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Zero? No zero? How about just getting rid of grades altogether?

There’s a raging debate in my province about zero-grading policies. A teacher bucked his school division’s orders to not give out zeroes, was suspended because of his defiance, and now the people of Alberta are rallying around him as a folk hero.

I’ve been watching this debate with something close to bemusement. Educational research is left by the wayside as people are coming out of the woodwork to equate school with work, a no-zero policy with “babying” students, and a whole raft of mixed metaphors that make an English teacher dizzy.

Being pro-zero or anti-zero, in my opinion, completely misses the mark. Are you ready for this?

Grading is harmful – antithetical, even – to learning.

If you want somebody to learn something, the quickest way to disinterest them is to grade it. Try it with your own children: listen to them read, then give them a rank out of a hundred once they’re done. Do it for a week and see how interested they are in reading any more.

I’ve been on a wild rollercoaster ride in my own classroom over the last year. The most important aspect of my teaching, in my opinion, has been the abolishment of percentage grades almost altogether. I say “almost” because, in the end, Alberta Education requires a percentage mark, but until that very last day of class students don’t have a mark. It makes my administrators deeply uncomfortable and the parents of my students more than a little confused, but for my students – you know, the ones who matter – this system has been deeply beneficial.

There’s no deadlines, save for the last day of class. There’s no percentage mark on an assignment at all, in fact. At the end of the entire class, I sit down with each student and negotiate a final mark based on a final portfolio that they’ve constructed. What I’ve seen this semester has been deeply rewarding: students who are interested in giving each other peer feedback without the motivation of grades. Students who are interested in writing interesting and engaging stories for each other instead of writing for a percentage.

In all honesty, it’s a difficult and messy system from a teacher’s perspective, and earlier this week, in a fit of discouragement, I said that I was going to give it up. No matter that students’ writing has improved more than I’ve ever seen as a teacher, and no matter that my students are happier without the Grade of Damocles dangling above their heads, parents aren’t happy and administrators aren’t happy. I heard that parents were roundly criticising me at a local parent council meeting because they didn’t know how their students were doing in my class.

As if a percentage mark could tell them anything about their child’s attitude, or work ethic, or even their ability to write.

Any of these parents could have come to talk to me over the course of the semester, but none of them chose to do so. And so, with a few weeks in the semester left and even other teachers wondering what the heck I was doing, I declared that I was going to give it up.

Then something remarkable happened. One of my strongest students asked me if I was going to continue the system next year. I asked her what she thought, and she said that she loved the system. “If I’m having trouble on one assignment, I can put it aside and work on it in a couple of months. In the meantime, I can work on something else.” My academic kids in grade 11, with one exception, all agreed that this semester was the most interesting English class they’ve had in high school.

(I should point out that I teach English 7 through 12, so I’m not dissing any other teacher here.)

Then another student, one who had traditionally struggled with English, also asked me if I was going to continue with this next year. I cringed a bit, but asked him why he asked. He told me that he too loved it because there was so much less pressure than ever before. This student in particular had a lot of trouble handing in assignments on time, and struggled with reading, but this year, he finished all of his assignments a week before it was all due. The lack of a deadline, ironically enough, encouraged him to get his work done early.

Next week, once their portfolios are completed, I’ll sit down with them and go through what they’ve done this semester. I’ve looked at almost every piece so far anyway, but it’ll be time for a celebration of what they’ve learned, and they get to negotiate with me what they think their final mark should be. I love these negotiations, and not just because I love to drive a hard bargain (you should have seen me in Quito back in January!). No, I love it because students consistently undervalue their own work, and the look on their faces when I say to them, “No, you’re not giving yourself a fair mark – what you’ve got here is worth more than you think” makes it all worthwhile as a teacher.

The problem, as any teacher will tell you, will be the parents who don’t get it because they just want a two-digit snapshot into their child’s work. The problem will be administrators, because they have a hard time understanding that learning can take place without a gradebook full of assignments and percentages. But ultimately, despite my earlier discouragement, my students have convinced me that this system works for them.

It’s going to be a messy and difficult next year, but it will be worth it. Can’t wait.

About alanthefriesen

Educational anarchist doing all I can to de-school students.


16 thoughts on “Zero? No zero? How about just getting rid of grades altogether?

  1. I have to disagree. It is the failure of teachers to explain to students the necessity of grading. Sorry, but in my 9 years in the classroom I have not had a problem with grading. I am constantly befuddled by people who are incapable of showing students how to consider grading. Not grading anything would make life pretty easy for me, but I think that it helps me, students, parents, and anyone else see progress.
    I am getting tired of hearing teachers whine about class size (recent studies prove it is irrelevant), long hours (I worked from 7:00 am- 7:00 pm, plus many weekends in Japan).
    I am 46, and I think that myself and previous generations did fine under a grading system.
    I have also sat around and tolerated teachers complaining about having observers in class.

    Posted by Greg D | June 9, 2012, 10:18 pm
    • You misunderstand. I give students quite a bit of feedback, both written and verbal. However, I don’t go one step further and assign a percentage to work done in class. I’ve found that, when given both feedback and a mark, students look at the mark and dismiss the feedback.

      I’m glad that what you’re doing is working for you. Giving out traditional grades on assignments has caused me nothing but grief and grade-grubbing.

      Posted by alanthefriesen | June 9, 2012, 11:05 pm
      • I don’t give ‘traditional’ grades, I evaluate them on effort and completion of skill-building exercises in collaborative and individual projects.

        Posted by Greg Demmons | June 10, 2012, 2:34 am
        • And these evaluations take the form of… what, exactly?

          Posted by alanthefriesen | June 10, 2012, 8:20 pm
        • I suppose ‘evaluate’ may be misleading. My students have skill building exercises that are laid out in the LMS. Some are individual, while others are collaborative. My grading system is not designed to compare students. It is designed to measure how far along the skill set development exercises they have completed in a punctual manner.

          During the term they get points for completing tasks, regardless of ‘correctness’. They receive points for attendance and how much they participate in class. They receive points for completing assignments, and if someone does a particularly poor job, I go over it with them in class or after. They lose points for disruptive behaviour.

          If students complete all tasks and assignments, and behave well in class, they can go into the final exam with 70%.

          The final exam is what separates the more serious students from the others.

          Sorry, I am typing ony iPhone and I have giant fingers…lol!

          Posted by blendyourclass | June 10, 2012, 9:09 pm
        • Where does it say in the curriculum that they should be assessed on “completing tasks”? When these so-called marks are reported, they are not truly reflective of curricular outcomes. Points for attendance and how much they participate? Points taken away for poor behaviour? That scares me.

          Posted by marcilaevens | June 25, 2012, 11:29 am
    • lol…thumbs down to any criticism…gotta love unionists!

      Posted by blendyourclass | June 12, 2012, 12:27 am
  2. Passion also solves the grading problem.

    Posted by Greg D | June 9, 2012, 10:27 pm
  3. Controversy over grading needs to be set outside the classroom. What you are doing —negotiating, reviewing quality work, discussing mastery learning–to offer a grade is respectful of the learning process and reports information that is valid to the learner. Providing opportunities for the learner to get feedback, modify work, add to levels of instruction through self-directed work, and conversations that lead to clear exposure of what has been learned, what skills are mastered, and how products reflect those skills and learning are crucial. Carry on! Status quo and desire for ease of delivering meaningless numerical grades that are not steeped in collaborative evaluation and participation of the student be damned!

    Posted by Lori Mack | June 9, 2012, 10:42 pm
  4. Why don’t we stop treating learning like a commodity? Why don’t we treat learning as something vital to life instead? Why don’t we govern learning by intrinsic, social norms rather than extrinsic, economic norms? To me, focussing on a zero or no-zero is about as fruitful as arguing about how many angels can fit onto the head of a needle.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | June 9, 2012, 10:48 pm
  5. I personally love the portfolio usage. AND I also find grading a concern for me in terms of whether it’s a fair snapshot of the work. I don’t see the uproar of administrators or parents if indeed they are made aware of the approach AND especially if the students are getting the feedback you say they are getting.

    It is ALWAYS my advice to students to do a number of tasks: (1) even before evaluations are distributed, self-assess; (2) wen evaluations are distributed, make sure student’s and teacher’s align – most often by refining the self-assessment; (3) really work to know what it is that needs further effort. In these ways, the grade is less important to learning.

    Inmost all of my classes, most of the grade input to the final grade comes in the last week or two (final reports, presentations, final exam, …) and so my students didn’t know final grade until the end either. And, I also pay attention to whether the student is improving – rewarding with better final grades those that do.

    Again, as long as students know the system being used AND are getting feedback on their work, grading is not the issue! Parents want what they had so they don’t have to understand anything new AND administrators don’t want to have to deal with parents. The most likely change I’d make (and this might be happening now) is to have “progress” reviews of the portfolios once r twice during the class – not with required input of samples but just to provide feedback on the mechanics of doing the portfolio itself.

    Posted by John Bennett | June 10, 2012, 8:30 am
    • I like the idea of a progress review around midterm. Up to now I’ve been giving practice diploma exams (standardised exams given in grade 12 that make up 50% of a student’s mark) — these practice marks stick around for midterm marks but disappear at the end of the semester. Thanks for the suggestion!

      Posted by alanthefriesen | June 10, 2012, 11:08 am


  1. Pingback: Not Grading is Awful « Cooperative Catalyst - June 10, 2012

  2. Pingback: Zero? No zero? How about just getting rid of grades altogether? | Mejorando lo presente, salvando las distancias | - June 10, 2012

  3. Pingback: To Grade or Not to Grade? That is the Question… | Science in the Online Environment - March 5, 2013

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