A Dialogue: Is The Gradeless Revolution Upon Us?

Theresa Walter
April 22, 2024
Two English teachers talk about a radical choice — dropping grades altogether.

Theresa Walter and Jessie Sabino are two middle school English teachers working on Long Island, NY. Theresa serves as an 8th-grade teacher and is also the department chair, and Jessie is a dynamic and passionate 7th-grade English teacher. The two sit down to talk about a bold choice they’ve made: transitioning from a traditional grading system to a feedback-centered, growth model of assessment.

Theresa: Hi Jessie!

Jessie: Hi Theresa! I’m so excited to talk with you about going gradeless.

T: I know ! I’m so excited to share the important work we are doing here together in our middle school English Department! But, before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s back up a little, shall we?

J: Absolutely! How would you describe our school to readers?

Oh, that’s a great place to start. I guess I’d say we work in a super-high achieving, top-in-the-state kind of district. Our schools are nationally ranked, so there’s pressure to succeed academically for both our teachers and our students. There’s a lot of weight placed on grades from both students and parents here. Sound right?

It sure does! Some of our 7th graders are even enrolled in SAT prep programs! There has always been such a strong emphasis on grades, the end product, and while the product still matters, the process has become much more meaningful because of gradeless grading. How long have you been gradeless, and what made you believe in the efficacy of the practice?

This is my fifth year running a gradeless classroom. In that time, I’ve been so excited to see the benefits of this practice — not only for my students- but for myself. I love working to provide a growth model that takes the focus off points, competition, and achievement over learning.

When I started here as department chair, I never mandated that our department experiment with gradeless grading — so, I guess I’m curious, how did I get any of you to be interested in learning more? I’d love to hear your perspective:

As human beings, we often become what we believe is expected of us.

I’ve always been the kind of person who is interested in trying new things, but that applied to my personal life; in my teaching, I was used to utilizing traditional pedagogy in the classroom because I didn’t know there was another way. When you came here, it was obvious that you didn’t fit into a box; if anything, you encouraged us to break out of it! For some people, this was tough. You started asking questions about our practice, our philosophy, and as you shared more about your beliefs in education, in particular, the need for authentic student writing, time for practice, strong belief in revision and feedback, and need to get rid of compliance grading, I started to experience an ideological shift, what I call my “unbecoming.”

As human beings, we often become what we believe is expected of us. We feel the weight of societal, familial, and personal expectations, and that shapes a lot of who we become. I believe it’s no different in the world of education. Many teachers become exactly what is expected of them by traditional college preparatory programs and school districts; we employ the same methodologies that have been used for decades, and we rarely question why. While some teachers might have already experienced this shift, some are not there yet, and some never will be. You made ME question why, and all the amazing teachers in our department are lucky enough to work in a building where we are allowed and encouraged to ask that question. Once I did, I found it impossible to look back. I certainly don’t have it all figured out, but I’m working on it. Can you tell me a bit about what you say to educators who aren’t comfortable with this practice yet?

I get a lot of “That sounds great… theory” or “Well that’s awesome, but my subject area is different” and honestly, I think that’s super fair. To start examining the practice from, as you said, and the end product- the final grade- I think the first concern teachers have is — well, how can you feel comfortable giving a report card grade if you aren’t grading? And, I have to step back a bit here and explain that we work in a district that still requires us to enter quarter grades and final grades- based on the 0–100 scale. So, like I said, I get it- a newcomer first looks at Gradeless Grading wondering how a new practice will fit into old molds.

So, to really get to your question, Jessie, I think I start my discussion with Alfie Kohn’s research. In “The Case Against Grades,” he lays out what our research tells us about grades- and these points were truly what stopped me in my tracks and began the paradigm shift for me- we know grades decrease student interest in learning, we know students in a point-based system will always choose an easier task, we know numerical grading encourages shallower thinking, and we know grading discourages risk-taking (Kohn, 2011). I really thought to myself- if we know this to be true, what are we doing here? It’s like one of those tail-wags-the-dog scenarios.

After presenting what I’ve learned by studying Kohn, I talk about the process with others by discussing skill. Skill is such an essential part of what we do in teaching- and, most educators will tell you the priority in their class is not memorization of facts, but application and development of skill. As teachers, we say we prioritize skill, but we sometimes fall back on compliance grading as well as rewarding reproducing facts or replicating a product we’ve assigned to students — anyway, that’s where I start.

Is that how our discussions started? Why do you think you were willing to take a risk here and get uncomfortable jumping into something completely new?

Well, I strongly believe our school environment coupled with your belief in the work we do here has a lot to do with it. I’ve always felt comfortable and supported in our school, and when there is a level of comfort, there is also a willingness to take risks. I mean, isn’t that what we want for our students? How can we grow as educators if we don’t have the space to do so?

Everyone in our department is highly skilled, and while there are certain aspects of our practice that remain steady across the board, we are all different, and those differences are valued and encouraged. I know that if I try something new and it doesn’t work, I can reflect on how I can make it better. I also know that I can come to you or my colleagues and wrestle with ideas, without judgment. Some of my most transformative ideas developed after I left your office, or during 7th period when my incredibly talented teacher roomie and I, whom I’ve learned so much from, were chomping on chocolate having a personal PD session or existential crisis of the best kind.

Everyone is trying something new, and that speaks volumes. The willingness to try new things has allowed our students to grow in so many ways. They are not writing generic responses to past state tests; they are writing as authentic thinkers, learners, and humans. They are not reading to answer comprehension questions; they are reading to examine, question, and analyze. As soon as I saw that transformation, and truly embraced what they were capable of, I knew this was something I had to stick with; I knew this was a risk I had to take. This is not to say that other teachers who stick with traditional grading methods are not doing this work as well. I think that is an incredibly important point to make. But, for me, this is where it’s at.

I wrestle with going gradeless every day because it’s challenging; it’s an ongoing process, as you mentioned. The first step was coming to the realization that I do not have to grade everything. This was a huge shift because I didn’t know there was another way to do it. I often thought to myself, “If I don’t grade this, students won’t do it,” but in many instances, I found the opposite to be true. Students were more willing to do the work because they knew they would get feedback before a grade. They wanted to grow and develop their skills, and when they had the chance to do so, to make mistakes and take risks without being penalized, they dove in. Now, let’s be honest, not every student wants to do work that doesn’t receive a grade, but there are challenges in every classroom, and for me, the key to making this type of shift really lies in the concepts of agency and growth mindset.

I agree — I’ve never had a single instance of a student refusing work because it doesn’t get a number grade. But, as you mention, we do assess their agency — and agency is how much they’re willing to attempt work honestly, and use the skills we’ve taught to stretch their thinking. And, as I say this, I do have to say that I get so many messages of “Thank you so much for your feedback” after I discuss student work with individual students — either in person or on their Google Classroom. I think students like being seen, and I think they are finally in a place that honors a struggle and gives “credit” for the struggle. I’m a mother of three teens, and I know they can sense when a teacher is just correcting work or when a teacher is getting to know them and giving them ways to work in their own best way.

SO, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty — what do you see as the benefits of this style of assessment, and what has been the biggest challenge — and, I think that we can agree that the challenges are real and ongoing!

Oh boy! Time to get vulnerable. Before I do, I have to comment on the statement you made regarding students feeling seen. I can’t let that slip by. One of the key takeaways I have developed as a middle school educator is that students can easily sniff out when someone is not genuine. They are little humans, and they want the same thing adults do, to build genuine relationships with people who care. When I take time to develop relationships first, listen to their concerns, honor their mistakes, and promote risk-taking, I can provide honest and actionable feedback, because they understand where it’s coming from. And, the type of feedback matters! When students feel seen by their teachers, and I might also add, when teachers feel seen by their students, anything is possible!

In terms of the successeses, where do I begin? Growth, growth, growth! I have seen a huge shift in students valuing process over product. They understand they are developing transferable skills, and they value practice so much more because it’s not just for a grade. You are right when you mention those “Thanks for your feedback comments.” How amazing!! Students begin to understand they are in a safe place to take risks, and there is power in the word “yet,” which enables students to remain where they are if they are not ready to move on. I don’t hear students say, “What did you get on that assignment?” Now I hear students say, “What did she write??” So, the biggest success has been the promotion of growth and a growth mindset in a non-competitive classroom which still values rigor.

I don’t hear students say, “What did you get on that assignment?” Now I hear students say, “What did she write??”

Ok… time for my biggest challenge. I think we could write an entire article, or five, about the challenges alone: enter our next idea, but I will address the first one that hit me hard, and that is figuring out how to strike a balance between going gradeless and ensuring students know where they stand, especially in a high performing school like ours. This was a time of dread for me. I’m a serious overthinker, and the questions started swirling! If I’m not putting every grade in the gradebook as soon as a child practices a skill, won’t I get angry parent emails? Won’t students be mad that I didn’t assign a number? Won’t it be challenging to talk about their development? Not really!

While I am certainly still experimenting with what works best for me, there have been two practices which have made those questions begin to fade away: grade conferences and gradebook comments. In a gradeless or partially gradeless class, which is where I am now, it’s vital to honor practice before grades as well as have mid-quarter and end-of-quarter conferences with each student. Students receive a rubric where they are asked to assess their agency, writing skills, reading analysis, revisions, and discussion, and then we sit down and talk about it, working together to build a grade. Of course, I have the final say, but I have found that students often know where they stand. They are realistic, and we work together to build goals. Does it take a lot of time, especially when our class period is 38 minutes long, absolutely!! Is it worth the time? Yes!!!

I agree. Almost every student knows exactly where they stand. Even so, this practice does take a great deal of time — and why do you think that’s so important to you?

In addition to grade conferences, parents need to understand where students stand. It seems like a number grade is the way to go, but let’s stop for a moment and think about that. If a child receives an 87 on a writing assignment, what does that really tell a parent? What skills need to be developed? Where is this child shining? Now, every assignment comes with a short but informative gradebook comment regarding their skill development or performance. I’m still struggling with going completely gradeless in some units because I am still figuring out how I want to keep track of everything, but I am getting there. Now, let’s be honest, does this take time? Yes. Can it be frustrating, yes. But, when you cut back on compliance grading, and you make the grading more meaningful, there is a balance. Does any of this sound familiar to you?

Indeed. And, I really think you’ve hit on all the issues I’ve been thrilled about with Gradeless Grading, and all that has been a bit rocky for me. But, I, like you, truly believe that this is the work that matters. This is the work that values our students as individuals, and this is the work that will continue to support growth for our kids. And, that’s what counts, right?

Absolutely! We covered a lot here! We still have so much to talk about, and I am looking forward to diving into this topic again!

Theresa Walter
Theresa is a progressive English teacher and department chairperson who looks to make human connections with all her students and teachers.
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