“This Class is Easy” Some Minor Thoughts on Rigor in the Gradeless Classroom

I hate grading things. I have a lot of students and it takes too long and it doesn’t increase anyone’s ability to read, write, speak, or think critically. So I don’t do it. I haven’t done it in five years. Since my district requires a letter at the end of every quarter, students assign themselves a grade as part of their quarterly portfolios.

Most kids give themselves B’s. No one wants a C because that makes honor roll impossible. Families often hitch rewards and punishments to report cards. Other students are nervous about giving themselves an A because they think I’ll challenge it. Rarely do I give out anything lower than a C. First, it feels icky to go nine weeks without mentioning grades and then suddenly become tyrannical about them. Kids would feel sucker punched.

Second, low grades also don’t increase student learning. Kids who aren’t turning in assignments or engaging with the content aren’t doing so because I haven’t dangled enough carrots from the stick. Everyone wants to do well and find success. Students struggling with this need things like strategies, compassion, consistency, and support. Not grade shaming.

Don’t misunderstand me. High expectations can and should exist without grades. I’ve found that maintaining the expectation of excellence is harder to do in the gradeless classroom. This comes from students telling me that my class is easy. They say the lack of grades lowers their anxiety. They don’t have to cram for unit tests or drill Kahoots to memorize terms.

That makes sense. We tend to equate intellectual rigor as something that can only happen if a student is stressed out and anxious. Something is only hard if it threatens our grades. This is a totally rational response to a system that prizes extrinsic rewards above anything else.

My ability to engage students without relying on grade-related threats will probably always be a struggle. It’s a Sisyphean goal. Yes, I work to cultivate meaningful relationships and build a classroom environment that fosters intellectual risk taking. I try to locate authentic audiences for student work and articulate clear purposes for every assignment. But at the end of the day, not everything can be fun and work stinks.

Grades aren’t going anywhere. They’re too baked into the system. There’s no way to move massive numbers of students up and down grades and in and out of different schools without some sort of standardized reporting. The inertia behind standard grade reporting feels insurmountable. Besides, there are more pressing issues to focus on such as educational inequity and structural racism. While grades can be understood as a manifestation of oppressive assessment systems, a focus on removing grades can easily miss the forest for the trees.

I don’t plan on returning to grades. It’s on me to engage students through my curriculum and instruction while leveraging as little extrinsic motivation as possible. If students are only working for the grade, then I haven’t done my job. That’s my favorite part about going gradeless. It forces me to fight for my subject matter and my discipline. I get to spend every day making the case for why this stuff matters.

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3 comments

  1. Joy Kirr

    Peter, THANK YOU for sharing your thoughts once again. You always make me think, and I know you do this for countless other readers, as well. Please keep the conversations going for what you believe is right and good for our learners!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Elementary, My Dear, or Far From It | January Readings, Part II

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