Coaching Notes: The Year of Ungrading

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A group of teachers thinking about assessment and evaluation differently at #NCTE19 in Baltimore, Maryland.

In her book Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown urges those interested in making substantive change to start small because, often, seismic change is too unwieldy and overwhelming to be successful.  Changes that work at the micro level are more likely to work at the macro level; in other words, it’s all about scaling up rather than scaling down.  The most exciting part of coaching this year was the number of teachers that asked for help disrupting traditional grades and grading in their classes.  This enthusiasm was also palpable in my team’s NCTE presentation about using face-to-face conferencing as a replacement for assessments that make the writer ancillary: many teachers are ready for something different.  In my excitement, I went into meetings with my colleagues ready to smash the traditional system (which I’ve talked about here), but my colleagues were in a different place, wondering how they might experiment with different systems to find out what works for them and for their students.  As a coach, I had to remember Brown’s emergent strategy: small is good.  Rethinking grading, which is a core tenet of education and often a deep-seated part of our pedagogies, takes courage and time. My goal as a coach wasn’t to put the cinderblock on the gas pedal with my colleague terrified in the front seat, but, instead, to help them navigate their own course toward change at their own speed, giving them needed encouragement and support along the way.  This reminded me of another of Brown’s emergent strategies–move at the speed of trust—which is key for making change sustainable.

My colleagues made some amazing changes this year in their classrooms to push back on these dominant systems to reduce the emotional toll grades have on student mental health and well-being and to work to be less unfair and more equitable in their evaluations.

Single-Point Rubrics

One of the small-yet-significant changes made by several of my colleagues, particularly in the disciplines, is using a single-point rubric.  Single-point rubrics, especially those that are ungraded, help students focus on the skill they’re working on without tying their process to grades.  These rubrics prioritize feedback over ranking and sorting, which more traditional rubrics do with overly-restrictive categories that tend to focus on what students can do wrong rather than what they can do right.  Even as evaluators, traditional analytic rubrics cause us to look for error rather than celebrate assets.  The rubrics that we use send messages to students about what we believe about an individual assessment and school writ large, and we can change the message we’ve been sending by changing the rubrics we use.  Several of my colleagues asked themselves if their evaluation of student work aligned with their values as educators, which provides opportunity for healthy self-reflection.

One of the biggest issues I’ve heard teachers discuss with single-point rubrics is time.  Moving away from easy analytic rubrics does reduce grading efficiency, but changes almost always require additional labor, particularly as teachers and students learn how to navigate a new system.  The narrative feedback required by single-point rubrics forces us to be thoughtful and intentional about what we’re telling students about their work and how we’re telling them, which is never easy.  Despite the additional time that my colleagues are spending giving feedback, they are finding that students’ relationship to assessment is changing in a positive way. Students seem to be taking more risks, asking more questions, and seeing assessment as less transactional.  The other benefit is that, with a “bless-press” or “plus-delta” model, all feedback is actually feedforward.

Together, our next steps will be to involve students more in better understanding the “why” behind these changes and involving them more in the continued development of assessment and assessment criteria that better aligns with their needs and their goals.  We should always need to remember that students are experts on themselves and their own learning, and, as a result, should be welcomed into conversations about assessment and assessment criteria. 

Student Surveys and Feedback

A few colleagues did take up the important work of involving students in assessment and evaluation design this year.  This started with asking students to do some reflection on self-assessment on what they wanted to learn, how they wanted to learn it, and the ways in which they wanted to show their learning, which, in itself, is an awesome step.  Often, we spend time differentiating instruction only to standardize the assessment, which can be frustrating for students who want a more relevant and authentic way to display their knowledge.  This requires flexibility on the teachers’ part, as they have to be willing to cede control over large parts of the learning and assessment process to students.  Some teachers have expressed reservations about managing students who are all doing different projects and who may be at different points in their project.  While the feeling is understandable given the way we collectively imagine the classroom to be, the truth is that students were likely always in different places anyway.  Not all students learn in the same way or develop skills at the same time, no matter what we say.  This willingness to involve students in important decisions about learning and assessment marked a small-but-important step away from giving students assessments that weren’t relevant to their learning and that they weren’t ready to take.

These conversations led to other conversations about how it didn’t feel “right” to grade student-centered learning in a traditional manner.  Coaches are tasked with helping folks reach their own conclusions about their practice, and I was happy that those that I worked with were able to see the incongruence between fledgling student-centered, liberation-oriented practices and the traditional practices we have in place. We can’t truly seek liberation for ourselves and our students until we change the oppressive practices that brought us to the current reality.  Many of my colleagues took an additional step of surveying their students regularly about their teaching practices, and while vulnerable, they have learned a great deal about how to be the best teacher they can be for each of their students.

Again, these changes are small, but fractal change is a key to success: asking students what they want and need and working to create structures that make it possible is a considerable move in a liberatory direction.

Portfolio-Based Grading

One of my amazing colleagues took a huge plunge into portfolio-based grading this year, and it was really great being able to help them navigate the nuanced complexities of a new system.

One of the first significant hurdles was describing a portfolio-based grading system to students and parents, especially in an AP course where students have, most often, benefitted from traditional systems that privilege being “best,” which relies on some transactional notion of ranking and sorting.  Under this system, students would be writing more, receiving fewer grades, and self-reporting the grades they did receive after conferencing with the teacher.  For our community, we gathered research about the benefits of pushing back on traditional grading structures, generally, and portfolio-based systems, specifically.  My colleague also stressed the humanizing element of portfolio-based grading: the opportunity to talk with each student about each piece of writing multiple times, allowing them to feel valued and supported as a person and writer throughout the process.  After some nervous moments during Open House, most—if not all—parents in attendance were supportive—or at least not actively unsupportive—of the new system.

As the system was implemented, however, the teacher started to feel the crunch of time.  While portfolio-based grading with student conferences are meant to push back against efficiency, there are practical limitations on time.  In talking with the teacher, we realized that she wasn’t keeping close track of time, often letting conferences extend to 20 minutes or more.  Talking to students is legitimately the best part of our job, but my colleague had already talked to them several times during the formative stages of their writing, so such extended summative conferences weren’t needed.  We also talked about focusing the conferences—“bless-press”—rather than going line-by-line through the paper, a practice that mirrors the generally ineffective on-paper feedback that marks up everything.  Moreover, the shifting of language away from evaluation to learning is hugely positive.  Future conferences were shorter and more focused, which helped the teacher get back important minutes in their day and helped students get the high-level narrative feedback they needed to improve.

Toward the end of the term, we developed an anonymous student survey about their experience.  Student responses were overwhelmingly positive, especially around feeling the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them, but a few students had difficulty with not understanding their progress in relative terms: they wanted to know where they were in relation to their classmates, not just themselves.  These students, though few in number, reported actually having more anxiety without the competition.  School has been extremely successful in getting stakeholders to buy into its transactional metrics of success and to feel lost without them, so much so that the only way to feel safe again is to return to the overarching authority of grades. Continued work with students is necessary to help the reimagine the possibilities of school and their learning, as we can’t expect them to work through seismic shifts in their educational processes any better than we can.  It’s important to be patient and empathetic to students who are working with new systems and frameworks; as Brown reminds us, move at the speed of trust.

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