Why I’m UNgrading my students

I couldn’t call it DE-grading, now could I…

I never felt right about grades before...

I never felt right about grades before...

It couldn’t really be this easy, could it?

  • Increased motivation to learn for the sake of learning
  • More time on task
  • A rise in creativity and critical thinking
  • Improved work completion
  • A much more positive classroom culture
  • No angry calls from parents

I’ve seen all of these things in my classes in the first month of school.

What did I do?  More importantly, what DIDN’T I do?  You’re thinking, “here comes the sales pitch…”

I haven’t given my students a single grade.

I’m calling in UNgrading.  I want to thank Joe Bower and Alfie Kohn for the inspiration and courage to dive in and do it!

First, some context, so you can see how your system and mine are similar and different:

  • I teach high school science at a public school (not a charter)
  • 90+% of my students qualify for free and reduced lunch
  • 90+% of my students are ethnic minorities
  • We have a traditional school structure (standard course offerings, 6 period days, 55 minutes per class, etc.)
  • I am required to report athletic eligibility grades every Friday
  • I am required to give students progress reports every 2 weeks
  • I must report grades at the end of each quarter
  • My electronic gradebook is viewable by any parent at any time

Pretty standard stuff, really.

For years, I’ve wanted to do away with grades but never was sure how.  Somewhere in my mind, I was still caught up in the fallacy of needing grades to motivate students.  I also felt a strong need to have a defensible position for my grades.  I wandered through the woods of various point systems my first 3 years.  I gave standards-based grading (SBG) the old college try the last 2 years.  Retakes and no late penalties; all that stuff was part of my system.  No matter what I did, it never felt right.

I always said, “I love teaching but I hate grading!”

Now I know why: I was evaluating student work and passing judgement on it.  No matter how clear and detailed my rubrics were, it was still my subjective evaluation of their work.  In fact, the more clear and detailed my rubrics, the more boring their work became – both for them to do and for me to assess.

Next post: How I’m doing UNgrading!

Image used under cc license from the flickr stream of amboo who?

12 thoughts on “Why I’m UNgrading my students

  1. Ok, I’m super intrigued. I can’t wait to hear how you implement this in your class, but the more and more I use SBG, the more I think it would be possible to ditch grades entirely.

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  3. Woo-hoo! I’m with you on this one! I too am having a great start to the year with no grades. I just passed back reflection papers to my 8th graders with only written feedback, no grades or marks, and I saw kids reading my comments. Before they would’ve been just looking at the grade.


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  5. John –

    It’s funny because 2 years of frustration with SBG is a big part of what led me to UNgrading. Honestly, I can see how SBG might be the way to go in math, especially in a traditional curriculum. However, I didn’t like it for science. I felt like it got in the way of inquiry.

    Mostly, though, I was still judging their work. That has bothered me for my entire teaching career.

  6. It has been a beautiful thing. I’ve given MUCH more feedback this year than ever before. I’m using the “I Notice, I Wonder, What if?” Format for feedback. Kids really respond to it!

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  8. It just occurred to me after reading your post: I’m unconsciously UNgrading! We’re in our 9th week of school, and I’ve given only one grade!

    Looking forward to the next post…

  9. Jennifer,

    I’d like to hear more about what brought you to the point of UNgrading. My reasons for UNgrading and my methods are very intentional. I chose to stop grading my students because I believe UNgrading to be the best thing for them.

    Why did you decide to go this route?

    How are you giving students feedback?

    How are you tracking their learning?

  10. Tyler,

    I’ve been reading about UNgrading for a few months now (Alfie Kohn, other teachers’ blogs, etc.) I would say that I’m about 98% bought in to this concept. I do believe it to be the best thing for my students’ learning.

    I am concerned about this: I teach 5th grade Science in Tennessee. Tennessee tests Science as part of its high stakes testing. One of the reasons Tennessee was able to secure that first round of RTTT funds is that our state legislature has now made our students’ test scores 35% of our teacher evaluation! I haven’t been particularly worried since my test scores have always been strong. I’m just a little scared about how not grading could potentially affect their performance. In the past I have only taken grades on things I knew would be on the state test.

    I’m also required to report a grade at the end of the grading period for report cards.

    In answer to your last two questions, I get most of my student feedback and track their learning via their Scientist’s Notebooks. I also use learner response systems and other quick mini-assessments to gauge where they are on a particular concept. I don’t grade any of these.

    Enjoying your blog!

  11. Jennifer –

    Sounds like you’re engaged in action research! If test scores go down in your classes this year, what will you do? Would that mean that UNgrading didn’t work? Or could it be a cohort effect? Could it even be that the test is flawed – especially for measuring higher order thinking?

    One suggestion I have (and this has been a struggle for me this year) is to keep good records of student learning. Track conversations you have with them and observations of evidence of their learning. Do some writing prompts or other tasks that allow you to assess where they are. Don’t grade them, just record the evidence.

    One thing I’m doing is keeping a sort of “shadow” grade book where I’m doing simplified standards-based grading. This is a record for me of their current level of understanding of important content standards. It is something that I could show to parents or administrators if challenged.

  12. For sure, the test is flawed…lol. Although, it does do a much better job of asking questions that require application of scientific thinking than in the past.

    I believe I’m going to try your “shadow” gradebook idea – sort of a morph of UNgrading and standards based grading.

    Now, to devise a time-efficient documentation system…

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