids are “finished” once they’ve mastered something. But mastery doesn’t have an endpoint. Pink describes mastery as an asymptote, meaning that it’s actually impossible to “master” any concept. Why? Because there is always something new to learn with any given skill or concept. Helping kids see this is motivating. Helping them see this makes them intrigued and makes them care.
Purpose may very well be the most important of the three. If they don’t understand why the skills we teach them matter, then they will be unlikely to engage with them. This is especially true for struggling students. This is, once again, where strong planning comes in. In order to give students purpose, academic skills must be embedded in activities and projects that make that purpose clear. Planning a unit on non-fiction text? Turn it into a research project that allows them to research a topic of their choice. Trying to teach about area and perimeter? Have them build a city out of cardboard, embedding these calculations into what they’re building.
Question 2: Won’t it be less rigorous? I want my child to work hard. When I was in school, I worked hard for my grades.
I hear this a lot, and I get it. I was that way, too, and fortunately for me, the external pressure of grades worked really well for me when I was a student. It made me work really hard in school because I was a perfectionist.
In hindsight, though, this didn’t do a lot for me long term. It got me the grades I needed to succeed within the terms that my schools set for me. But it didn’t help me retain those skills past my exams. It also made me incredibly anxious and reinforced problematic behaviors related to perfectionism. To this day, I continue to be incredibly hard on myself–and even others, sometimes. This is maladaptive and unhelpful for a happy and productive adulthood.
I understand the counterargument, though. We can’t let go of all accountability. It’s our job, as the adults in the room, to teach our kids personal responsibility through accountability.
Grades don’t really do this, as advocates for traditional grades might tell you. They actually have the opposite effect. When using letter grades, students operate out of compliance and a need for teacher approval, counteracting authentic and intrinsic motivation to grow and learn. Grades are, in many ways, completely independent of the work and the skills we’re trying to build in students. They are decontextualized from the actual skills we want them to learn before they leave our classrooms. So many believe, however, that when we abandon grades, we abandon assessment all together.
But that’s not true. Assessment and grading are two very different, albeit related, concepts.
Question 3: How will they know how well they’re doing if they don’t receive a grade? How will I know how well my child is doing?
Just because we move away from grades doesn’t mean we stop assessing all together. In fact, rigorous assessment is critical to productive learning in our classrooms. When I use the term “rigor,” I refer mainly to assessment’s strength as a structure for better understanding our students. We cannot and will not reach them if we do not assess them. Bear in mind that this can happen in myriad ways. We can absolutely continue to assess students through traditional paper-pencil, standards-based measures, but if that doesn’t work for you, rubrics and checklists tied to performance-based tasks can also help you collect data that informs instruction and documents a child’s progress in relation to concrete skills.
This is part of the reason why I explicitly included self-awareness in the graphic above. As adults, we take self-awareness for granted, but in kids, self-awareness needs to be taught. This is why mindfulness is so important in schools. It goes beyond meditation and physical regulation; mindfulness is critical to noticing and building self-awareness in our students. If students are not aware of their choices, their progress, and what’s going on around them, then they will not develop a sense of autonomy, mastery, or purpose.
One of the best ways to build this awareness is through structured reflection. While it’s possible that you could do this type of reflection in conferences, it also helps to have it written down. Documenting reflection makes it concrete, easy to share with families, and accessible for students to look back on. It serves as a great reminder when kids “forget” what their action steps, goals, or prior reflections were.
I’ve created a few templates for anyone to download on my Resources page. Scroll down on the page to “Reflection Templates,” and you will see four templates for reflection. You can also learn more about reflection in my book, Reclaiming Personalized Learning.
What other questions do you get when transitioning away from traditional grades?