Category: Assessment

The Road Less Traveled 6 Weeks into #Gradeless

The Road Less Traveled 6 Weeks into #Gradeless

This post is the first in an ongoing series reflecting on the journey my students, their families and I are taking this year as we go gradeless in our science classroom in an effort to shift our focus to learning and understanding. 

After a successful trial run last spring eliminating grades in lieu of feedback and reflection with my eighth grade science students (The Road to Gradeless), I decided to completely eliminate grades for all of 155 of my sixth and seventh grade students this year.  This summer, with much guidance from my #gradeless plc, I put my vision down on paper (Learning and Grades Parent Letter), shared it with my administrators and was prepared to share with my students and their families.  I had already decided that I would not immediately introduce my grading philosophy to my students.  Instead, I chose to begin the year with a focus on learning, risk taking, problem solving and collaboration.  

Three weeks ago, after I felt that we had begun to create and develop a collaborative, safe, learning community, I explained to my students and their families that they would only be receiving learning feedback from me.  All of the feedback I have received from parents up to this point has been positive.  While curious about this approach and what it will actually look like day to day in the classroom, they appreciate the emphasis on learning.  The response of my students to our feedback driven community has been relatively neutral.  While I believe most of them heard me say we are going gradeless, they are only now just beginning to make sense of what this actually means for their learning.  

Providing Feedback

I decided to primarily use single-point rubrics to provide students with feedback on their learning.  I was introduced to the single-point rubric in a blog post by Cult of Pedagogy founder Jennifer Gonzales, Meet the #SinglePointRubric.  I like the simple structure of these rubrics where the focus is on the learning criteria.  

I am using Schoology to document feedback.  If a student learner has met the criteria, they receive a “Proficient”.  If they have not met the criteria, they receive a “Not Proficient Yet”.  I include concerns, questions and evidence of advanced understandings in the comment column of the Schoology “gradebook”.  I place the emphasis on the “Yet” in not proficient yet, continuing to acknowledge and remind my student learners that learning is messy and that it is ok, and often necessary, to take multiple tries to develop and communicate an understanding.  The end goal and the emphasis is always understanding.  


In addition to providing feedback on each learning activity using single point rubrics, student learners are also keeping a digital portfolio using Seesaw.  I love the simple, but professional, feel of this digital portfolio tool.  I also like that it is easy for student learners to share their portfolios with their parents and other family members.  School-family relationships have the potential to create powerful learning opportunities.  Tools like Seesaw and Schoology help create these powerful relationships.  

At the conclusion of every major learning objective, students select one piece of their work they believe exemplifies their understandings of the learning objective.  In addition to posting their work sample, they are also writing or recording a brief reflection piece summarizing their reasons for choosing the piece of work and why it demonstrates their learnings.  

Traditional vs Innovative Grading Systems

Our school is on a quarter system.  I will still need to enter a traditional letter grade for each quarter.  I have decided that the students will determine this “grade”.  At the end of each quarter, I will act as a facilitator as they evaluate their learning.  My hope is that their Schoology and Seesaw portfolios will guide them in this reflection, providing gentle reminders of their deep and comprehensive learning over the previous 9 weeks.  

Looking Forward

I’m not sure where the next 8 months will lead us, but I am excited to find out.  I will be reflecting on the many components that must all intertwine together as we travel down this road less traveled.  Please share the journey with us.  Thoughts, comments and ideas are, as always, much appreciated!  

The Road to Gradeless

The Road to Gradeless

Inspired by the experiences of Starr Sackstein and Joy Kirr, last January, I decided to significantly modify how “grades” were determined in my 8th grade science classroom. Like many, I teach within a school and a district that abide by a traditional grading philosophy, requiring a final “grade” for each student.  So while my student learners and I were unable to go completely gradeless, we got as close as possible. Going gradeless last semester was a significant change for my students that forced me to critically analyze the feedback I provide to my student learners.

The Shift to Learning over Grades

I have emphasized learning over grades for several years (see my previous blog post, Focus on the Learning: The Power of Mastery), so this shift was a natural progression for me as an educator. I plan our learning journeys using backwards design, starting with the end in mind and then working alongside my student learners to help them navigate towards their target destination. Within each learning objective, I still assess student work, formatively to help learners visualize and evaluate their paths towards mastery. I give specific feedback and also provide a number “score” using a Mastery Grading Scale I created based on Marzano’s work on standards based grading. If I feel that a student demonstrates limited command of an objective, I provide specific feedback to the student to help push their thinking and understanding, but do not provide a score. After learners reflect on their feedback and revisit and revise their thinking, I add a rubric score. While I require those who do not demonstrate at least moderate command to reflect and revise, every student is always welcome to push their thinking and understandings through the revision process. After completing all of the learning activities associated with a learning objective, students complete a reflection on their learning (Space – Learning Objective #5 – Personal Evaluation & Reflection). I also ask my student learners to mini-conference with me about their evaluation & reflection. I let them know that while I might challenge them in their mini-conference I will always respect and honor their assessment of their overall learning. Most of my student learners completed 3 learning objectives during the 3rd quarter and the 4th quarter. This means there were 12 points total in the grade book for each quarter. I used the following scale to weave my 4 point system into my school’s traditional grading system. 

Reflecting on Our Journey to Gradeless

At first, my student learners were excited when I introduced our learning focused system. Eventually they realized that the ownership of learning was placed on them. Some kids embraced this, some kids didn’t. We worked hard on reflections throughout the semester. During the first round of reflections, most kids assessed “how hard they tried” rather than their level of understanding. Although I focused primarily on verbal feedback during the first round of reflections, my limited written feedback also left  much to be desired (Student A, Student B). By the final round of reflections, both my student learners and I were improving. This improvement involved lots of modeling for the students, both by myself and their peers. I also focused on the questioning strategies I used with my student learners as we verbally conferenced on their learning reflections. I also drastically changed the format of the reflection documents. By the end of the semester the student reflections were significantly deeper, more thoughtful, and evidence based and focused more on their learnings and understandings rather than their effort levels (Student A, Student B).

Bumps in the Road to Gradeless

An unanticipated issue I experienced was a handful of students who completed all learning experiences for a learning objective and then did not complete their learning reflections. I wasn’t expecting this and was not quite sure how to handle this roadblock. I decided to address the issue on a case to case basis. I structure my class so that student learners can complete all learning experiences, revisions, reflections and mini conferences during our class time. I ended up working with the majority of kids who did not complete self-reflections 1:1 to verbally help them work through their reflections.

Navigating the Road to Gradeless in the Upcoming Year

As I anticipate the upcoming year, I am considering eliminating the mini-conferences after my students participate in their first round of learning reflections unless I disagree with their learning self assessments or they would like to mini conference with me. I am also thinking of giving student learners the option of completing their learning reflections verbally through a tool like Voxer or via video. I also plan to provide more structures and scaffolds to help my student learners assess one another more effectively and provide specific peer feedback that moves everyone’s learning forward.

I would appreciate comments and feedback from others who are thinking about or are actively making the transition to a gradeless classroom. What successes have you had? What structures have you provided or implemented that have been effective in helping student learners take ownership of their learning? What speed bumps have you encountered and how have you addressed them?

Focus on the Learning: The Power of Mastery

Focus on the Learning: The Power of Mastery

We all know that learning is messy.  We’ve seen this messiness over and over again in our classrooms.  I happened across this modified image from Demetri Martin in a blog post by George Couros recently and I think it accurately illustrates the idea of learning.  

Photo Credit:  George Couros –
One of the questions I’ve asked myself over the last few years is what is the best way to ensure that every one of my students is learning, while keeping in mind that the journey towards understanding and sense making is often fraught with wrong turns, left turns, right turns and switchbacks and that every learner’s final path is different.  

This year, I decided to address the varying paths to learning through mastery learning.  Mastery learning is not a new idea.  According to “Lessons of Mastery Learning” published by ASCD, Benjamin Bloom, creator of Bloom’s taxonomy, first introduced the idea in the early 1970’s.  Essentially, in mastery learning, the learner must demonstrate mastery of a concept, idea or topic before moving forward in their learning.  Using the Schoology platform, specifically Schoology’s learning objectives, student completion rules and mastery features, I incorporated mastery learning into my classroom this year.  

We know that it is critical to begin with the end in mind.  In order for our students to master anything, they need to know where they are headed.  In our classroom, I use learning objectives to accomplish this.  Briefly, learning objectives are created in your Schoology Resources.  You can create your own customized learning objectives or access and use state and/or national standards.  I have chosen to primarily use the Colorado State Science standards as my learning objectives.  After adding specific learning objectives in my Schoology Resources, I attach them to specific assignments by adding rubrics.  While I assess student understanding using a mastery scale, my school still assigns traditional grades.  In order to merge mastery grading with my school’s traditional grading system, I have created a Mastery Grading Scale based on Marzano’s work on standards based grading.  

I customize every rubric that I create to reflect this scale.  

For student’s to move on, they must, at minimum, demonstrate “moderate command” of each learning objective.  Keeping in mind that learning is messy, I know that not all students will meet this expectation the first, second or sometimes even the third time.  To account for this, I use student completion rules.  These rules are easy to set up in each unit.  I allow students to revise their work as many times as they want to.  Ultimately, I want them to learn, I don’t care how long or how many tries it takes.  Learning is the goal, not completion!  

This brings us to the last Schoology feature that I use to ensure that learning is happening, mastery.  I approach at mastery in two different ways.  First, I use student completion rules on assignments aligned with our learning objectives.  This works great for those learning objectives that are more short-lived.  But there are also a handful of learning objectives that students are working towards mastering for the entire year.  This is where the Schoology mastery feature is critical.  If I have a learning objective that I use over and over again, I can easily keep track of a student’s progress towards mastery using this feature.

I can even look at an individual’s progress towards specific objectives in order to determine how to help her successful master the idea.  

To conclude, when we account for the messiness of learning and really focus on learning rather than completion, amazing things start to happen in the classroom.  My ability to use the Schoology platform to easily add learning objectives to assignments and to add student completion rules as well as using the mastery feature has significantly changed our classroom focus.  Students understand purpose as they work towards understanding rather than a “grade”.  This change in focus in reflected in the amount of revisions I see on a daily basis.  It is reflected in the conversations that happen among my students as they work on defining and refining their understandings. It is reflected in the smiles of both my non-traditional and traditional students who  suddenly find success in school when historically they haven’t because they have time to work through their ideas and their understandings.  It is reflected in the deep, thoughtful thinking that occurs as students realize that learning isn’t usually straightforward and although it takes hard work, it is incredibly satisfying.
Let’s Focus on Thinking Instead

Let’s Focus on Thinking Instead

After returning from a long, relaxing and thoughtful winter break, our staff spent a lively hour discussing our school wide goal for this year.  I know, a little late, but we’ve been waiting on PARCC data.  For the last three years, our building focus has been writing.   
The challenge has been how to address and assess this goal across all of the different contents that are represented in our middle school.  We have tried using  a common acronym, RAP – Rephrase, Answer, Provide Support, but this acronym didn’t necessarily fit well with all content areas, sometimes felt contrived and overall, did not significantly impact on our student’s standardized test scores.  We also tried using common, school wide short constructed response assessments.  These assessments were cumbersome to score and due to the scoring time commitment, we were only able to give 2 or 3 over the course of the year.  Again, no one, teachers or students, were getting 
the bang for their buck.  
So what to do?

My personal philosophy on education has undergone radical changes over the last few years.  For many years of my career, I relied on traditional, summative assessments to determine what students knew.  Over the last five years, I realized that these traditional assessments more often than not gave an incomplete, and in many cases, an inaccurate, picture of student understandings.  They rewarded students who figured out what the teacher wanted and went about providing that answer and penalized students who thought outside the box.  

What is the purpose of education?  I grapple with this question frequently.   
My current belief, influenced greatly by my experiences raising 2 children and following their school experiences, is that at the end of the day, I want my own children as well as my students to be able to think.  I want them to be able to express their thoughts and opinions and support these ideas with credible, relevant and timely information.  How they express their ideas should be up to each individual.  The communication and presentation of ideas should be based on each individual child’s strengths and should involve thoughtful consideration of both audience and purpose.  For years, the primary mode of communication, at least in the formal education setting, has been text based with a heavy emphasis on formal writing.  I strongly believe we need to move away from this long-held assumption that all students must use formal writing as their primary mode of expression.  

So back to our school wide goal.  It’s so easy to default to writing – it’s what we’ve looked at for years, but is it really the most effective way to assess student growth?  Don’t get me wrong, I think being able to write is important and my students often communicate their understandings through writing.  But, I don’t think it is the only way, and certainly not always the best way, for students to demonstrate understanding and the ability to think deeply.  And I certainly don’t think it is the best way to quickly assess understanding in order to provide timely and productive feedback.  It is well past time to acknowledge that there are many ways to demonstrate the ability to think critically.  This acknowledgment is scary though.  How do you systematically assess deep thinking?  How do you standardize both assessments and assessment feedback so you can track growth? I wonder, what happens if you focus on the actual thinking, rather than the fallback measurement tool – more often than not, formal writing.  What if we acknowledge that there are many ways to show deep, complex thinking; for example, an intricate piece of art, a short video or audio recording, a bulleted list of words, a music composition, a sports formation. 
Formal writing does not need to be the end-all-be-all.  The world needs individuals who can express their ideas and thoughts, who can learn from their mistakes and move forward and who can think outside the box and confidently communicate their ideas.  Our staff began to consider this today.  
It was refreshing.  
It was exciting.  
It creates lots of unknowns.  
I’m looking forward to seeing where we end up.