How I Turned Formative Assessment into a Dialogue with My Students

When formative feedback felt like a dead end, this teacher dug in and figured out how to empower students by making the process a two-way street.

March 14, 2017
James Denby

Educator/Curriculum Developer

A few years ago, formative assessment returned as a frequent topic of discussion in faculty meetings and professional development sessions. I started mulling it over — examining how I did it, how I used it, and how I saw students using it.

Like most teachers, I always knew there were things I could do better, but with formative assessment, I couldn’t really figure out what that was. I made a list of all the things I already engaged in on a regular basis:

  • Meetings with students about ongoing work
  • Writing extensive comments on student work related to specific learning goals
  • Knowledge/learning checks
  • Peer work (editing, revising, commenting, and so on)
  • Good old-fashioned quizzes
  • Goal-setting activities at different points during the year

After some careful reflection, I realized I didn’t need to give more feedback, nor did I need a new formative feedback tool. The problem I faced with formative assessment, I realized, was that the students who needed that feedback the most were the ones not using it. It wasn’t a big group, but in each of my classes I could easily identify a few students who, no matter what I seemed to do, ignored all that formative work.

We needed to figure out why they weren’t using the formative feedback to improve their learning.

Those Google Doc comments on the project we were doing? William turned in a final draft that didn’t reflect any of the improvements I’d suggested. The one-on-one conference in which we talked about how to support an argument with evidence? Michelle didn’t do anything we talked about. The learning-check activities we did about common characteristics in urban civilization? Aaron clearly saw that he couldn’t explain them but seemingly did nothing to remedy the problem.

If I thought about it, it made me crazy, but at least now I knew where to focus. Other students were revising work, studying things they weren’t sure about, and practicing skills. These three weren’t, and the first thing I needed to do was find out why.

Helping Students Own the Process

In the next regular meeting I had with each student, I told each one that we needed to figure out why they weren’t using the formative feedback to improve their learning. The answers they gave weren’t all that surprising, when you think about it. William wasn’t actually sure where to begin or how to incorporate the suggestions I made. Michelle felt like it really wouldn’t make a difference because she just simply wasn’t a good writer. Aaron was somewhere in the middle; he often felt like it was too late to “fix” the problems because there was often too much to do.

This was a good start. Now it was time to formulate a plan.

I asked each student to commit to making one substantive change based on comments or our meeting discussion before they turned in their final draft of the project we were working on. Since the writing portion was in Google Docs, they decided that they would explain how they were following through on feedback in a comment to me.

We talked about how they could use their peer-conferencing and -editing sessions better by incorporating what they wanted to improve into their meeting with a partner. Though it seemed obvious to me, each student was kind of at a loss about how to do that. We settled on asking specific questions (“How can I __?,” “Where can I __?,” or “Is this a good place to __?”). Each student committed to writing down the questions they asked. I followed up on those conversations with a similar discussion and modeling before our next peer-editing session.

Michelle, who previously had never followed through on the ideas we talked about in conferences, decided to focus on her use of evidence. She partnered with another student and asked specifically where she should include her examples and facts. She had the examples and facts, but she just didn’t know where they really fit. I actually heard her say, “But how do I make it fit?” With me, she started asking if the evidence was convincing.

I had already tried to give William focused feedback, but in his first peer conference he asked whether he should work on transitions between ideas or on his introduction. (Remember, this was the guy whose idea of revision had always been clicking “resolve” on a Google Doc comment.) In his final comment response to me, he explained that once he saw the difference in the introduction, it “felt like it was a check-box done” and he could move on to other steps.

Aaron ended up doing something of a combination of William’s and Michelle’s strategies. He worked with me and another student to prioritize what he should work on and how to do it, but he also asked me, through a written comment, if it would be OK to “just focus on sentence structure this time?” He wanted to get that skill down before he worked on anything else. For the first time, I was seeing him address his “gaps,” so how could I not agree?

I made changes in what I did that pushed for more accountability from students but which also made me engage in more of a dialogue in my formative feedback.

What We Learned

In the end, the strategies the three of us agreed to seemed like something every student would benefit from. I made changes in what I did that pushed for more accountability from students but which also made me engage in more of a dialogue in my formative feedback. William, Aaron, and Michelle did not magically transform, but they (and my other students) definitely started to “feel formative” (as we now call it). That idea, that we are still taking shape and not yet fully formed, is what prompts real change.

Traditional Report Cards Are Obsolete

Edweek

Screen shot 2017-03-01 at 12.26.09 PM.pngDepending on where a person teaches, a school district can dictate how often report cards and progess reports will be distributed to students and parents to “communicate learning” and keep families abreast of what is happening in the classroom.

However, the idea of what report cards are and what they actually do is fatally flawed from the beginning.

Communication about learning needs to be ongoing in a meaningful way and paper report cards being mailed home or sent home with students or uploaded onto an online portal as a PDF a few times a year just doesn’t cut it.

Aside from the infrequency of sharing, the content shared is often out of date and/or not a good representation of what students know and can do.

For example, in high school, each subject teacher gets one line to present a letter grade or a number grade (sometimes without any kind of precision or explanation as to what the criteria is) and up to three pre-written comment codes to help explain the grade. Often, these pre-written comments don’t have anything to do with quality of work or skill level, but focus on behavior and compliance.

There are other pieces of information that can be provided such as number of absences and/or midterm or final exam grades.

The act of sharing information isn’t the issue, it’s what we share and how we share it. Many elementary schools use standards based report cards now that focus more heavily on skill mastery and narratives written by the teacher. This is an effective means of communication, but it only happens three times a year in many schools.

There are also parent/teacher conferences, but these conferences often just review the report card rather than go deeper and share more important information that can really help students grow as learners. Ironically, many times the students are not even involved in these conversations which takes the most important factor out of the equation.

Many online systems now make it possible for teachers and schools to share information with parents and students regularly keeping families in the loop about learning, often assignment by assignment with narrative feedback. There are many iterations of how this can happen, but we need to be asking ourselves more importantly what and why we are communicating.

In an ideal world, teachers would be empowering students regularly with feedback that isn’t aligned with grades but rather with mastery standards, offering multiple opportunities for growth.

Here are things we can do differently today:

  • Stop putting grades on everything students turn in. We can provided actual actionable feedback without labeling the quality of it with a quantity.
  • Offer more opportunities for students to get feedback from peers and from the teacher.
  • Invite parents to be a part of the process and involve them in the learning in an on-going way by making out of school learning an integral part of the practice we do every day.
  • Teach students the language of the standards and be transparent in what and why they are learning different skills and content. Make sure the reason isn’t because it’s on a test.
  • Have students reflecting regularly so you can get a fuller read on how much they are actually learning. Often their work and performance won’t tell the whole story.
  • Include students in the conversation about their learning by conferring with them regularly and providing feedback for growth.
  • Allow students to be involved in the assessment process, so they can choose how and what they are learning.
  • Be clear about success criteria and help students understand where they measure up.
  • Truly listen to students and be flexible that learning happens at different paces for everyone and often in different ways.

When we think about preparing students for the world we live in, accountability is important, but teaching students to be accountable in a way that works for them that also helps us know where we need to adjust practice to better suit their needs.

Report cards were a solution once that probably made some form of communication easier. However, the kind of communication it fosters sends the wrong message about what learning should be. As we shift the mindset about learning, we also have be mindful about the subconscious messages we send systemically about what learning actually is.

How can you better communicate with students and families about student learning that makes the outcome more meaningful? Please share

I Will Not Check My Son’s Grades Online Five Times a Day

More and more schools are adopting student information software, allowing millions of parents to monitor their kids’ attendance and academic progress. But should they?

Last week I received a letter from my son’s high school that started like this:

Dear Parent/Guardian,

PowerSchool, our student information system, allows you to create your own account and use a single password to access information for all of your children who attend school in our district. This account allows you to keep up to date with your students’ academic progress, attendance, historical grades, etc.

I believe the letter goes on to detail procedures for setting up an account that would allow me to track nearly every aspect of my son’s academic life. I say, “I believe,” because I have not read the rest of the letter. Our family had known the letter was coming, and we’d already discussed how we were going to handle it.

My husband and I handed the letter over to my 14-year-old son with the promise that we will not be using the system to check on his grades or attendance (or anything else). In return, he promised to use the system himself and keep us apprised of anything we need to know.

We’re not the only family that’s had to decide what to do with “student information systems.” According to Bryan Macdonald, senior vice president of PowerSchool, 70 to 80 percent of the schools that use PowerSchool choose to implement the parent portal, which represents about 9 to 10 million students. “Our best data suggests that over 80 percent of parents and students who have access – meaning their school has enabled remote access – use the system at least once a week…and many users check multiple times a day.”

When I posted a challenge on Facebook encouraging friends to join us in eschewing PowerSchool, I received many comments and emails, none of them neutral. Either PowerSchool and its ilk are best thing that’s ever happened to parenting or the worst invention for helicopter parents since the toddler leash.

Several parents reject the technology on the grounds that they want to talk to their kids face-to-face about school:

I am fairly certain that the fear of facing me with bad academic news was the only thing that kept my kids in line. Take away that moment when they have to look us in the eye, admit to not having studied and the ensuing results….not on your life! -Lisa Endlich Heffernan, mother of three and parenting blogger at Grown & Flown

We don’t use the info, either. We just talk to our kids. -Elena Marshall, mother of eight

Teachers and administrators have mixed feelings:

I like that parents can check grades and I encouraged them to do so. I feel that open communication between home and school is essential in educating children, and only sending midterm and final grades home makes grades seem like a big secret. With parent access on PowerSchool, there are no secrets.  I am bothered, however, by parents who CONSTANTLY check…sometimes 5 or 6 times a day. These parents tend to be the ones who push their children the hardest and are the first to complain when grades aren’t entered on the DAY an assignment is due. As a language arts teacher with 60 papers to grade, I just can’t do that!  I’m not sure parents realize the school can see how many times they access the portal. –Mindi Rench, mother of two and junior high literacy coach and education blogger

Teacher Gina Parnaby tweeted that PowerSchool is a “Bane. Stresses my students out to no end. Freaks parents out b/c they see grades not as a communication but as judgment.” Teacher Dana Salvador wrote in an email that i-Parent, the parent portal her school has implemented is a moot issue for her. This is not because the parents have not chosen to use the software, but the parents of her low-income, ESL students don’t speak English and there is no Spanish version of the software.

For a sampling of what students think about PowerSchool, one need look no far than Twitter.

Ultimately, for many, including mother and teacher Christiana Whittington, the choice to use the unfettered access depends on the child.

I think this may be best viewed as a case-by-case scenario. Our son sailed through school effortlessly with excellent grades but hit one very hard. He procrastinated telling us about his issues. By the time we found out that he was struggling, it was really too late to save him. If we had had the opportunity to check on his grades through the portal, we could have easily prevented this. Our other daughter, being dyslexic, has always struggled in school. She had not yet come to grips with the fact that she is a bright person in spite of her disability and was embarrassed about lower grades especially in the highly competitive environment. For her, we would definitely have chosen to access the portal. I think overall this is a good thing but it can also completely undermine trust between parent and child. You really need to know your child.

For the time being, I choose to trust in the power of open communication and my son’s emerging sense of responsibility and character.  When I handed him the envelope, and asked him to keep me in the loop, he thanked me and returned to his room to do his homework. He has four years of high school ahead of him, and only time will tell if my faith in him is warranted. Until then, I plan to keep my hands out of what should be his business, his responsibility, and his life.

Going Gradeless: Student Self-Assessment in PBL

Edutopia

I like reading professional material. I would posit that most teachers do. Professional reading (OK, all reading, really) allows our thoughts to constantly shift, transform, and travel to currently uncharted mental territory. If we are lucky, we encounter a watershed idea or concept that shatters our thoughts and understanding to such an extent that it requires a complete rebuilding of our philosophy.

I was provided such a moment when I read Mark Barnes’ Role Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in a Student-Centered Classroom in the spring of 2015. Mr. Barnes advocated using narrative feedback to enter a feedback loop that would culminate in mastery of specific learning targets within the context of a larger project. I was immediately transfixed by this idea. My mind was figuratively blown when Mr. Barnes mentioned that he did this without ever assigning a formal grade until the end of the grading period, at which time he and the student conferenced and agreed on a grade based on feedback. I stewed on this for a roughly a year until I decided, for the good of my students, that I had to do it. I was going to go gradeless. My question became: “How can I implement this in my sixth-grade PBL classroom?”

My Goal

It was my intention to simultaneously promote mastery learning as well as increase students’ ability to metacognitively assess their work against a given set of standards. Here’s how I would accomplish this:

  • Remove grades from the daily equation.
  • Have students reach learning mastery using narrative feedback loops (Mark Barnes’ SE2R model).
  • Students would self-assess their work in a 1:1 conference with the teacher at the end of the quarter, at which time student and teacher would agree upon a final grade.

My Plan

I knew that I needed to maintain accountability to various stakeholders in this process — the students, their families, and the administration. After a great deal of thought, I came up with the skeleton of a plan that looked like this:

    1. Use the SE2R model to provide feedback on our two PBL projects per quarter via documents created on Google Classroom. There would be no grades assigned to any of the projects, just feedback.
    1. Furnish families with an outline of the process at the beginning of the quarter, complete with learning targets and the research behind this process.
    1. On the first day of the quarter, provide students with a list of the learning targets for the following nine weeks.
    1. Administer approximately one standards-based assessment per week on the provided learning targets using the program MasteryConnect.
      • The results of the assessments would be placed in our online grading system for parent viewing. However, the results would not calculate toward a final grade.
      • The assessment scores would be used as data points in our end-of-quarter meeting.
  1. Confer with individual students on the last two days of the quarter and ask them: “Based on the project feedback that you received, the standards-based assessments that you took, and your ability to elaborate on how you showed evidence of the learning targets in your projects, what grade do you feel that you have earned this quarter?”
    • If I agreed with the student’s response, I would put that grade into the grading system.
    • If I didn’t agree, I would interject my viewpoint based on the feedback that I had given, as well as on the results of standards-based assessments. I would then ask the student to reevaluate his or her response to encourage deeper metacognitive thinking.

The Results

I’ve only been officially gradeless for less than a quarter, but the results have been astounding. As soon as the students came to understand and be comfortable with the process, my inbox has been continuously flooded with their emails asking me, “What can I do better?” The conversation has completely shifted from getting a grade to learning. It’s been amazing! Similarly, when I communicated this process to students’ families, I thought I would be walking into the lion’s den. Of the 80 families who received that communication, I heard back from only three — and all three said, “Sounds awesome.” All in all, it’s been a wonderful experience, and a true illustration of the power that the written word can have over all of us. (Thank you, Mark Barnes!)

I would love to hear your feedback, thoughts, or other ideas in the comments section below. And please feel free to follow our story this year at our Byron 6th blog.

Letter Grades Deserve an ‘F’

The Atlantic

The adoption of the Common Core could usher in a new era of standards-based grading.

Pesky Library/Flickr
Letter grades are a tradition in our educational system, and we accept them as fair and objective measures of academic success. However, if the purpose of academic grading is to communicate accurate and specific information about learning, letter, or points-based grades, are a woefully blunt and inadequate instrument. Worse, points-based grading undermines learning and creativity, rewards cheating, damages students’ peer relationships and trust in their teachers, encourages students to avoid challenging work, and teaches students to value grades over knowledge.

Letter grades communicate precious little about the process of learning a given subject. When a child earns a ‘B’ in Algebra I, what does that ‘B’ represent? That ‘B’ may represent hundreds of points-based assignments, arranged and calculated in categories of varying weights and relative significance depending on the a teacher’s training or habit. But that ‘B’ says nothing about the specific skills John has (or has not) learned in a given class, or if he can apply that learning to other contexts. Even when paired with a narrative comment such as, “John is a pleasure to have in class,” parents, students, and even colleges are left to guess at precisely which Algebra I skills John has learned and will be able to apply to Algebra II.

 

As a teacher, I struggled with the fuzzy logic of grading every term. I was invested in all those points I totaled and calculated, in categories I devised and weighted on assessments I wrote. I considered their relative value, their worth as a measure of learning, their objectivity and subjectivity. Did I grade that first paper, the one I graded just after dinner, when I was fresh, full, and in a good mood, on the same relative scale as that last paper, when I was exhausted, and just wanted to get to bed? Did the midterm test comprehension or rote memorization? I agonized over these details as if they were my final and unequivocal communication of educational truth.

I realized that the current system of points-based grading is highly subjective. As Alfie Kohn has written, “what grades offer is spurious precision—a subjective rating masquerading as an objective evaluation.” A few years ago, I told my students about a study I’d read that showed judges rule more favorably after breaks, so from then on, students left snacks in my office and reminded me to take breaks when they knew I would be grading their work. If the purpose of grading is to objectively evaluate student learning and achievement, surely my work breaks and snacking habits should prove irrelevant in their calculation.

 

Teachers are trapped in a Catch-22. We are asked to assess our students precisely (many grading programs track scores to the hundredths place) and with the appearance of objectivity while using an inherently subjective process. Teachers are then asked to present their calculations on official documents and defend those numbers at parent-teacher conferences as if they are objective measures of student learning. For all the effort, time, and best intentions teachers invest in those reams of grade reports, we are lying to ourselves and to our students’ parents, cheating our students out of clear and accurate feedback on their academic process, and contributing to the greater illusion that grades are an accurate reflection of skill mastery.

Teachers have struggled for years with the calculation and purpose of grades. The evolution of the grading system we use today reflects that search for a valid system of evaluation and assessment. In 1913, I. E. Finkelstein sought to find answers to a few basic questions about grading in his book The Marking System in Theory and Practice:

What should the mark really represent? Should the mark be based upon ability or performance, or even upon zeal and enthusiasm? What is the best set of symbols to represent ability or achievement?

At the heart of his book is the question of what a grade ought to represent. In the early days of American education, teachers used all sorts of distinctions in order to evaluate and differentiate students for the convenience of the teacher and the institution. As former Harvard University president Charles William Eliot explained in his book Harvard Memories, 18th-century Harvard students were arranged “in an order determined by the occupational standing of their parents.” As colleges moved toward a more academically relevant measure of distinction, Yale was the first institution to use a system of evaluating achievement, first with a series of descriptive adjectives, and later with a numerical scale of 1 to 4, which probably led to the 4.0 scale we use today. In 1877, Harvard began using academic “divisions” and a system of “classes” to rank students. Finally, in 1897, Mount Holyoke College adopted the familiar system of A-D and F for grading students.

 

Recently, a few schools have recognized the many drawbacks to points-based letter grades and have moved to a more informative and logical approach to evaluating students’ learning. This approach is known as standards-based grading. It is a system of evaluation that is formative, meaning it shapes instruction in order to fill in knowledge gaps, and measures mastery based on a set of course objectives, standards or skills.

Veteran high-school math teacher Patricia Scriffiny, who has been using standards-based grading at her high school for a few years, uses the example of homework to illustrate why standards-based grading is a better tool than points-based grading. She wrote in an article a few years back:

Many notions I had at the beginning of my career about grading didn’t stand up to real scrutiny. The thorny issue of homework is one example of how the status quo needed to change. I once thought it was essential to award points to students simply for completing homework. I didn’t believe students would do homework unless it was graded. And yet, in my classroom, students who were clearly learning sometimes earned low grades because of missing work. Conversely, some students actually learned very little but were good at “playing school.” Despite dismal test scores, these students earned decent grades by turning in homework and doing extra credit. They would often go on to struggle in later courses, while their parents watched and worried.

The answer for Scriffany was to stop awarding points-based grades and switch to standards-based grading. The goal in her classroom is no longer points or grades, but mastery. Students are held accountable not for the maximum points total assigned to a homework set, but for mastery of the concepts it contains.

Consequently, her grade book is much more informative and useful in that it clearly shows which skills need more work as a class and where each student stands in their individual journey toward mastery of those skills. Here’s an illustration of the difference:

In a points-based grade book, the student at the top, Zoe, might assume she’s doing great, but according to the standards-based grade book, she (and the teacher) can see that Zoe is not proficient in an essential skill she needs to move forward in her writing education. Conversely, Pierce’s points-based grade would be lower than Zoe’s due to that lost homework assignment, but in reality, he is already proficient in the skill that assignment was designed to reinforce.

 

 

Missouri School District Eliminates Grades K-6

Neosho students ‘take ownership’ of their education

  • By Ariel Cooley acooley@joplinglobe.com
  • Aug 4, 2016
  • Joplin Globe

NEOSHO, Mo. — When school starts in Neosho in about two weeks, some students won’t have to worry about receiving an “F.”

Kindergarten to sixth-grade classrooms will be implementing a new grading system that is standard based.

The new system breaks down subjects into standards. The students will receive a 1 to 4 for each standard, with “1” meaning the student is “emerging,” but does not yet understand the standard. A “4” means the student is “advanced” and understands the standard completely. Participation and behavior will still be important, but will be evaluated separately from academics.

“Ultimately, the benefit as a school leader is that once you put standards in place and you have a way to assess where a student is,” said Superintendent Dan Decker. “It allows us to tailor make the education for each student.”

Students who master content more quickly than others will be able to move on to more challenging material. Teachers will be able to pinpoint where other students are struggling and help them to move ahead.

Becky Sears, assistant superintendent of curriculum, said the goal is for every student to be at a “3” in each standard by the end of the year.

“It’s all about progress and learning,” she said.

Though Sears said she hopes to implement some of the standard-based grading philosophy at the high school, she doesn’t expect to be able to be able to stray away from the traditional letter-grade system.

“If they have an assignment and do really poorly, but go spend some extra time working on that standard, they could come back and show us they have improved in their learning,” Sears said.

Students and parents will receive detailed explanations of the new grading system, what each number means and how to progress from one number to another.

IN OTHER NEWS: STUDENTS SURPRISE TEACHER WITH KITTENS

“It will really put the ownership of the learning back into the student’s hands,” she said. “They will have so much information and will know how to get to the higher level.”

Students will have ample time to work on each standard. Unlike traditional grading, after the final test on the subject they will still have chances to learn and show their teachers they have mastered the standard.

“It will help to keep us from leaving students behind that really haven’t grasped it yet,” Sears said.

Sears said that eventually they will individualize instruction for each child. This, she said, will require more work and research from the teachers, but a lot of teachers have already started doing this on their own.

A few teachers began using the grading system last year as a sort of test run. Sears said that in those classrooms, students are already “taking ownership of their education and are more motivated and engaged in their learning.”

Eileen Ford, principal at Neosho Middle School, said she is excited about the change.

“With standard-based grading, the number is only what the child knows,” Ford said. “So it actually gives you a more valid picture of their learning level.”

Ford said she thinks parents will like the new system, too. “It will let them know how to help and their child know how to improve to reach that goal and that standard,” she said.

Origin

Some schools adopted a standard-based grading system as early as the 1970s and 1980s. T.H. Bell, the U.S. Secretary of Education at the time, created a task force that wrote “A Nation at Risk” in 1983. The report detailed educational standards and gave recommendations to improve the quality of education in the United States.

When It Comes to Grading, Is ’50’ the New ‘Zero’?

EdWeek

By Kate Stoltzfus on July 11, 2016

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This fall, fewer students in the D.C.-metro area will have reason to fear their report cards.

Schools in Fairfax County in Virginia and Prince George’s County in Maryland will implement “no zero” policies to prevent students who put forth effort to finish their assignments from receiving grades below 50, reports the Washington Post. 

The districts are two of the latest to jump on an increasing trend to rethink grading practices, including efforts that make it harder for students to fail by giving them more chances to make up tests or missing work and increased evaluation on learning over behavior and homework.

The trend stirs questions about the motives for grading in the first place: Are grades truly accurate representations of learning? Should they serve as a system of reward or punishment for students’ behavioral and academic performance? How best can they be used to support student progress?

Grading policies have been slowly shifting in the Washington, D.C. area and elsewhere, according the Washington Post. In 2010, West Potomac High School in Fairfax County stopped giving out Fs. Several years before that, Montgomery County Schools in Maryland began scoring Fs as no lower than 50 percentSome middle schools in South Carolina implemented a no-zero policy even when students fail or cheat on an assignment.

Rick Wormeli, an educator and author, told the Post he estimates that close to 50 percent of schools nationwide are looking into changing their grading policies in some way.

For years, educators have debated the effects of a minimum-grading shelf in the classroom. Those in favor of the change believe such policies improve the drop-out rate and allow struggling students to stay motivated. They allow schools to focus on learning rather than behavior, Kevin Hickerson, president-elect of the Fairfax Education Association, told the radio station WTOP.  Handing out zeros for missed assignments boils down to a disciplinary measure, one that prevents schools from effectively assessing their students’ learning, argues author Powers Thaddeus Norrell in the American School Board Journal. 

Those in disagreement say such policies decrease student accountability and will hurt student college- and career-readiness; university professors will not likely be so tolerant in giving grades, and students’ future bosses will have clear performance expectations. Gina Caneva, a teacher in Chicago, spoke out strongly against no-zero policies after her school on the city’s South Side implemented one. By lowering expectations for her students, she wrote in a post for Catalyst Chicago, it gave many of them an excuse to stop working hard. 

Student cheating also complicates the equation. Cindi Rigsbee, a finalist for National Teacher of the Year in 2009, was shocked when her principal suggested zeros should not be given even to dishonest students.

But after she began reassigning work and harder tests to those who cheated, she agreed with him. “I really do want grades to reflect what my students know, not what behavioral choices they make,” she wrote in an Education Week Teacher article in May 2012. 

Other teachers advocate throwing out grades altogether. Mark Barnes, author of Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grade Book and Inspire Learning, independently replaced traditional grades in favor of self-evaluation and reflection. And Starr Sackstein, who writes Education Week Teacher’s opinion blog Work in Progress, has documented her journey of going grades-free in the classroom over the last few years and shares how the process can work for other teachers.

“Student learning has increased and the focus of our classroom is less about end grades and more about the growth process,” she wrote in June. “Although I suspected when I started the impact that this choice would have on my students, I could have never guessed how much change would occur, not just for them, but for me.”