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.