Tossing Out Traditional Grades: Gaining Buy-In and Open Communication

When making a big change like throwing out grades, many people will not “get it” and may push back in ways that impede the progress of students.

Schools and colleges have supported the traditional grading system for far too long, making it challenging to suggest this seemingly radical, but important, reform.

To ensure optimal impact on student learning, every stakeholder needs to be involved and must support the cause. Students need to hear the same message from all of their teachers--a message that is supported by administration and further supported by their greatest advocates, their parents.

Shifting students’ mindset is challenging; getting adults to reconsider theirs is much more challenging but not impossible.

To align the school message, several things will need to happen. One is peer-to-peer conversation with colleagues who are receptive to new ideas.

Staff learning opportunities will ensure that practice is well informed and consistent. Teachers will need support from administrators, who will also need resources to properly implement such a big change in communication. 

Be specific when discussing why this change must happen with the adults involved. Once the “why” is evident, you can work on a plan for the “how” that best suits your individual school community.

It’s important to consider the size of the school and age level of the learners as you begin to make these decisions.

In the bestselling Hacking Assessment, award-winning teacher and renowned formative assessment expert Starr Sackstein unravels one of education’s oldest mysteries: How to assess learning without grades – even in a school that uses numbers, letters, GPAs, and report cards.

While many educators can only muse about the possibility of a world without grades, teachers like Sackstein are reimagining education.

In this post, we'll be discussing how to get buy-in and open lines of communication with all parties involved.

What You Can Do Tomorrow

Adults can be closed-minded when they are comfortable with the status quo, so you’ll have to give them evidence that this new way is better. Assuming you are at the beginning of the process, consider the following:

Suggest resources that promote change.

Share a few resources about shifting away from grades that will resonate with colleagues and administrators. These can be books, blog posts, podcasts, Twitter streams, or Facebook groups, like #TTOG and Teachers Throwing Out Grades, respectively.

Provide examples.

Illustrate how student learning has improved with this new method. If you have students who can talk about it, even better. Bring students with you when you have an informal peer conversation or a more formal faculty meeting. Encourage them to explain how shifting away from grades helps them become self-evaluative, independent learners.

Present classroom action research findings.

Prove to colleagues and administrators that the system works, then ask about starting a committee for optimal implementation. For now, just drop in for an informal conversation to get the temperature of the situation at your school. If you can gather a few “beta” testers with you, they will strengthen your case.

Write a letter to parents.

Explain the shift in methodology and invite encourage parents to provide feedback and inquiry as an ongoing practice.

Overcoming Pushback

Change is hard and the people we work most closely with can be our greatest challenges, so you’ll need to be prepared for some resistance. 

Tracking progress for all my students will be overwhelming.

No one will argue that tracking progress is not time-consuming, but the amount and quality of tracking can markedly increase the amount and quality of student learning.

Throughout this book, you will find useful strategies for reducing the constraints on a teacher’s time. Remember, providing narrative feedback about learning and encouraging self-evaluation are the most important part of a no-grades classroom, so the time you invest will pay huge dividends throughout the year.

Kids aren’t motivated to work without grades.

Believe it or not, kids are only motivated by grades because grades are the only carrot students know.

If we can help students become intrinsically motivated, then the grade at the end is not significant. Attention gets focused on the learning, not on how we communicate the learning.

Using grades as a motivator doesn’t encourage learning on a larger scale; it merely motivates in the short term. Grades ultimately end up being a power tool that serves the teacher but not the student.

It’s important to explain this to students and repeat the lesson throughout the year. Remind students that they are not a letter or a number. They are lifelong learners.

Students can’t get into college without grades.

Many homeschooled students get into college without grades, so there are schools that accept portfolios over transcripts. Many university and community colleges also accept students from other countries that use variations on letter or number grades or GPAs.

However, for schools that require transcripts and grades, students will be taught to self-grade and that final term grade will appear on a transcript. In fact, last year all of my students who applied got into college.

I just received a thank you email from a recently graduated senior who started college over the summer. She shared that the reflective practices she learned helped her be better prepared for her college classes. 

How will I know how my child is doing?

Students will have greater ability to articulate what they know and can do in the no-grades classroom. When they discuss their learning, they will be able to point to the level of mastery in the work, which is a better indication of what they have learned than a grade.

It isn’t the grade but the conversation that communicates the learning. Parents will still be able to talk to teachers about specific areas of strength and challenges and how they can be involved in helping their child improve.

Parents will now have descriptive feedback and volumes of work samples that will surely be more accurate and informative than a single letter or number.

Getting Everyone's Buy-In

Although full buy-in from all stakeholders is ideal, it is unlikely. There will always be someone who is unsatisfied or doesn’t agree, but try not to worry about that person too much.

Engage in a dialogue that focuses on facts and spend your energy where it counts, on the folks who do get it and want to support teachers and students.

Consider your school community. Who will be your early adopters? How can you use their support to engage the larger community? Who will give the biggest pushback? In what ways can you turn those negatives into positives?

To learn more details about how to make the shift away from grades, including step-by-step processes, get Sackstein's book here.


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