I read Sackstein’s (2015) Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School last week, which caused me to wonder: What does “going gradeless” really mean? Although I agree with much of what Sackstein has to say throughout the book and did find some new things to try, I still found myself stumped as to how to go gradeless in my own classes. I would like a offer my perspective on what I got out of the book, which will focus mainly on ideas that I find puzzling, contradictory, etc., again, acknowledging that I probably agree with 90% of everything else the author states. The main issue I have is that the book never reveals how to go gradeless in the classroom.
Let me state from the beginning that the scope of my discussion will be limited to formal education (i.e., schools) where students either pass or fail their courses and are required to receive a (number) grade towards this pass/fail scenario. Thus, I will define grade as being a number (e.g., 8, 9,10, etc.), percentage (e.g., 80%, 90%, 100%, etc.), letter (e.g., C, B, A, etc.), or descriptor (e.g., fails to meet expectations, meets expectations, exceeds expectations, etc.). All four types are similar examples of summative assessment which measure learning retrospectively (i.e., on learners’ past performances). Summative assessment - like exams, tests, and quizzes - are commonly designed to determine whether a learner has acquired the knowledge, understandings, and/or skills of a particular concept, course, or domain. Given this context, the only way to determine whether a learner passes or fails a course is to receive a grade. Within this context there is no “going gradeless”.
What follows are excerpts from the book that I find puzzling, and when necessary, will try to explain my point of view in terms of giving and receiving grades.
1. My lower-level learners were enticed by the idea of a no-grades classroom…they liked the idea of not being judged (pp. 14-15).
First, the author still issues a grade, albeit a negotiation with the learners. Perhaps their are fewer grades than a “traditional” class, but students still receive grades. Calling this a “no-grades classroom” is misleading. Second, the author wants to juxtapose grading with assessing so that terms like judgment and criticism are replaced with feedback. Here´s the problem with that. Assessment, generally speaking, is either formative, summative, or some combination of both. Terms like dynamic assessment, alternative forms of assessment, tests, quizzes, standardized tests, eportfolios, and even grading all can be explained either as formative or summative. So grading is really just a subcategory or a kind of assessment.
And third, just calling teacher-learner and learner-learner interactions feedback does not necessarily make it less judgmental or critical. Feedback can be based on either positive or negative evidence. For instance, positive evidence would be teachers or anyone else modeling or demonstrating ideal or intended behavior that learners have yet to obtain with the hope that learners can on their own recognize the gap between what they know and can do and some ideal (something they current do not know and/or cannot do). In contrast, negative evidence would be teachers or anyone else making explicit any gaps between some ideal or goal and the current status of the learner´s knowledge, understanding, and/or skill sets. In addition to these two types of evidence, feedback can be formative and/or summative. So, depending on how interactions emerge, learners will detect whether feedback from others is judgmental or not. Also, not all forms of criticism (a form of feedback) are necessarily bad (e.g., constructive criticism). It´s unavoidable to receive a grade and not be judgmental.
2. The only hint throughout the book at defining what is meant by traditional grades comes in the introduction: “… the shift away from traditional grades was exceptionally challenging: it was much easier, I realized, to “just” put a grade on student work" (p. 14).
So, if I assume that traditional grades is defined as learners only receiving some form of summative assessment (I.e., letter grade, percentage grade, descriptive grade, etc.) with no complementary forms of formative assessment, then this book is really about how to employ more forms of formative assessment and how to align formative assessment with perhaps less (but still some) forms of summative assessment (e.g., grades). With a new title; the removal of words like gradeless, etc.; and further clarification of what is meant by traditional grades, formative assessment, and summative assessment; this book would be right on the mark.
3. "Creative assignments allow students rather than teachers to make the rules and to determine what is quality work, and this makes some people very uncomfortable. However, there is seldom only one right way to do anything. We need to provide opportunities for creativity while students synthesize learning, encouraging them to do things in a way that is intuitive. All learning is subjective, and when we only offer one chance or route for learning, we greatly limit the possibility that every student will achieve mastery" (p. 50).
There is a lot to unpack here. First, “creative assignments” is being compared to tests, worksheets, and any assignment dictated by the teacher. But it appears that this term really relates more to alternative forms of assessment and not just the assignment itself (e.g., How do instructors assess creativity? might be a logical essential question.). Second, I doubt that the only way of providing more options for students to create their own path to learning results in solely the learner making all of the decisions, but rather a negotiation between learner and teacher. Third, students need to not only think deductively (general to the specific) but also inductively (specific to the general). Fourth, intuition usually comes from experiences that first require more analytical thinking - it´s a process. We need to encourage both analytical and intuitive thinking and demand both deductive and inductive reasoning skills if critical thinking remains a goal. Finally, I am not sure I view learning as subjective. I do think that when assessing learning, inferences are made about what one knows and can do, which can be a subjective process (i.e., interpretation). But the trick to assessment is to find ways to make it less subjective through the use of rubrics or through triangulation, for example. Creativity, intuition, and mastery are three words I feel I never have to use to describe how I assess learners because the criteria that I use instead usually provide a clearer picture of a learner’s understandings, abilities, and disposition.
The big takeaways for me after having read this book are to maintain greater communication with students in how their grade(s) align with heavy amounts of formative assessment and related evidence and to maintain a transparent learning environment so that other educational stakeholders can see how teaching and learning is a process that is unique to the individual, yet adheres to a curriculum and carefully designed criteria.
So the essential question, I still have: What does "going gradeless" mean?
Benjamin L. Stewart
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