To Grade or Not to Grade: That is the Question


Let me begin with some context. I am an English department chair at a high school named by U.S. News as one of America’s Most Prominent High Schools. We have a high graduation rate and high test scores. I offer this only as a means of context for the endless and daily conversations I am a part of concerning students and grades. Sadly, I spend more time discussing a number with students and parents in conferences than I do discussing progress, learning style, and accomplishments.

While I have been contemplating grades and their effect on education for a while, the realization hit home this year as I listened to a student discuss an AP literature exam. Bri, one of my exceptionally gifted writers, told of her thought process during the essay section: “When I saw the prompt was on cruelty, I thought to myself, ‘What the heck. I am writing on the cruel oppression of women in Pride and Prejudice. After all I already have a 5 on the lang exam, so why not?’” Bri was willing to take a chance in her writing by experimenting with a topic that would be a stretch but did so because there was no possible threat of a bad grade affecting her future.

While the AP exam has no bearing on Bri’s grade, I started thinking about the principle behind her comment. When she felt no constraints of a grade, Bri was willing to take chances and experiment with her writing. As a teacher, this is exactly what I want my students to do because finding a voice in writing and developing personal style only comes through experimentation and practice. Yet with the emphasis on grades in education today, students play it safe in writing and stick to more formulaic strategies in order to get the good grade, have the high GPA, and get into a good college.

Grades have become a problem in education because they inhibit student learning by either putting a ceiling on student expectation or a floor marking to many students a goal of minimum competency to be obtained in order to move to the next class. Both of these present problems. Other problems also exist with grades such as teacher subjectivity, consistency between classes and departments in grading, and grade inflation in American schools and universities.

Because I work in a system where I am expected to grade, I have thought a lot about easing the constraints of grades in learning and plan to make the following changes in the fall:

Give more feedback on the process and not just a grade on a final paper or project.

Keep conversations learning focused as opposed to grade focused.

Not reveal a grade until the student has read feedback and either had a conversation with the teacher about it or written a response to the feedback.

Have students write a paragraph self-assessing their own work reflecting on both the process and the product.

Allow graded revisions to replace original grades.

The bottom line is that I don’t have all of the answers, but I know I have to change. I cannot wait until I have it all figured out to make some changes. This year may be messy as I move into uncharted territories, but I am moving forward on this. Please withhold grading me on the changes I am making but feel free to offer any feedback along the way.

For what it’s worth, Bri made a 5 (the highest possible score) on her AP exam.


Frankly, your context is a bit intimidating to me: English Chair at a nationally recognized high school? And yet you struggle with the same problems we all do. As an opposite example of your situation, I am an alternatively certified English/journalism/business teacher, who came to teaching late (starting my 9th year), teaching in a struggling high school where morale is low for students and for teachers. And yet, what we have in common is our passion for students and knowing there is a better way than traditional grading. Everything you mentioned is true for me as well. You said after reading my post, “Red Light, Green Light,” that you were headed in this direction, but still couldn’t get rid of grades. I won’t be getting rid of grades, either, but I’m reducing them from 2/week (good grief) to one at report card time (maybe a couple along the way), and that one will be arrived at largely by the student.
I told you I did a few things toward this last year because I also could not get rid of the grades. Almost all assignments were given multiple chances, through peer editing and feedback from me (both verbal and written), to reach a high standard before being submitted for grade. I had more than one student thank me for giving suggestions and allowing them to continue working on it before being graded.
I also got rid of zeros and made 50% be my F if needed (really, only if they didn’t turn anything in). But I found that in doing that, those students who struggled with procrastination for fear of doing it wrong were really zapped when the F hit (whether 50 or zero). Their grade was lowered so much that they lost motivation entirely, feeling they’d never be able to do this. Another reason I dislike grades.
I let students self-assess a lot or allowed them input on the grade, depending on the assignment, on the class. My publications kids did this a lot, as their tasks varied from each other significantly. In order to meet the 2/week mandate, I let them set goals, reflect and grade themselves.
These items, along with my modeling what I wanted them to do (I often did the assignments, too), respecting them, their choices, their need to go to the bathroom when they needed to (it’s the little things, sometimes) just built a culture that mostly worked and made kids mostly want to be in my class and do the work – mostly.
I hope we can stay in contact and continue to share experiences.
@snidesky on Twitter

A suggestion for your list of changes is the PQP peer edit: P = praise, Q= Question, P = polish which is the first of 3 peer edits I have students do before they submit their writing to me. This is how it works:

I make copies of everyone’s written piece.
Students pair off with each student having two copies of what they’re written.
In their pairs, they take turns being the Editor and the Author after finding a space in the classroom or outside where they won’t be distracted by other pairs of Editors and Authors.
In each pair, the Editor reads the Author’s piece aloud to the Author.
The Author may not speak during the reading and [i]may not offer explanations or corrections[/i]! This is the most difficult part for the authors and I have to keep reminding them that they can only make corrections on their own copies of their writing and may not offer a verbal correction or explanation. The Editor can also [i]not ask for an explanation[/i] but just mark on their copy of the piece where the places of confusion are.
After the Editor has read the entire piece and marked off the places of confusion, both Editor and Author go through the piece marking off where revisions are needed.
Then the Author tells the Editor what they liked about the piece ([b]Praise[/b]), what they found confusing ([b]Question[/b]) and what suggestions they have for improvements ([b]Polish[/b])
The Author then collects the Editor’s marked off copy of his/her piece and uses that as a guide for revisions and edits.
And then they switch with the Author becoming the Editor, etc.
I have a second and third formats depending on the kind of written piece. For example, if the piece is a story then the second edit is about whether or not there are at least 5 elements of fiction contained in the story. If it’s for an expository essay, then the second edit is about structure, thesis, etc.

This works best in a classroom where there is a sense of community or at the very least where students know each other’s names and a little about each other. I spend a lot of time at the beginning of each school year/semester creating community in my classes so that processes like this are possible. I find that students are more willing to take risks when they feel safe and comfortable in my classroom. My students take brain breaks and washroom breaks whenever they need. They eat in class, sometimes we dance. We never sit for longer than 30 minutes at a time.

More about what I do and how and why in this blog post:

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