We have no grades!

March 02, 2015 by Bill Ivey

“(...) And you should come here because we have no grades!” - from an impromptu song by Nikki ‘20

As one part of each unit designed by Humanities 7 students, each student is asked to choose a “Focus Question” to learn about on her own. She researches the question, writes an essay, and makes a presentation to the class. Every year, on the first essay, I find students who can already write effective thesis statements, students who have no idea what a thesis statement is, and everything in between. By the second draft, after conversing with me, they all have effective thesis statements for that first essay, and a few more of them than before jump right in with an effective thesis statement on the first draft of the next essay. But not all. By the end of the year, though, they’ve all got it down, and so as they move on to Humanities 8, Karen knows she can depend on them to have this skill.

What matters more at that point - when the students learned how to write an effective thesis statement, or that they are proficient in the skill? To my mind, its their level of proficiency that matters. And really, except perhaps for a professional interest in developmental history, does Karen need to know that Tracey mastered the thesis statement in October but Erica didn’t get it until January?

This anecdote does much to explain why I so passionately believe in standards-based assessment. I also believe we know our students much better than any letter grade could ever convey. So years ago, when the middle school team was looking at some extracts from Rick Wormeli’s classic Fair Is Not Always Equal and math teacher Linda Beaudoin said, “If we all believe this [standards-based assessment] is best for the students, why don’t we just do it?” I could not have been more delighted. As a group, we quickly agreed to commit to dropping letter grades in favour of standards-based assessment. But we also decided we needed a year to, in essence, do standards-based assessment in the background while still giving letter grades, just to be sure we truly understood how to make it work.

In the process, we discovered an important and fundamental difference between the two systems. Several teachers were struggling hard with the question, “But what do I write at the top of the paper?” Gradually, we all came to understand and agree that if you truly view learning as an ongoing and never-ending process, and if you know how well you are doing in mastering each different specific skill, anything that might be written at the top of the paper is meaningless. Worse, anything that might be written at the top of the paper becomes a distraction from the important feedback offered for each individual skill.

In short, shifting to standards-based assessment taught us that aggregation is pointless.

Students and parents adjusted quickly to our new system, and most of them loved it. Those few who protested seemed, to my mind, to be focused less on the actual learning and more on how a given student was doing in relation to other students. Never mind that middle school students can be at such radically different developmental stages that such comparisons are meaningless. Never mind that competition actually hinders learning, at least learning of the complex, critical thinking, questioning and searching and eventually understanding variety that my current Humanities 7 students, for example, value far more greatly than simple rote learning. Rote learning, by the way, is the one area where research shows competition can help.

For all I care.

Each year, my Humanities 7 students form an extraordinarily close and supportive group. They become incredibly passionate about what they’re learning, get caught up in deep and lengthy discussions, and get thoroughly involved with what each other is doing whether through sharing independent writing or through Focus Question presentations. I can’t help but think that the absence of competition, which implies the absence of hierarchy, helps contribute to the annual development of that kind of ideal learning atmosphere. Without hierarchy, it’s much easier to peacefully exist as co-learners, each with our own strengths, each needing to improve in certain areas. To my thinking, that is an unshakeable ideal.

As I understand his work, Alfie Kohn believes that the vast majority of learning happens not at the end of a specific project or piece of work but along the way, during the process, in conversation and through continuous feedback loops. I completely agree. Indeed, my students no longer ask me “How did I do?” when they turn in final draft of a Focus Question essay. They know precisely where the writing is strong and where it could still use some work. They also know precisely how it got to that point, and where they will need to focus extra attention with the next essay. I ask them to self-assess several times each trimester, and their level of self-knowledge is always strong. Moreover, and this is of course of tremendous importance in a girls school when society often sends the girls the message they should not show too much ego, they are willing to be honest about their strengths in the first place, all the while acknowledging where they need to improve and strategizing how to bring about that improvement.

Can I still improve at assessment? Of course. I want the very best for my students I can possibly give them, and there’s always room for improvement. But I deeply believe this standards-based system is in their best interests, and that it’s simply a matter now of continually fine-tuning it.

And if, in the process, I’m helping weaken society’s focus on hierarchy (which, as Gloria Steinem has observed, can lead to the dismantling of patriarchy itself... and by extension all systems of privilege and oppression), I’m good with that, too


(written in response to three blog posts: "Grading: A Duct-Taped System In Need of an Overhaul?" by Brianna Crowley, "Jesse Pinkman's Wooden Box" by Sandy Merz, and "Don't Give a Pass to Failed Grading Systems," by David Cohen)

Written by Bill Ivey

A dedicated member of the faculty, Bill Ivey is the Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School. He teaches Humanities 7 and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands. Bill is the advisor for MOCA, the middle school student government, and he coordinates and participates in the middle school service program. Among his many hats, Bill also coordinates social media for Stoneleigh-Burnham School.

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Filed Under: On Education, Feminism, Assessment, Standards-Based Assessment