So You Want to Quit Letter Grades – A Practical Guide From Someone Who’s Done It and Survived

Last year I made the decision to stop giving out letter grades as much as possible. This was not an easy decision or one that I made lightly. Only after research, deep reflection, and many conversations with peers did I decide that this was the best step for me within my educational philosophy. This post is not a debate of why I quit letter grades, but a how, so here goes.

  1. Do your research.  I knew that to do this right I had to have my philosophy and facts straight so I read Alfie Kohn’s work, as well as the numerous blogs, articles, and reflections on it available through a  Google search.  This strengthened my stance and gave me practical know-how.
  2. Think it through.  This is a bucking-the-system type of decision so you need to be clear on why you are doing this.  Providing students with more meaningful feedback: yes.  Less work and more free time: no.  
  3. Now think it through practically.  What is this going to look like in your room?  How will you take notes?  How will you assess their learning?  And then how will you compile that all into feedback, progress reports, and perhaps even a dictated grade on a district report card?  This was my biggest hurdle this year and something that I need to refine next year.
  4. Create your goals. All lessons have to have goals, otherwise you will have nothing to assess.  Sometimes we are not totally sure of that what those goals are since a curriculum has been prescribed to us.  Dig through it and find them or create your own within your standards and then make a list or some sort of report.  I was able to quickly assess through verbal Q&A whether a student was secure in something or not and then check off that goal, moving that student on to something else.
  5. Involve the higher ups.  I didn’t have to alert my principal to what I was planning on doing but it made my life a lot easier when I did.  Some districts will not support this without a proper discussion and it is important to have allies if someone questions your program or philosophy.
  6. Explain it to your families, and particularly your students.  The first few weeks we discussed what proper feedback was, what we could use it for, and how the feedback was just another step in our journey.  This made my students start to focus on the feedback rather than pine for a grade to be done with it.  Deadlines became more flexible and a product was seldom “done” but always a work in progress.
  7. Involve your students.  I had to still give letter grades on our report cards so I discussed with students what their grade should be.  More time consuming, absolutely, but it was wonderful to see their knowledge of the subject and understanding of what they should know.  Most of the time, their grades and mine lined up perfectly and in rare occasions were they much harder on themselves than I was.  Either way we figured it out together, through conversation and reflection, and they started to own their learning more.
  8. Plan for it.  Meaningful assessment does not just happen, it is planned and somehow noted.  If you think you are just going to remember, you are not.  So every day I had my trusty clipboard that I took notes on, checked off progress and goals accomplished on, and added anything else useful to.  This became my “grade book” and the days I didn’t use it, all of that information was lost.  
  9. Take Your Time.  Letter grades will always be easier to do because they most often are compiled from a piece of paper or a one-time presentation.  Deep feedback is not.  This happens through conversations, assignments, and lots and lots of formative assessment.  Give yourself time to take it all in, take your most important goals and give them enough time to be accomplished by your students, and then give yourself enough time to have the conversations.  The conversations are the most important tool here.
  10. Allow Yourself to Change.  This means both allowing yourself to try out not giving letter grades and then figuring out if it works for you.  This also means allowing yourself to know that this is a work in progress.  There were absolutely missed opportunities in my room this year concerning feedback, but I know what to work on now.  I also know what my goals are, how to engage students in meaningful conversation regarding their work, and also how to give better feedback.  Just like our students, we too, are learning.
  11. Most Importantly: Reach Out.  Through my PLN I was able to engage in meaningful conversations and iron out hurdles with the help of Joe Bower, Jeremy MacDonald, and Chris Wejr.  I even reached out to Alfie Kohn.  There are people who have done this before you, there are people who have gone through it before you, use them, ask them questions, and know that you are not alone.  I am always available to discuss this with anyone so reach out to me as well.

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8 thoughts on “So You Want to Quit Letter Grades – A Practical Guide From Someone Who’s Done It and Survived

  1. What I found interesting with many systems that do this is that they would actually mark and grade assignments throughout the year but then just not put a letter grade on the final report card. Is it all in or all out?

  2. Great point George, I too have had to do it halfway in a sense. I don't know if school districts are ready to fully embrace but I find that standards based grading may be a great way too to provide feedback and still appease the need for a grade crowd.

  3. As a parent, the times I have been most disappointed with my daughter's learning experience have been when she was given an interesting, open-ended assignment and then a letter grade with no feedback. Even a "good" grade without feedback is fairly useless as an additional learning tool. I think feedback from the teacher, or even better, dialogue between teacher and student makes more of a difference than whether or not a grade is given.

  4. First may I say I enjoy your blog. I found you on twitter (I'm a novice tweeter) and followed your link to your blog. I attended a seminar where Alfie Kohn was a speaker. He is a very interesting man, definitely swimming against the current, but with some very valid points. I applaud your effort in not giving grades. I too have tried to give few greats and greater feedback. The end result is so much better for the teacher and the students.

  5. I like the way you talk about the importance of knowing the theory behind your practice, as well as garnering support and understanding from admin and community. That part is often missing in some of our endeavours to change paradigms.

  6. I think it is so important to have it thought through before you do it because there will be a lot of questions and you will be questioned a lot. So take the time before taking the plunge and make sure you are doing it for the right reasons and not to have less work because you will be sorely disappointed.

  7. Pernille – Thanks so much for sending me the link to this guide. Did you get flack for assigning a grade at the end of the term without having individual grades to "average" to support it? I'm hoping we will be able to change our reporting and use a scale that assesses progress/ skills combined with a narrative. It's worth the fight, and your work will be of great assistance!

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