As we gear up for the end of the semester, I took time to reflect on “throwing out the grades” with my grade 9 and grade 10 classes. This isn’t new for me, but it was the first time I had the opportunity to try abolishing grades with my Grade 9 Academic class.   Recently, more people have asked how it works, how it has been going, and how to get started – so I thought I would write about the Grade 9 class.

I was a bit apprehensive when both spiraling the Grade 9 curriculum and abolishing grades for the term – but I had a supportive and amazing principal and a great teacher team.

The ideas here are not new – and lots of assistance and ideas came from others – such as the “Teachers throwing out grades” Facebook group, following Mark Barnes and Starr Sackstein, and many conversations in the past with David Martin, from Red Deer, Alberta.   I am grateful for the sharing.

So how do I assess students in Grade 9? Students do complete various types of assessments – cycle tests, some quizzes, assignments, and projects. No marks are given for any of these – only descriptive and specific feedback. In addition to the written feedback (or on occasion, this may be oral feedback to students) – a mastery sheet is completed for each student that is used to track their level of understanding for different topics throughout the cycles.  (Thanks to Marian Small for her help on this.)

For example, the students worked on analytical geometry.

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On the mastery sheet, I indicated at each cycle how well the student has demonstrated their knowledge and skills in big ideas and more specific understandings and skills related to the topic. Students can use these sheets to keep track of their outcomes for each assessment and know where they can improve.

This is not an easy transition for students to make. These are academic level students who spend a great deal of time thinking about their marks and judging their progress in a course by these marks. Telling them that they have no marks was not an easy task. The first couple of weeks of semester still surfaced questions such as “Does this count?”, “Will this be on the test?”, “How much is this worth? How many marks will this count for?” and the most common one “Will I lose marks if I do this? if I don’t do this?”

After the first assessment, there were still many questions about marks and how much it was worth. There were questions at my desk, “How am I doing? What mark am I getting in this course?”.

The breakthrough came after about a month of school. A student came up to me (one who has asked me repeatedly what mark she was getting) – and asked me, “Am I getting it? I think I’m really learning math now.” It was at this point that I knew what I was working towards with no grades was the right way to go.

Students gradually stopped asking those questions. My students dove into all of the activities with enthusiasm– not because they were worried about marks or what was on the next unit test – but because they were curious. Math was not a “subject” that meant getting things right or wrong, or tests with numbers inside little boxes – each denoting a section of questions representing knowledge, application, thinking, and communication. What does this really mean? And what does it mean to the student? Has anyone ever asked a student what they thought those boxes and numbers meant – in terms of what they understand, the big ideas, how well they think through a problem?

Midterm marks were due. Report cards. Oh no. The due date was looming and I possessed no grades and no markbook records. What was I going to do?  Imagine the look on the faces of my Grade 9 math students – when I told them that they would be deciding on their midterm mark.  I told them to review all of their work and create a slide deck to explain to me why they thought they should deserve the mark they chose for themselves.

This was a highlight for me. Instead of tests, quizzes and assignments tucked away safely in the back of their binder – never to be seen again – all of their assessments and term work were spread out over the desks. Excited chatter began with their classmates on how they did, what they need to work on still, what were the most important things they learned so far, and how they would justify the mark they chose for themselves.

In the end, the slide decks were shared with me – and I was astounded at the insight some of the students had – and how they could intelligently reflect upon what they have learned and what they still needed to work on. Some literally brought tears to my eyes! The marks they gave themselves were mostly lower than what I would have given them. They were able to articulate clearly what they wanted to learn more about in the upcoming cycles.

Here are some examples of slides from my students:

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As the teacher, the semester without grades made me pay closer attention to what they were struggling with and where they needed more support. I felt free from putting a value on right answers, proper procedures and notation – but now I focused on what they put on the paper, what they spoke about in class, and the types of questions they asked me. I was afraid of parent calls and definitely nervous on parent interview night. Surprisingly, parents found it refreshing and were happy that their children were enjoying mathematics – some of them for the first time in their school life. It seems taking grades away removed the pressure of success/failure and more of them were willing to take risks  knowing they had chances all semester to improve and to do better.

I don’t expect that every teacher would agree with me and not surprisingly, my teacher team I worked with didn’t follow suit and continued with their own marking schemes and grade books. I guess that’s why I’m writing about it. Maybe if teachers could see how liberating it can be for students to be free of marks during the term – they would be more willing to try it with their classes. I witnessed more risk-taking from my students, more passion for learning, creativity, and a more active math talk community.

When I tell people I teach high school, many of them will bring up the common complaints about teenage behaviour – sullen, rude, self-absorbed, and constantly on their phones. How do you manage to teach this group of teenagers?  I look at this time in their lives – where the brain is still growing and developing – as a prime time for me, as a teacher, to provide experiences in which they can learn and be challenged. It’s time to move away from our old routines and to start creating classrooms where we can take advantage of their malleable brains. This semester has shown me how I can empower my students by not making it about the grades but rather how we can challenge their thinking and work towards goals that are about understanding, creativity, and self-regulation.