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Rethink Grading

As schools seek a fresh start, suggestions on how educators can develop more equitable, efficient assessments
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Are traditional, points-based grading systems inherently broken?

As a humanities teacher-leader in my second decade, I have sought to transform my gradebook from an opaque, punitive grid into an empowering dashboard of learning for all students. Harvard Graduate School of Education colleagues like Lecturer Katie Rieser, master teacher in residence in the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program, and Jen Stocklin, Ed.M.’12, director of high school achievement at the KIPP Foundation, have shared powerful tools with me for remixing my gradebook and developing more equitable, efficient assessments.

Yet some education leaders are suggesting that we need to abandon point-based grading systems entirely. During a summer when schools are seeking to reboot stronger than ever, these thinkers are offering innovative new solutions for assessment.

Sarah Zerwin’s Point-less: An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading published in March 2020, just as the pandemic forced teachers nationwide to reconsider assessment. Her book is chock-full of innovative, manageable grading strategies she has honed over two decades as an English teacher in Colorado.

Countless educators, even beyond the humanities, have been finding inspiration from Zerwin, so I sat down with her to learn more about her work:

Can teachers use points-based grading systems equitably and efficiently?

If the teacher is controlling the points, then there is a power dynamic where the teacher has power over the kids. You have the ability to decide what that high stakes grade is and the kid doesn’t. What you’re saying wins over everything. It’s disempowering and gets in the way of healthy teacher-student relationships.

In what way?

Alfie Kohn’s research articulates what happens when there are high stakes in the classroom. Student interest in whatever they are learning diminishes. They will take the easiest possible path to the grade. Their thinking is reduced, and they won’t take risks.

My colleague Jay talks about how we need a coaching relationship with our students. When you are on an athletic team, the coach isn’t the one who evaluates you. You get evaluated at the game. But the coach has this relationship with you in which it is okay to fail, it is okay to take risks, it is okay to do all the things to push yourself to actually learn.

"Our students want to do meaningful work. They want to learn. If they trust that you are stepping aside from the grade game, they will go with you."

Why are teachers so afraid to move away from point systems?

The biggest response is, “My students won’t ever work without points and grades.” An exchange-based paradigm organizes a traditional grading classroom where you ask students to do something and you pay them in points. It becomes this currency exchange, the locus of control. It is becomes really scary for teachers to set that aside. It feels like the center will be taken out of the classroom and nothing will make sense anymore.

How can teachers begin to leave this system behind?

Our students want to do meaningful work. They want to learn. If they trust that you are stepping aside from the grade game, they will go with you. All you have to ask them is, “What are you doing as a student that earns you points but doesn’t lead to learning?” They know exactly what it is. They know the game really well, and they are very happy — most of them — to set it aside. You have to have honest conversations with them and trust they will be willing to go with you. You have to explain what you are doing and why you are doing it, and I can see the stress melt off them.

Your book is full of clever assessment strategies, from electronic gradebook hacks to student-led grading pitches. Which innovation are you most proud of?

The student goal-setting, especially the plan for learning and growth. It’s been magic and takes the place of the typical points exchange. I wanted to help students focus on growth rather than mastery. With this plan, they take the goals and put it in their own words. They have to articulate where they are starting, where they hope to end up, and what they are going to do to get there. And if they look at that at least once a week, if not twice, and set up some way to track their own growth, that keeps them constantly attached and focused on their goals. That is when I start seeing them really speak with agency and ownership about their learning. 

Key Takeaways

  • Solicit input from students about course elements that do not foster learning.
  • Emphasize growth rather than mastery, process rather than product in your grading.
  • Ask students to develop detailed plans for learning and growth in their own words.
  • Require them to revisit and reflect on these plans at least weekly.

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