Re-Thinking Assessments and Going Grade-less: An interview with Mr. Jonathan So

Before we get into this.. here’s some background info:
I am currently studying for my Masters in Curriculum and Instructional Design.
Since I’ve started teaching, I have been drawn to people that challenge educational norms. I have always felt a bit different in the way I teach and in my philosophy as a teacher. I like to question and debate, I like to learn, and I like to challenge people. The reason is because I want to understand why teachers do things the way they do. I don’t accept answers like “because I’ve always done this” or “because this is how they do things here” or “because we did this last year” or “because the children like it” or “because it’s cute”. Those aren’t answers I generally like.
I am looking for something deeper. I want to know what benefit it has on the children, what connections are made, how it fits with age-appropriate development, what concepts it covers, etc. I really have a hard time doing things in the classroom that aren’t effective, aren’t age-appropriate/developmentally appropriate, and that there is no point to. I simple just don’t do them.
There are exceptions to everything, and that’s fine. If you read my posts you know how I feel about worksheets, but honesty is the best policy and sometimes we do them (usually if I need to check if something we are learning translates to paper; 2 + 2 = ____ for example). Using a worksheet every now and then isn’t necessarily bad BUT using them everyday and as the sole piece of assessment or ‘show’ of learning is. You can read more about how I really feel about them in my other posts.
In this post, I am talking more about the overall program, curriculum, and the way the class functions. The stuff you’re doing everyday.

In my journey through my masters, I have been doing more research and work based on assessment practices and policies. I’ve realized that I want to change almost EVERY area of traditional schooling but if I focus on what and how we assess, it will influence what we teach, how we teach, and will hopefully have people re-think how schools are currently set up. In my dream world I’d have a conceptual curriculum developed that includes strands like; self-regulation, sustainability and care for the environment, care for people and animals, and independence.

Now back to assessment.
I don’t believe in testing as a method for assessment. I also don’t believe in ‘summatives’ which are supposed to show an end to learning. Usually these are exams, final tests, projects, etc. I DO believe in action pieces which I guess can be summatives, but I just don’t like the ‘end’ or ‘final’ part of that. Learning never ends, and I hate to think that I would teach something and never go back to it for the rest of the year. I hope to create action pieces within our learning that we still use throughout the year, and students can use in other areas of their lives too.
An example would be to tackle a problem or issue that is relatable to the students you’re teaching, and have them solve the problem (but actually USE their ideas to do that).
No more hypothetical problems that will likely never happen.
Real problems, real solutions, real action. The problems can be big or small, doesn’t matter. The thing that does matter is that it’s relevant.

I think we need to re-think how we look at understanding, knowledge, and skills.
We should be aiming for understanding. Sometimes I feel that assessments only target the knowledge or skills part, and miss the application part.
What’s the point of knowing a bunch of facts if you can’t relate them to your real life?
What’s the point of learning a skill you’ll NEVER be able to use in your real life?
We need to make sure our teaching and assessments are focused on how students are applying what they are learning to their lives, to their problems, and to their realities.

For one of my courses, we had to research an area of interest within education. We had to carry out the research, document, record, code and analyze it, and write a paper about it.
I chose to interview Mr. Jonathan So.
Mr. So is an educator that challenges norms. He’s Ontario Certified and has been teaching for twelve years, and has been at his current school for six years. He teaches grade six with a class of 25 students and teaches all subjects, except for Music, Physical Education, and French.
Mr. So has a TEDx talk on the power of listening, a blog that he posts on, and is very active on Twitter. Do yourself a favour and follow him on Twitter now.
Mr. So presents at many workshops around Ontario, and has been trialing (now not trialing but running) a grade-less classroom. This is his fourth year going grade-less.

I run a grade-less Kindergarten, which doesn’t seem shocking, but in some settings grading students as young as four and five years old is normal, expected, and routine. From my experience, I find it very hard to quantify learning through the use of a grade or percentage, and would rather write a narrative of learning along with a checklist of expectations. My ideas are more focused on using a continuum to chart learning and growth or progress. When I speak of my experience with this, most of the questions I receive are based around how this looks as the students move up through the school, how it works for reporting, how it works for universities/colleges. I was very excited that Mr. So teaches grade six, as I was hoping to gain some insight on how this works for him and his students, and how he sees this working in the middle/high school grades.
Since I am from Ontario and received my teaching degree from university there, I know that there are ministry guidelines schools must follow, and one of those is reporting. I wanted to know if Mr. So is exempted from those expectations, or if he abides by them, how?

The entire paper is 12+ pages, but I won’t torture you. Here’s a chunk that I feel is important to share.

Warning… this is a long one.

What does it mean to go grade-less?
            For Mr. So, grade-less simply means that we just stop putting letter or number grades on student work. Mr. So does not use any tests or quizzes, apart from ministry mandated standardized testing (EQAO). Mr. So stressed the importance of understanding that grade-less doesn’t mean we aren’t assessing. He says it’s our job as teachers to assess, and that we already do this all the time. The term simply means we are changing the ways in which we assess.

Going grade-less, how and why?
            Mr. So uses feedback-based assessments. For him, these assessments show growth and progress over time in all subject areas that he teaches. Mr. So also stressed that he is tied to ministry expectations on reporting, and that he follows these guidelines and expectations even though he is grade-less. In his school, standards for reporting are split into three categories: products, conversations, and observations. Mr. So explained that teachers in his setting were often focusing more on the reporting of the product portion. This was a cause of concern, as each area should be given equal weight. He explained that by giving more attention to products, we could miss the other 66% of learning. Mr. So also mentioned that when students are given a grade along with feedback, they pay attention to only the grade. This is partially why he has turned to a strictly feedback-based method. The other reason is because grades can’t tell you much about a students learning. He has asked parents and teachers to explain what a C or A means, what the difference between a 78% and a 75% is, and most don’t have strong, if any, answers for that. He explained that a C might tell a parent that their child isn’t achieving well, or that an A means that they are, but what else? There’s more to it than just the letter.
In Mr. So’s classroom, his students are involved in what he calls a ‘feedback loop’. This means that both he and his students are constantly giving and receiving feedback on their work, and he explained that it’s in-the-moment feedback that really matters. He has made on going reflections part of the process of learning, not just something they do before ministry reporting time. His students write or record quarterly reports that are sent home to parents to inform them on their academic achievement. Currently, for Mr. So, these are done in a checklist style format with the categories: met, not met, goal, proof. Students must reflect on which areas of the curriculum they have or haven’t met yet, how and where they’ve met them, and goals they have as they continue throughout the year. Mr. So is a very digital based teacher, and uses both Google Classroom and Google Drive to document student work. Each student has their own portfolio that they contribute to, and have access to that anytime. Students must pull from their portfolio evidence of where and explain how they’ve met the curriculum expectations or skills. Mr. So conferences with each student before the ministry reporting times (3 times per year) and together, they use their quarterly reports, reflection pieces, and proof of work to determine what grade the students will receive on their report. His students know and understand the curriculum for grade six – Mr. So mentioned that he had rewritten some expectations in student-friendly language. Students are able to make connections to what they’re learning with the curriculum expectations.
Mr. So explained that if during a conference, a student believes they should receive an A, but he believes it should be a B, then there’s a problem. They work together on identifying where they’ve hit expectations, where they haven’t, and why. From there, they come to an agreement. Usually, Mr. So says, that students don’t assess themselves too high, over time they become more realistic, as they are held accountable for proving their grades. Being digital has helped with this, as everything is accessible and can be used as proof of learning. Mr. So also mentioned that if a student believes they are a B+ and he had them at a B, he is fine with giving them a B+, he explained that he can justify a 10% difference in what the grade should be versus what a student thinks their grade should be, but he cannot justify a 3% difference in most cases.

The impact on students
            Mr. So had shared with me the many ways he has seen growth and progress within his students. First, they are able to read curriculum, understand it, and make connections to their lives. They understand what they are learning and why, and how they can learn best. Through reflections, Mr. So explains that students are able to identify their individual strengths and weaknesses and figure out how they truly learn best. At the beginning of each year, he and his students discuss what grades or percentages mean to them and their answers are centered around feelings of discouragement, the feeling of being ranked, being judged, and they feel grades are used as a way to compete against each other. He mentioned that students don’t really care that they won’t receive grades or percentages in the day-to-day of their classroom. . The ones that do care come to find out that it’s actually due to parental pressures to achieve good marks or grades. Mr. So explains to his students that they have control over their academic achievement and their learning, and that he can’t make them do anything. They have full ownership of their learning, and this might be the only area in their lives that they have control over. Mr. So says accountability plays a huge part in going grade-less, as students need to provide proof often.
Mr. So spent some time talking about the growth he has seen in his students. He spoke about students who have come back to see him year after year to share their development with him. He had students who became involved with clubs, students who were winning awards, and students who started joining teams. These were not students who were achieving the highest in the class but who had gotten to know themselves better through participating in reflections and were now able to think in multiple layers. They were more positive and supportive with each other, recognizing progress and strengths within their classmates. They were no longer being judged or competing against each other. Mr. So shared a story of a student who was reading at a grade two level in grade six, and hadn’t made any progress throughout the years prior to being in his class. Mr. So said that the student had an indifferent attitude towards learning, and felt constantly judged by others for being so far behind. Once the pressures of that were taken away, that student jumped two grade levels by the end of the year. Students in Mr. So’s class didn’t care where anyone was on the continuum, but noticed when others made progress and were really supportive of that. The attitude shifted from being categorized into a grade to making and celebrating progress at whichever level they were at.

The impact on teachers
            When I asked Mr. So about how other teachers respond to his methods, he explained that most teachers are on board with using feedback-based assessments. He also said that some teachers are hesitant to completely get rid of testing in their classes, as they aren’t yet able to assess particulars without them. Mr. So said that every teacher is on his or her own journey with this and that he is happy to help in any capacity. Mr. So described himself as someone who dives right into an idea, and that’s how he started his journey but recognizes that not everyone is like him. Mr. So also said that teachers must be more trusting in their observations, conversations, and other methods of assessment. This is part of a systematic change, and can’t happen overnight. As I mentioned above, there is often more focus on product instead of process. Mr. So mentioned that when teachers hear the words ‘grade-less’, they often get excited about having less work to do, but in actuality it creates more of a different kind of work. He thinks that there is a misunderstanding that grade-less means we aren’t going to assess anymore, but that’s our job as teachers, to constantly assess. Mr. So says teachers are already doing everything right, and that instead of thinking of this as a whole new thing, we should continue what we’re doing and just drop the letter grades. We are already conferencing, observing, writing anecdotal notes, giving in-the-moment feedback, and we need to trust that that’s actually enough.
Mr. So told a story about giving students a test in his fourth year of teaching, and explained that as the students were taking the test, he could already pinpoint which students would do well and which wouldn’t, and who would fall in the middle. He said that instead of wasting the hour it took to do the test, he would have rather spent it extending and challenging the students who already knew the content, and encouraging and supporting the students who didn’t. Mr. So also mentioned that elementary school teachers are more willing to drop the tests and grades, but high school teachers have a harder time. In his experience, high school teachers are tied to testing more than elementary teachers, and they define students by their marks and grades more often. Mr. So explained that when he is involved in discussions with teachers who aren’t accepting of this change, it’s usually because they aren’t sure how else to define or classify their students, and this is a big problem. Mr. So usually will ask these teachers to explain what a percentage means, for example to define a 78% in relation to a 75%. He asks them to explain the 3% in the middle. Mr. So says that these teachers will usually say that it’s because they got 3% wrong in a test or exam, but can’t pin it down to whether that 3% came from knowledge or understanding, or somewhere else. This means that they are putting equal weight on each area, when knowing something and understanding something are very different.

The impact on parents
            Mr. So explained that he’s never had issues with parents throughout his three full years of implementing a grade-less classroom. He has had parents question why he doesn’t use tests or send home projects with grades or marks attached to them. He explained that once he asks parents what information they are seeking by receiving grades or marks, he is able to give them what they are asking for through the use of reflections, his feedback and observations, and of the quarterly reports he sends home along with the ministry mandated report cards. Mr. So says often parents don’t understand what a letter grade fully means and in Mr. So’s experience, parents are more concerned with how they can help their child at home be more successful at school. In fact, through this journey of going grade-less, Mr. So says parents are actually more informed about their child’s academic progress and can understand their progress better than if they were to just stick with the standard report cards alone. This is because the ministry guidelines consist of three reports: a progress report that doesn’t explain much close to the beginning of the year, a January report card before conferences, and a final report card in June when it’s too late to do anything about poor grades. Through Mr. So’s grade-less approach, parents are receiving a ministry progress report, two student-teacher reflection reports, the ministry report in January, two more student-teacher reports, and the June ministry report card.
Mr. So also mentioned a key aspect is to keep the lines of communication with parents open, and that parents are always welcome into his classroom and can contact him anytime. Mr. So believes in being very transparent, and creates a comfortable relationship with students and parents. Mr. So said that the important thing that most parents really want to know is how their child is doing and that if the students are happy, the parents are generally happy too. Mr. So also mentioned that he uses translation applications for parents who don’t speak English, and he uses the students to translate, or gets an interpreter if needed. This way there are no divides caused by language, and parents can fully understand their child’s progress. As I mentioned above, parents can also access Google Classroom and all student work through Drive.

_ _ _ _

There’s a lot more to this topic, and I’d LOVE to chat about it if you’re interested!
The important piece is that grade-less doesn’t mean assessment-less. It is just changing the ways in which we assess.
A percentage doesn’t tell you enough, a letter doesn’t tell you enough, and a test doesn’t tell you enough.
Don’t put all your eggs in those baskets, they have holes.

 

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