Sunday, July 25, 2010

Grading Moratorium: Alan Stange

Alan Stange has joined the Grading Moratorium. Want to join? Here's how.

Alan Stange
Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada
Elementary
All subjects







At what stage of the abolish grading game are you?

I think I am in an early stage. I provide a summative grade on each course (or aspect of the course) on the term report. Prairie South School Division reports as follows: Exceeding expectations, meeting expectations, beginning to meet expectations, and not yet meeting expectations. I am comfortable with that, but it remains a grade in my mind.

Why do you want to or why did you abolish grading?

About ten years ago I was assigned to middle years arts education. It was the first class I taught where differentiated learning and assessment seemed practical. I began developing marking schemes and contracts. Learning outcomes became more important to me and percentages less credible. I could talk about student art projects more easily than I could rank them against each other. It was harder for me to see how this transferred over to 7-12 language arts and social studies. Four years ago I made the shift to elementary and gathering marks suddenly seemed irrelevant. To begin with, I was working in a community school. We had to take the young people from where they were and simply move forward. That school was transformed further when the English as a second language program was relocated to my school. Half my students were recent immigrants to Saskatchewan. Differentiation and a focus on learning outcomes made sense. I am now in a new school, but my progress away from grades continues.

What do you do in replace of grading?

The first thing I do in conversation with parents and students is to maintain a conversation. The document distributed each term may be a report, but the topic of progress is always a conversation. That conversation is continuous. It happens as often as possible given time constraints and my own chronic disorganization about such matters. This is elementary school. Parents stop by frequently. I use email. There are student support meetings for a number. My students are engaged.

The second thing I do is continually emphasize the limitations of the information the students and I have collected. I think assessment is at best impressionistic. We are trying to expand portfolios by making them digital and reflective. Portfolios are representative rather than exemplars of best work. I rely heavily on a few post assessment instruments developed or acquired by my school and division. It is no longer best practice in my mind because such assessments support differentiation poorly. Since we need to be respectful of learning differences we need also to be respectful of assessment differences.

I suppose you cannot replace grading. What we need to do is stop grading. Tomlinson asserts that assessment is ongoing and diagnostic. “Assessment is today’s means of understanding how to modify tomorrow’s instruction.” Though I would prefer to say, modify tomorrow’s learning. Back in the days of marking everything from a test to a sneeze I advocated a teacher’s readiness to offer a report on student progress. I liked my electronic spreadsheets (AppleWorks 3.0 if anyone remembers) because the data was accessible. I would say a parent could ask you at the end of the first day of school how their child was doing. Given the limitations of the data available, some assessment could be offered. I still think that is true. I am just being more attentive to learning outcomes and more aware that I have not come close to empowering students to select their own criteria and measures of learning. There is no compelling reason why I should be able to do that personally and they should not.

How do you establish a grade if you have no grades?

Establishing a grade always comes down to some sort of average. Term reports require a one or two character symbol of achievement supplemented by perhaps one compound, complex sentence. Prairie South School division includes an assessment on effort. I arrive at both fairly subjectively I think. I attempt an average based on my recorded observations on progress attaining benchmarks we have been working on. In all honesty, the distinctions between not yet meeting, meeting, and exceeding curriculum expectations seem highly subjective. I think that is why most teachers still prefer to obscure the underlying subjectivity of curriculum benchmarks and assessment strategies behind the glittering curtain of numbers. One recalls the mesmerizing stream of green numbers and symbols in The Matrix. I recall a reference to assessment as connoisseurship in graduate school. I think the analogy has merit.

What fears did you have about abolishing grading?

Oddly, I have felt little anxiety. Report card time used to be a huge stress. I’m an elementary teacher in a system that no longer gives much credence to the idea of repeating grades. My focus of stress has shifted to student led interviews rather than the cryptic marks and superficial statements I can compile on three sheets of Excel form. I stress how well my young students can convey their own sense of their learning to their parents in five minutes.

What challenges did you encounter with abolishing grading?

The most significant challenge to abolishing grading remains my own ingrained assumption that quantified data is superior to qualitative data or that one crisp label is ultimately more useful than a fuzzy scattering of generalizations. Parent expectations can raise challenges. Letter grading and percentages are embedded in our culture. Despite that, I think families have been happy to keep a healthy focus on personal progress. I might need to reflect on this question more.

Are you willing to speak with others who are interested in abolishing grading?

Absolutely! You can contact me by:

e-mail: stange@sasktel.ca
Twitter: @stangea
skype: alan.stange

6 comments:

  1. It sounds like your school district is much more progressive and open than mine. I wonder how much of that comes from the social and political climate in Saskatchewan versus Arizona / Canada versus the United States. Despite this, we both still have to deal with the summative report card. Do you think there is a way teachers can get past this last hurdle?

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  2. Good luck with this! So many schools, for decades, have abolished grading and turned out successful, dedicated students. Have you followed the dust-up over my "How to Crowdsource Grading" blog at Duke? It was a huge success, btw. Good luck with your project!

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  3. @John: Sometimes I really do think American schools tend to glorify grading more than Canadian schools. However, that is a gross generalization that is not going to be always accurate.

    Just a feeling I get.

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  4. @Cathy: I have not seen it. I'll try and find it. Do you have a link?

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  5. It's worth updating my comments from two years ago. I continue to work in a nongraded classroom, although I also continue to be required to submit letter grades (exceeds, proficient, adequate, limited, and no evidence) at each term report. I think one thing that has changed is I get far less push back about it. I have some students who could easily be grade motivated. I no longer hear them ask about grades. They seem satisfied with my anecdotal feedback. Sometimes I think I'm living in a bubble, but its a happy bubble!

    ReplyDelete
  6. It's worth updating my comments from two years ago. I continue to work in a nongraded classroom, although I also continue to be required to submit letter grades (exceeds, proficient, adequate, limited, and no evidence) at each term report. I think one thing that has changed is I get far less push back about it. I have some students who could easily be grade motivated. I no longer hear them ask about grades. They seem satisfied with my anecdotal feedback. Sometimes I think I'm living in a bubble, but its a happy bubble!

    ReplyDelete

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