Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways To Go Gradeless In a Traditional Grades School by Starr Sackstein

Hacking Assessment

Goodbye, Grades; Hello, Growth

  • When she started her new system, Starr found that her lower-level students liked the idea of not being judged as they lacked success with the traditional system. Rather than assigning additional nightly homework, students just continue working on the projects they were working on in class. Top students had to realize that top grades had little to do with learning and were more about their need to feel smart. Portfolios of work are key here and you can make YouTube videos to display student work. When grades are required, you can let the students work with you to determine grades together. More important is ongoing feedback from the teacher and other students.

Hack 1: Shift the Grades Mindset

  • Changing how students think won’t be easy and will take time. Starr teaches seniors who have been living in a grading culture for a long time. In essence, you need to promote a growth mindset. For more on this topic see my summary of Carol Dweck’s Mindsets. Expect ongoing discussions and be ready to redirect the conversation to remind students that learning has no grades. Ask “what did you learn, what can you do now you couldn’t do before, and how do you know.” Be sure to make the standards clear, give examples of mastery, and use frequent feedback. Students should submit reflections and self-evaluations about what they learned compared to the standards. Eventually Starr’s students stopped worrying about grades and became more excited and eager to try things as they had been when they were younger.

Hack 2: Promote Buy-In

  • Throwing out grades is a big change. Many people won’t get it right away so get ready for a lot of push back. You need to reach out to administrators first to get their support. Next you need to set up sessions to roll the idea out to other teachers and perhaps look for a beta team to roll it out with you. If that works you can later look to expand the effort to the entire school. Parents are next at the same time you work on changing student thinking. You should be able to find parent leaders who can be a big help once you persuade them. In addition to your own written and spoken explanations, you can provide links to articles by others who have tried it. Starr includes some in this book. Don’t expect the push back to stop and there are sure to be stakeholders who you don’t win over.

Hack 3: Rebrand Assignments as Learning Experiences

  • You need to avoid assignments and tests that don’t allow for creativity and student growth. Chances are that some or most of your old lesson plans will have to be overhauled or discarded. Assignments need to allow students to show depth of learning. Allow for student autonomy and avoid single paths. Students should be able to modify the teacher’s assignments or create their own. All assignments should allow for revision (iteration). The lack of grades makes this possible. Expectations need to be tailored to each student so that all are capable of success. Try to find out what students are interested in or passionate about and try hard to fit that in. Try to connect everything to content and skills previously experienced. What’s the point of learning something if you don’t use it? When students have something ready to show, be sure that everyone can see it. This will help convince skeptics.

Hack 4: Facilitate Student Partnerships

  • When the teacher is the only one in the room giving feedback, students miss opportunities for growth. Also, teaching what you know demonstrates a high level of mastery. These are two very compelling reasons to promote student collaboration. You need a plan to teach students how to be peer reviewers. This should involve encouraging them to model your behavior when it comes to giving feedback. Give student groups the chance to become experts in an area that each can share with others. If students post work on a blog, make sure that others leave comments. Student feedback probably won’t be of high quality at first, but encourage them to work on getting better at it. At the end of the chapter Starr tells how this works in her journalism class.

Hack 5: Digitize Your Data

  • Starr believes that many teachers spend too much time collecting data which leaves too little time for using it in a meaningful way. She recommends that you create digital forms for students to fill out so that they essentially do the work of data collection. This sounds like an efficient way to find out where each student is in the learning process. With this data in hand you can adjust your instruction. Starr includes sample form. Secondary teachers can share student data with other teachers who have the same students. Students should periodically update their data. By the end of the year you can use this data for final evaluations.
  • Starr also uses her smart phone to capture pictures and short videos of students in action that can be shared with students. You should consider using a classroom Twitter hash tag which can help students and parents see what is happening. She recommends that you take a look at Google forms.

Hack 6: Maximize Time

  • Time is a problem for all teachers so if it is important to coffer with each student you need to extend yourself beyond class time. Starr has students complete conference forms before she meets with them and reviews student feedback as well. Students should also have questions for the teacher ready to go. You can use an app like Voxer, which allows conversations to extend over time. In-class conferences can take place while students are working on projects. Conferences should be tightly scheduled and last 3 to 5 minutes. You can follow up electronically as needed. You may need to see some students for additional time after class. With social media, students can often get questions answered by other students.

Hack 7 Track Progress Transparently

  • Starr uses a spreadsheet with column headings like assignment, feedback, standards addressed, and strategy. Students are responsible for maintaining the chart which shows transparently what they have accomplished. If you are still in the middle of a traditional grading process you can try a test run and refine as you go. Parents can view the forms the students fill out to track progress as well. The focus should be on students demonstrating how they have grown with a critical eye for where they need to go next. Starr uses the text messaging app Remind to send general announcements and after class public praise to highlight examples of student learning. Formative assessment tools like Socrative and Kahoot help to check for understanding, provide feedback, and course correct. Students also complete a weekly self-reflection Google Form so students can engage in meta-thinking.

Hack 8: Teach Reflection

  • Metacognition, or thinking about your own thinking, has been a hot topic in education literature, but not often stressed formally in the classroom. In a no-grades classroom, students replace grades with their own evaluation of their learning through reflection. Questions the teacher should consider are: 1) What did I do to succeed with this task? 2) How did I overcome the challenges I faced? 3) What evidence do I have that I have met some standards? 4) What do I still need to work on? 5) How might I do it differently? You can ask them at the end of each class to consider what they have learned, and be sure to model the process for them. Part of the process should focus on how what they are doing now connects with previous learning and the real world. Teachers need to provide feedback on students’ written reflections. Students may see this as extra work and push back, so be ready to convince them how this process makes their learning more effective. (Doug: Reflection requires recall, which is more effective in building long term memory than further study.)

Hack 9: Teach Students to Self-Grade

  • It is vital to include students in the evaluation process as it shows what they really know. Understanding the level of mastery achieved is the goal and each student must decide if they achieved mastery. Forms containing rubrics connected to the standards will help as will checklists. If final grades are still necessary, have each student provide and defend their grade with the teacher. (Doug: I did this when I taught leadership courses for teachers working on administrative certification.) Use the grade determined during this conversation so there are no surprises. If there is disagreement, continue the conversation. Starr is inclined to err on the side of the student’s opinion as she doesn’t think grades matter very much. Although you might think this process would lead to grade inflation, that’s not what Starr has experienced. For the most part, students work to defend their proposed grade and that only serves to increase what they learn.

Hack 10: Cloud-Based Archives

  • Report cards don’t tell you much about what a student knows and can do, but portfolios of their best work do. Contributions will be more frequent and contain much more detail. They are also a tool for growth and student reflection. If a teacher can see a student’s portfolio from the previous year, they are in a good position to know what to expect next. It is also important that students share their best work with a broader audience. Starr suggests that students do class presentations on completed projects and that parents be invited. Some class time should be devoted to project work due to its importance. The work also needs to be digitized in some fashion for storage, future reference, and possible sharing on the Internet. When it’s time for college applications, you will find that admissions offices are more use to viewing portfolios than ever. (Doug: My daughter was an art major so for her the portfolio was essential. Let’s hope it becomes essential for all majors.)

Starr Sackstein

  • Starr is a high school English and Journalism teacher at World Journalism Preparatory School in Flushing, NY. She is also the author of Teaching Mythology Exposed: Helping Teachers Create Visionary Classroom Perspective. She does a blog for Education Week called Work in Progress in addition to her personal blog at StarrStackstein.Com where she discusses all aspects of being a teacher. She moderates #jerdchat and #sunchat and contributes to #NYedChat. If you are looking for an energetic, high quality speaker on the subjects of blogging, journalism education, and bring your own device (BYOD), contact her at twitter (@mssackstein) or FaceBook.
Share this:
Share this page via Email Share this page via Stumble Upon Share this page via Digg this Share this page via Facebook Share this page via Twitter Share this page via Google Plus
DrDougGreen.com     If you like the summary, buy the book