At the spring semester of 2013, I stopped evaluating my students’ work. Their final grades now reflect the growth students have achieved toward goals they set for themselves rather than mastery toward the standards that guide my curriculum.
I know this is better for students. I see it every day in their engagement, in the risks they take, in the choices they make so the work is meaningful and authentic. I see it in their lowered levels of stress, in their openness to trying something new, and in their willingness to challenge themselves with things they may have avoided in the past when there might be a grade penalty if things didn’t go very well.
Back in 2013, I chose growth over mastery as the focus of grades in my classroom because my students asked me to. It was unchartered territory for all of us. And off we went. But I worried because everything I had learned about grading told me that I must make sure my grades reflect student achievement and nothing else. Not effort. Not completion. Not attendance. Just clear, objective, achievement toward well-defined standards.
That’s not what my students wanted.
I aimed to make the path to grades in my classroom meaningful for my students first and foremost, so I worked semester after semester to design a process focused on students’ growth as readers and writers. Along the way, I realized that a key to students growing is them actually doing the work (and that much about traditional grading encourages them to take shortcuts just to get the grades). So now, much of my students’ final grade reflects whether or not they’ve actually done the work rather than the quality of that work, measured against some external definition of quality.
And still I worried! I waited for some smart colleague to come along with just the right “but what about…?” question and everything I’ve built would come crashing down. (Real talk: I still worry about this.) (Imposter syndrome is real.)
But here are the reasons why I think it’s okay to emphasize process and feedback instead of evaluation of final products, shifting the focus from measuring mastery to describing growth and making sure students actually do the work.
ONE: Assessment experts are moving away from capturing mastery toward uncovering growth on learning progressions. It started with a National Research Council report in 2001, “Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment.” The report called for a more complex understanding of student achievement, and researchers responded with efforts to assess growth over time rather than a student’s mastery or proficiency at one point in time. Focusing on process, feedback, and growth rather than evaluation of final products aligns with the work assessment experts have been engaged in for the past two decades.
TWO: Mastery is nearly impossible to capture well when it comes to reading and writing. In Point-Less, I describe mastery as a shape shifter. What it means in one reading or writing situation is not what it means in another. The strategies a reader or a writer uses for success in one reading or writing task may not translate to the next. Which leads into my next reason…
THREE: A focus on mastery suggests to students that they can be done with certain skills as readers and writers. This just isn’t true. No matter how much writing I’ve done, I’m never “there.” I’m constantly learning. Every writing situation is a unique situation with unique challenges. Same with reading. All the complex literature I’ve taught and studied with my students certainly helped me approach Moby Dick finally two summers ago, but I’ve got some work to do with that text (I plan to read it every five years or so). High school DID teach me that I was “there” as a student based on my grades, but that REWRITE I got on one of my first college papers, for example, and the tough feedback I got when I was in process on my doctoral dissertation almost two decades later, and everything I had to (un)learn to write Point-Less… I’ve had plenty of lessons since high school to remind me that I’m still progressing as a writer. “Mastery” language misrepresents to our students what it really means to be a good reader and a good writer.
FOUR: After years of point-collecting behaviors, students need an intervention. A focus on what it means to do the actual work of reading and writing is critical. Try this: ask your students to tell you all the things students do to collect points that don’t actually lead to learning. They know the game. They’ve been playing it for a while. We can help them have a more meaningful classroom experience.
FIVE: I refuse to rank and sort students to perpetuate the oppressive nature of grading. We cannot separate traditional grading from the oppressive origins of the field of educational measurement. Maja Wilson explains in her 2018 book that back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, psychologists developed mental testing to rank and sort people to maintain social hierarchies amidst massive immigration to the US from Eastern and Southern Europe. Some who felt threatened developed a way that seemed scientific to justify attempts to keep the new immigrants in the lower levels of society. Wilson explains of our current efforts to measure with our grades, “Scales join an entire battery of practices (including eugenics) purposely created to enforce racial, ethnic, and economic hierarchies. Educational measurement didn’t just incidentally support these efforts: the field emerged to substantiate them. It’s tools (scales, rubrics, calibration) are methods of oppression” (p. 32).
SIX: Other parts of our assessment system measure mastery toward standards. At my school, all students take the PSAT and the SAT as the required state exam. Many students also take AP and IB tests. All of those tests evaluate mastery toward standards. Is it really necessary for teachers to do this as well? My colleague, Jay, uses a sports metaphor to explain this. A coach works during practice sessions to prepare athletes for the game where their skills are put to the test. But practice is the place to practice. And practice includes things not going so well sometimes—that’s a critical part of the process. Constant, high-stakes evaluation in the classroom makes it unsafe for students to truly practice. In short, it gets in the way of a supportive teaching/learning relationship. Let’s provide safe opportunities in our classrooms for our students to practice the skills they’ll need in high stakes situations beyond our classrooms.
SEVEN: It’s better for students, and it’s more sustainable for us. Years ago, I wrote a few blog posts where I tracked my experience and time making my way through a stack of 90 or so student papers of different types. I wanted readers to witness what we language arts teachers all know so well. Grading a stack of papers on a rubric is a huge, time-intensive endeavor. A stack of 90 research papers took me over 30 hours of time outside of teaching over the course of about a week. That is unsustainable. The older I get, the less willing I am to stare down a stack of papers, writing comments that serve the primary purpose of justifying the points I took off on the rubric. I’m sure you’ve had this experience—someone retires from your department, and the next time you see them, they look 10 years younger! Is it that they haven’t had to grade stacks of papers anymore? We CAN make this job sustainable for us. Stepping away from having to constantly evaluate our students’ work can help. The classroom becomes a safer, more inviting place for them to actually learn, and the role that we play becomes more supportive, more as a facilitator while students drive their own learning journeys.
Join me for a virtual full-day workshop on November 2: “Assessing Readers and Writers: What’s the Point?” Go here for more information.