Ungrading to Build Equity and Trust in Our Classrooms

This post was written by NCTE member Anthony Lince. 

Many educators around the US are having meaningful conversations about building inclusive classroom spaces. In English language arts and first-year-writing classrooms, I’ve noticed that the bulk of these discussions are focused on diversifying the texts that are taught and read.
As a Mexican American who rarely read diverse texts in school, this change makes me incredibly happy. Students of color are going to have a chance to see themselves reflected in the stories and texts they read. This is extremely important.
But the conversations and efforts to build inviting classroom spaces cannot stop there, not if our goal is to truly include and welcome all students and help them succeed—especially students who, historically, have been in the institutional margins. In speaking on the work of researcher James A. Banks, Tricia Ebarvia notes that diverse texts do little to change the inequities in our schools. In fact, Ebarvia further contends, diverse curriculum might just mask larger systemic issues that need to be resolved.
This isn’t to say that diverse texts aren’t important. They are. But we simply must do more. We need to challenge harmful systems that continually exclude and harm our students of color and multilingual students. And what has hurt these readers and writers the most in our classrooms? Grades.
In talking about the barriers that students of color and multilingual students often face, Mike Rose points out that grades pass “judgments about [students’] ability . . . at a very young age, and those judgments, accurate or not, affect the curriculum they receive, their place in the school, the way they’re defined institutionally.” Eventually, students internalize the judgments passed down by their schools, an issue that is particularly problematic for students of color and multilingual students, as they are disproportionately assigned low grades (even more so now during the pandemic).
Those low marks, then, aren’t just a judgment on the work and ability of particular students in a given class, but rather a judgment on who these students are as people—and they are, if their grades are taken as the indicator, failures.
To make matters worse, traditional grading systems don’t just affect students’ perceptions of themselves; teachers, too, start to hold negative beliefs about students of color and multilingual students and their ability to succeed in school. We might say that our grading systems are fair and objective, but biases often enter our evaluation practices. For instance, a recent study conducted by David M. Quinn suggests that “racial stereotypes can influence the scores teachers assign to student work.”
Thus, when marginalized students reach our classrooms, it’s no wonder if they have negative relationships, identities, and emotions related to reading and writing. Though we say, “Our classrooms are inclusive spaces, and everyone has the chance to succeed,” our assessment practices indicate otherwise, which leads students to not believe us. Our judgments, accompanied by letters and numbers that mark students as deficient, have destroyed students’ faith in the educational system.
So, what can we do to build trust in our classrooms? I think we need to stop grading our students.
But we can’t just stop grading our students on their assignments, can we? Actually, we can. In fact, many educators are currently not grading (or are ungrading) in their classrooms. There are a lot of options to choose from when deciding to ungrade, including labor-based grading and mastery-based grading.
In my first-year-writing courses at the university level, I’ve chosen to use a labor-based grading model (based on the work of Asao Inoue, whose scholarship focuses on antiracist assessment practices). I chose this route because “labor-based grading contracts,” as Inoue asserts, “attempt to form an inclusive, more diverse ecological place, one that can be antiracist and anti–White supremacist by its nature.” With this methodology, only measurable labor is used to calculate a student’s final course grade, and no letters or numbers are placed on student writing or other work.
Many educators report that, without grades, students are able to focus on their learning in meaningful ways and put forth much more effort in their work. In my courses, I’ve noticed that too. I’ve also noticed that going gradeless can lead to a classroom environment that fosters trust—trust in the teacher and trust in peer-to-peer relationships. In this piece, I won’t speak much about the numerous other benefits that ungrading leads to in our classrooms. That’s because, first and foremost, we need to focus on gaining our students’ trust, especially when we’ve lost it from our most vulnerable students. Only when every student feels that the classroom is an equitable, safe space can we focus on learning.
These days, when I provide feedback on writing, I don’t have to worry about assigning a grade that gives no substantive information, and I don’t mark students down for not meeting a single dominant standard, one that often disadvantages multilingual students and students of color. Instead, I focus exclusively on giving useful feedback during the writing process, on building meaningful connections with my students, and on having genuine conversations that engage with their ideas. No longer do I see student writing with a deficit lens; rather, I look at it for what it was trying to accomplish in that moment and what it could accomplish.
With this approach, students who have been hurt the most by traditional grading practices are able to come into our classrooms knowing that they can trust our feedback, trust our words, to help them improve as writers. They can let go of those past judgments and just focus on the productive labor that will lead to learning. Diverse students will also feel comfortable knowing that the many Englishes they bring to our classrooms (for example, African American English) are embraced, not turned away, because the dominant standard is not a barrier anymore. This gradeless environment allows the teacher-student relationship to flourish in authentic ways.
Student-teacher relationships aren’t the only dynamics that improve in our classrooms. The classroom environment as a whole improves as well. Grades usually lead to partitions among our students; they create detrimental hierarchies. Because low grades are more often given to students of color and multilingual students, these structures and divisions in our classes often grow along racial and linguistic lines, which could perpetuate negative assumptions and beliefs about the ability of these students to succeed. When there are no grades on assignments—especially on essays—there’s an opportunity for those hierarchies to come tumbling down.
In my classes, I’ve seen that students don’t divide themselves by arbitrary standards. They are able to focus on their peers’ ideas and writing without those marks and judgments getting in the way of the dialogue. In an end-of-semester survey on labor-based grading, one of my students said, “Working with peers felt more real than in other English classes with grades. We weren’t focused on standards, on who’s better, just on the writing and how to help each other improve.”
The entire classroom community, then, benefits from not having grades in the class. In many ways, labor-based grading sets the foundation for a positive classroom community, one that can be built on trust.
Because grading practices have gone mainly unquestioned, our students have suffered, and many continue to suffer today. It’s time to end the harm that grades cause. All of our students deserve to have meaningful, equitable places of learning, strong classroom relationships, and classroom communities that are truly inclusive and supportive.
As Adam Rosenblatt has commented, if we choose to ungrade in our classrooms, we can finally start challenging “one of the academy’s most pervasive and unquestioned forms of structural injustice.” Let’s ungrade, so we can make that happen today.

Anthony Lince is a writer, Latinx scholar, husband, and dad. He’s pursuing a master’s degree in English with an emphasis in rhetoric, and he’s also teaching first-year-writing at San Diego State University. His research centers on antiracist assessment practices. Twitter: @LinceAnthony

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified. 

Reflections on Point-less Grading

From the NCTE Secondary Section Steering Committee

This post was written by NCTE member Josh Thompson, a member of the NCTE Secondary Section Steering Committee.

In May 2020, I purchased a book that changed my life.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I thought the book seemed intriguing. Once it arrived, I let it sit on my coffee table for a few days. We were still in the early stages of quarantine, my school was starting to wrap things up for the tumultuous year, and I just didn’t have the capacity to read one more thing. But when I did finally dive into those pages, my teacher brain was on fire.
That book is Point-Less: An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading by Sarah M. Zerwin (Heinemann, 2020).
Zerwin’s work had answers to questions that I had long been searching for. She writes about her journey to going point-less in her assessment practices. As Cris Tovani explains in the foreword,
Sarah Zerwin has written the book I desperately needed to help my beliefs about learning match my assessment practices.  In Point-Less, she nudges teachers to consider how traditional forms of grading get in the way of student growth.  Her pioneering ways of marking, collecting, and sharing student work shows teachers how to assess with fidelity and in ways that serve student learning. Instead of assigning random points to student tasks, she demonstrates how teachers can provide students with concise, descriptive data that serves as meaningful and specific feedback.
Like Tovani, I needed this book. I read it cover-to-cover in two days and had pages of notes and annotations. I knew I’d be going point-less in at least some of my classes this school year.
I decided to switch to a point-less system for the fall semester in my yearlong dual enrollment composition classes as well as my dual enrollment British literature survey course. I did so because I assumed that these older students in a higher level course would be able to handle the shift well and that they would be understanding of the inevitable bumps along the way. I could not have been closer to the truth.
As Zerwin explains, overall course grades are determined by student progress on learning goals. I created a list of ten learning goals for each course, a mix of content-based goals and learning behavior goals. I then split the goals into two categories: the ones students can choose from and the ones every student will work on. Of the six goals students can choose from, they select three. Throughout the semester, they monitor their progress on the goals, conduct mid-quarter check-ins, and then write a letter to me at the end of the semester in which they narrate their experience in class and give their self-selected grade with justification.
At first, students needed time to adjust. There was a learning curve. For the entirety of their time in school, they’d never had a teacher who had a point-less grading system. And because they are high-achieving students in dual enrollment classes, they had been so focused on getting the best grades. “How many points is this?” is a common question I had come to expect.
In the beginning of the semester, I reminded students that the only “points” that would go into our online gradebook would be to show completion and thoroughness of their work. I pushed them to focus less on the points and more on their learning and experience in class. After a few weeks, they had a good overall grasp of the system. As the semester progressed, I noticed that students were more willing to take risks; had more to say in class discussions; exhibited greater critical reading, writing, and thinking; and were more engaged than I had experienced in previous classes.
Students who told me in the beginning of the semester that English wasn’t their favorite class, that they never enjoyed reading or writing, that I shouldn’t expect much out of them, were suddenly asking thoughtful questions, participating in class discussions about literature, and revising their writing with fervor.
When I mentioned this to one eleventh-grade student, he responded, “Well, now I know that if I’m completely wrong, it isn’t going to tank my grade. There’s still pressure to get it right, but it’s a different kind of pressure. It makes me want to do stuff for this class.”
After the success with the point-less system in my dual enrollment classes first semester, I decided to implement it in my English 9 Honors class this spring 2021 semester.
Similarly, students have had to adjust to the new way of doing grades, and even though we’ve only been in this semester for about a month, I’m noticing students starting to take risks. They’re thinking about their learning. With the stress of earning points taken away, they’re starting to focus more on their growth. Just last week, a student said to me, “I’ve never thought about it [what I’m learning] like this before. I’m not doing something just to get a grade. I’m actually learning things, not just doing them.”
One 12th grade student’s response in his end-of-semester letter captures the impact of this point-less system: “I developed confidence in this class, which really helped me have the courage to be wrong.”
Given all of the unknowns and suspicions about what this year would bring, I saw Zerwin’s point-less grading system as a way to help students better navigate learning and schooling in a pandemic. It is one of many elements that I intend to continue doing on the other side of all of this.

An anti-bias, anti-racist educator, Josh Thompson teaches high school English language arts in Blacksburg, Virginia. His passions for daily independent reading, supporting and affirming LGBTQ students, and student-centered learning fuel his practice. You can find him on Twitter @jthompedu.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Drowning in Data

From the NCTE Standing Committee on Literacy Assessment

This post was written by NCTE members Kathryn Pierce and Chris Hass, members of the NCTE Standing Committee on Literacy Assessment.

For many teachers, one of the bright spots during the pandemic has been a suspension of statewide standardized testing.
The absence of annual testing data highlights the work teachers do every day to gather student learning data through observations, interactions, and consideration of student products. Like a translator, teachers simultaneously teach while processing all this data, making adjustments “on the fly.”
One way to help manage the flood of data is to be intentional about articulating goals and intentions and to make space for students to do the same. The diagram below (from Going Public with Assessment) shows how our instructional decisions are connected to our beliefs and to the data we collect about students. It also shows how we interpret the data we collect through the lens of our beliefs and our instructional intentions.

Transactional Model of Professional Growth, pg. xix.  Pierce, K.M. & Ordoñez-Jasis, R. (2018). Going Public with Assessment: A Community Practice Approach, National Council of Teachers of English.

Another way we manage the data is to be intentional about what data we collect and the questions we ask about that data. Based on our beliefs about how literacy/language works and how best to support literacy learners, we make instructional decisions. For example, we protect time for silent reading or support students in seeing writing as a process that evolves across multiple drafts.
In this blog post we offer procedures and questions that may guide our use of observations, student learning artifacts, and conferences with students as intentional assessment experiences.
Turning Observations into Intentional Assessment Opportunities
Teachers watch their students as they read and write, and talk with classmates. We listen in for signals that all is well, or that support may be needed. Creating kidwatching notes by jotting down observations focused on a specific topic or on general observations allows us to revisit this information again later.
Click HERE to see an example of kidwatching notes from Chris Hass’s classroom in which he both collects data about their reading process (narrative notetaking) and their perceived engagement during independent reading (checklist).
How might we use these observations for assessment purposes?
Click HERE to see one way of preparing for intentional observations as part of your assessment.
Teachers also consider what they know about students’ out-of-school lives. We integrate this information with classroom kidwatching notes to make decisions about the engagements, materials, or issues that seem most beneficial for student learning. These insights allow us to make classroom decisions that are tailored to students’ specific identities, strengths and needs.
Click HERE to see how Chris Hass connects information from in-school and out-of school settings to make instructional decisions.

Taking a Deep Look at a Small Sample of Student Work
From exit slips and rough drafts to finished papers and 3-D projects, teachers have access to a steady stream of student work. Each sample could be the focus of a deeper study of a student, the task, the larger context in which the task was completed, and/or our own assumptions about how to support and recognize literacy learning.
Click HERE to hear Chris Hass reflecting on the information he gathered from consideration of a classroom artifact of learning.
Spending one block of time looking through a pile of exit slips or any other sample of student work can provide us with enough data to write pages about our students. How can we use the mountain of student learning artifacts effectively?
Click HERE to see one way of reviewing a set of student learning artifacts as an assessment experience.
Click HERE to see the questions teachers might ask when reviewing a set of exit slips.

Reflecting on Conferences with Students
Whether conducted online via Zoom, Skype, or Google Hangout or face to face in the classroom, these conversations offer teachers a rich opportunity to listen to the ways students describe their work. These could be focused on plans and intentions, reflections on the process, or reviews of a final product.
Such conversations help teachers understand what students are doing, how they are getting along with their work, and how to help them. They also provide students with an important opportunity to reflect on and talk about their work, raising awareness of their own thinking, and to consider ways of going about the work of reading or writing.
Click HERE to see a set of questions a teacher might ask when reflecting on a conference or an interview with a student. 
Regardless of the decisions about assessment made outside the classroom, teachers can take control of their own assessment tools and strategies. Being intentional about the data selected from the constant flow of information in a classroom setting can help to keep the process manageable and focused on a greater understanding of what we do to support student literacy learning, and why we do it.

Kathryn Mitchell Pierce works with graduate and undergraduate teachers at Saint Louis University, Missouri. Chris Hass is a second- and third-grade teacher at the Center for Inquiry in Columbia, South Carolina.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Everyday Advocacy and Literacy Assessment

From the NCTE Standing Committee on Literacy Assessment

This post was written by NCTE member Eric D. Turley, a member of the NCTE Standing Committee on Literacy Assessment.

After reading part one of Cathy Fleisher and Antero Garcia’s book Everyday Advocacy: Teachers Who Change the Literacy Narrative, I was ready to put the book down and get to work. But I’m glad I didn’t, because parts two and three of the book present over a dozen teacher-narratives sharing the lived experiences of six to twelve literacy educators and English educators engaging in local advocacy projects and changing the narrative around literacy and literacy education.

Throughout their book Fleisher and Garcia encourage teachers to embrace “advocacy knowledge” as part of teacher identity in addition to content and pedagogical knowledge. They offer a three-part framework to help teachers understand how to challenge and change narratives around literacy education.

Beginning with narratives that surround literacy educators’ work, Fleisher and Garcia ask teachers to consider who tells these stories and encourages teachers to embrace the role of “knowledgeable narrators.” Then they challenge teachers to consider how issues are framed within stories and how teachers might reframe stories to appeal to specific audiences. Finally, they encourage teachers to claim advocacy “with a small ‘a’ ” whereby teachers design and put in place action plans that are responsive and malleable to a specific context, not a one-size fits all approach.
As a member of NCTE’s Standing Committee on Literacy Assessment, I read Everyday Advocacy and started writing down questions as they relate to my school and our teaching and assessing of reading and writing. Here are a few:
What are the narratives around literacy learning in my school?
How are the goals of our assessment practices understood by students, parents, and the school board? (And in some cases, what are the goals of our assessment practices?)
In light of our new ninth- and tenth-grade curriculum adoption this summer, how are we assessing the success/weaknesses of our new curriculum? Who will we share these discoveries with and how will we make further adjustments?
All ninth-grade to eleventh-grade students are using portfolios in their English classes for the first time. Do the students understand the value of goal setting and self-assessing their reading and writing? Do we, as an English department, see increased engagement and self-directed learning within our students?
Are our literacy assessments equitable? What unintended consequences exist within our assessment practices that might alienate or disempower our students?
Currently these are just questions, but they can also be starting points to action plans. Fleisher and Garcia provide a structure for teachers to take questions like these and move them into action plans that understand the background of these issues, identify the best strategy to make change, and implement tactics to bring about change.
I have my work cut out for me. Fleisher and Garcia helped me to think about advocacy work as an act of engagement with those in my school community and larger community. The teachers featured in the book showed me the multiple and sometimes messy ways to approach this work.
As I think about my next steps, I plan to share Everyday Advocacy with others in my department. I will need some collaborators, cheerleaders, allies, and accountability partners in this work, but if teachers don’t create and/or change the literacy narrative, who will?

Eric D. Turley is a high school English teacher at Kirkwood High School in Missouri. He coauthored (with Chris Gallagher) Our Better Judgment: Teacher Leadership For Writing Assessment (NCTE Press 2012) and is a past recipient of CCCC’s James Berlin Outstanding Dissertation Award.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Teachers as Assessment Leaders and Advocates: Continuing to Change the Conversation on Assessment at #NCTE20

This post was written by NCTE member Bobbie Kabuto, chair of the NCTE Standing Committee on Literacy Assessment.   This year’s NCTE 2020 Virtual Annual Convention was like no other. In the backdrop of COVID-19, meeting in person was not possible, but that did not stop the Standing Committee on Literacy Assessment (LAC) from continuing … Read more

The curriculum challenge…renewed

People have gone relatively quiet about the ‘c’ word… curriculum. Whilst schools grapple with the challenges of having all pupils safely attend school, then everything has to be considered anew. The careful sequencing of curriculum still matters a great deal, but as schools are recommended to consider lopping great bits off, then new plans and … Read more