A grade is still a grade

I remember when I was in college. I dreamed of being a teacher. I was going to inspire students like Mr Keating of Dead Poets Society, make a difference in at-risk kids like Gabe Kotter in Welcome Back Kotter, and hold kids accountable to learning like Mr Hand in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. They were going to make a movie out of my life because I was going to be a greater teacher than Mr Escalante in Stand and Deliver. 

Touchstone Pictures

However, a few months into my first teaching position I realized something. The movies of the most inspirational teachers never created a single rubric. Mr Escalante didn’t debate whether the work was a 3 or a 4, Mr Kotter didn’t try to convert the scale to a percent to determine a total grade, and Mr Keating never worried whether or not his gradebook reflected a true bell curve.  The thing all of these teachers did was they talked to kids, inspired them, and challenged them to be intelligent people who value learning. 

For years I had a traditional gradebook filled with points on every assignment each student completed and I was proud of how accurate it was and how I could justify what each point meant. But as the years passed, the points became more and more meaningless and I began to realize that no one would ever make a movie out of my life. 

After I dropped the fantasy that Ewan McGregor would play me on the silver screen I began to wonder what the points in my gradebook really represented. Did is show how well Nancy wrote? Was I able to gather what kind of reader Richard was?  Could I point out the critical thinking skills of Beth?  No. My gradebook was very unclear and, to be honest, looking at it did not give me or anyone else an accurate picture of the strengths and weaknesses of my students. It was a list of numbers and I found I spent more time arguing with students about points that were missed and how they could make them up than I ever had talking about the passion of writers such as Milton, Wordsworth, or Yeats. 

I was eventually introduced to Standards-Based Learning and the rubric. 

Standards-Based Learning made it possible to differentiate for my students to meet every need in my class. It allowed me to have a clear picture of what my students knew and what were still working toward. And most importantly, it empowered my students to have a voice in the education that was supposed to be about them.  

The rubric was a tool with so much promise. It identified skills or knowledge I wanted to see in my students. It was scientific and objective as it spelled out what it was I expected to see in student work. Over a couple years I prided myself in my ability to whip out a rubric that could tell any one, students or parents, what criteria would be evaluated. I felt that learning was clear. 

However, over time, the glamor of the rubric faded and I found myself looking for the deficiencies of my students’ work so I could justify a B rather than highlight their potential. And again, I was having more conversations about how to get the 3 to a 4 rather than discuss why Beowulf goes out to kill Grendel’s mother dispite the fact that her only crime is she took the arm of her son from the rafters of Heorot. 

I had to make a change because I was beginning to feel burned out and cynical about the educational system and even worse about my students. I realized that the movies were right. That great teachers inspire, challenge, and encourage students all without giving them a grade. That is when I decided that I had to make a drastic leap. Grades were getting in the way of everything that was good about education and I knew I had to get rid of them.

So, how was I to measure learning? I believe in standards and Standards-Based Learning because it makes learning very clear. It is about the target and not the curriculum. But Standards-Based Grading was limiting, it still brought about heartache. There was still a focus on the 1, 2, ,3, or 4 and the learning was often lost. Standards-Based Grading was still a grade. 

But to make the focus about learning, I had to get rid of the grade completely. 

After some extensive research I made the transition to a No Grades Class. In my class I take the standards and establish proficiency criteria. I teach and students practice. When they turn in their work I conference with them. We look at their work together and we check to see if it meets the standard. When it does, I send the student away with a challenge to promote growth. When it does not meet standard, I send the student back to make revisions until it does.  There are no points to deduct. There are no arguments about the difference between a 96% and a 100% or a 3 and a 4. There is just the work, the standard, and a conversation about what the student did well and what can be improved. It is what I imagined teaching to be. 

Since I dropped grades I feel like I’ve become the teacher I imagined I could be 20 years ago. I have deep conversations about literature with my students. They write critical essays and do projects that are meaningful. I find more often than not that I am their coach and cheerleader and not the enemy with the red pen. I know my students’ strengths and weaknesses. I know their interests and their distastes. I know more about my students than ever before, and more importantly, my students know me as someone who inspires, makes a difference in at-risk kids, and holds them accountable to learning. 

Maybe the dream of a movie deal is not out of the question. Maybe my life could be up there with the greats. At this point, it really doesn’t matter to me. I am completely content with my students being stars because it is about them anyway. 


6 thoughts on “A grade is still a grade

  1. I too teach and struggle with grades. How do we/you prepare students for civil service and/or entrance exams which are scored by number correct?


    1. Alan,

      Thanks for your question.

      Students who are not graded actually do better beyond high school. I would encourage you to read the article “From Degrading to De-Grading” by Alfie Kohn. He provides excellent research on the issue of grades and their negative affect.


      Besides, when the grade is taken out of the equation students can only focus on learning. And if teachers establish criteria for passing that is non-negotiable and students are expected to revise or redo until it is meeting standard then we know our all our students are better prepared for careers and college.


  2. Thank you, Mr. BlackWelder. Your path mirrors my own in so many ways, I’m wondering how you sold your district on gradeless. Our district bastardizes the Proficiency Based model by some hocus-pocus math that ends up assigning a letter grade. Students are asking about their retake by the 2nd question of exams. (I no longer give exams for that reason.) I’ll peruse your previous posts for inspiration. I’ve just announced my retirement, mostly due to my own complicity in a system I no longer believe in. But I’m eager to invest time now in spending my energies to bring about real policy changes that will help students AND people like you make it onto the silver screen. Good luck!
    Cindy McDonald


    1. Cindy,
      It is a shame that your district has invested itself in grades. Achievement does not equal learning.

      I work in a small district and our admin are people who believe in student learning. I still have to give a letter grade at the end of the semester but I allow the student to choose the grade based on three questions:

      1. What evidence do you have you have met the standard?
      2. What evidence do you have that shows growth in the standard?
      3. What evidence do you have you can be creative to meet the standard?

      20 years from now what will a grade mean. However, self-advocacy and metacognition lasts a lifetime.

      Thanks for your response.


    1. Ron,

      I do have to REPORT grades at the end of the semester. However, I am not the one GIVING the grade.

      I have a final portfolio conference with students and they argue their own grade. Students are asked:

      1. What evidence do you have you have met the standard?s?
      2. What evidence do you have that shows growth in the standards?
      3. What evidence do you have you can be creative to meet the standards?

      If they have not met all standards then they do not pass but are allowed to revise until they meet all standards and the F is changed to a letter grade of the student’s choice.

      Students are often harder on themselves than I would ever be and I have many Cs, Bs and As in the class.

      Thanks for your question.


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