In this edition of the Roundtable, I spoke with five active K-12 educators who are on different assessment journeys. Although we all agree on the fundamental principles of going gradeless, you will a richness of different perspectives and areas of focus throughout our discussion.
Use the timestamps below to jump directly to topics of interest.
0:50 – Guests introduce themselves and describe assessment in their educational contexts.
9:03 – How would you make the case for going gradeless?
24:23 – What are some of your best ideas, strategies, and tips for educators and education leaders seeking to move into a gradeless assessment model?
44:45 – The proficiency scale currently used in most K-7 schools in the Canadian province of British Columbia.
45:59 – What are some books and authors you recommend on the subject of going gradeless and formative assessment?
ANDREW CANLE is an Assistant Principal at Shaw Avenue School, a K-6 elementary campus in Valley Stream, New York, a suburban town just outside of Queens. He’s a three-time champion coach at NBA Math Hoops, a program that engages students in math and social-emotional learning through the game of basketball. He’s also the creator of the #EDUCanle podcast.
Education or Law?
Andrew recalls a time during his second year of teaching when he seriously considered leaving the field of education entirely. “I just wasn’t happy overall,” he admits, which led him to consider moving from the classroom to a career in law.
What kept him in education, he says, was his decision to revisit his core passion: helping kids and doing the work of transforming lives. So many people made that sacrifice for him, he says, and so he redoubled his commitment to teaching. Looking back, he values this crisis of calling as a time that allowed him to find himself and redefine his true values.
The EDUCanle Podcast
Andrew credits colleagues and co-workers for the inspiration to start the EDUCanle Podcast. Part of his role at Shaw Avenue is to facilitate professional development opportunities for his staff, and at some point it occurred to him that recording these events and then repurposing the content on a podcast would be a great way to allow staff members to review content or catch up on missed learning.
Publishing in podcast form also allows him to support the learning of professionals outside of his own building and expand his professional network, something that can only benefit him and his teachers. Moving forward, Andrew plans to expand his asynchronous professional development offerings by screencasting presentations and sharing these on YouTube.
On 🔥 for Formative Assessment
Formative assessment is an area that is lighting Andrew’s fire in education right now. “It’s the crux of everything,” he points out.
Checking for understanding, strategic questioning, and determination of student progress are such critical components of what teachers do in the classroom, and so much of student learning depends on these activities done well. Lately, he’s been taking a close look at the mindsets needed to ask the most effective questions of students – questions that generate the data that informs our next instructional decisions.
A Professional Goal: Improving His Writing
At the forefront of his professional goals, Andrew is looking to become a better writer. He’s now had several articles published, including one with Edutopia, but he laughs about the silent suffering of perfectionism that remains a constant challenge. He talks about making his writing process more fluid and simply going with the flow of his ideas, steps that will make his writing more powerful and accelerate his productivity at the same time.
Personal Passions: Psychology, Sociology, and Sports
Passions that bring Andrew alive as a human being outside of his professional context include the studies of psychology and sociology. “They absolutely fascinate me,” Andrew says, and some of the learning he does in these spaces also equips him to be a more effective administrator. “You can never have enough tools in the toolbelt.”
Andrew is also a big sports fan and points to the legacies of dynasty teams like the New York Yankees and the New England Patriots as examples that our educational institutions can learn from.
Andrew’s Productivity Hack: A Little Blue Notebook
The engine that keeps Andrew on track and productive is a small blue notebook that he keeps in his inside pocket. That notebook is where he tracks to-do lists, items of concern, future tweets, and random notes. While others turn to cloud note-taking services, he likes to keep things analog.
Voices That Spark His Thinking and Ignite His Practice
Over on Twitter, Andrew recommends following @MrDataGuy, an important voice on the subject of assessment: traditional, PLC, and student ownership. His graphics are incredible and Andrew says they have supported many of his professional learning events.
One of Andrew’s favorite edtech tools is Review360, an application from Pearson that helps education leaders track student behavior patterns and support student learning based on situational trends.
Assessment is most effective and efficient when it happens right away.
“The most important takeaway from the research is that the shorter the time interval between eliciting the evidence and using it to improve instruction, the bigger the likely impact on learning … the biggest impact happens with ‘short-cycle’ formative assessment, which takes place not every six to ten weeks but every six to ten minutes, or even every six to ten seconds.”
— from Embedding Formative Assessment, by Dylan Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy
Think about that quote. The shorter the time interval, the bigger the impact on learning.
Let that sink in for a bit.
Nineteen years into teaching, I still don’t have the assessment game completely figured out. No matter how much feedback and assessment I provide, I labor under the constant burden of all the other student work that I feel I should be assessing.
In the evenings, on my weekends, on holidays, and even on snow days — especially snow days — I hear that quiet voice.
You should be grading work right now.
However subtle, it’s constant guilt and pressure. You know the feeling.
It’s enough to drive teachers insane. Studies confirm that it’s even enough to drive some from the profession entirely.
Lamenting the Marking Mountain
I started my career in the pre-internet classroom. In my 7th and 8th grade classrooms, I always had at least one tray marked INBOX. Work from learning activities given throughout the day generally ended up there. (Many of them with no names — remember that fun?)
Depending on the day’s activities, I might have anywhere between 25–100 sheets of paper in my inbox by day’s end.
And I would do my best to mark all those papers, of course. But inevitably the constant barrage of paper would start to pull away. My chunk of papers would become a pile, then a stack, then a mountain.
Within a month or two, my school bag was ballooning out of control. And I wasn’t alone. I remember colleagues who resorted to milk crates to ferry their paper mountain back and forth from home each day. Milk crates, filled to the brim with assignments that required marking.
Just take a moment to savor that accumulation of anxiety. Ahhhhhhh.
The Worst Beast of Them All: Writing Assessments
I’ve taught just about every subject in middle school, and I can tell you without a shadow of doubt that the most challenging assessments to complete — at least, in the traditional sense — were the writing pieces in English class.
Combing through a middle school student’s piece of writing was a brutally exhausting endeavor — especially before computers in the classroom. Traditionally, I was looking for form, style, meaning, and conventions. But I wasn’t just evaluating — I was coaching — and so I sought to offer meaningful feedback and notes as well.
“Make sure your subject and verbs agree.”
“Fortnite should be capitalized — proper noun”
“New paragraph here”
The math on this kind of feedback got ugly. To carefully comb through one piece of average writing and offer this level of feedback could take three or more minutes. With 28 students in my class, that was about 90 minutes of marking. Then the feedback had to be recorded — first in a place and way the student could observe it, then in my gradebook or assessment tracker.
Add any time to take breaks, talk to family and friends, or just generally be human, and we’re talking two hours.
Two hours of marking — typically in an evening when I felt exhausted from the day. For one learning activity.
And of course that didn’t count time spent on unit plans, lesson plans, email, parent communication, coaching, etc.
It was too much time.
Who’s the Winner Here?
The bad news about the scenario I just described is that it often failed to yield the results I was looking for. Even if I returned those assignments the very next day, it was unlikely that most students would pay much attention.
To put it bluntly, I could spend five minutes marking one piece of writing only to have the student look at it for five seconds.
And realistically, my timeline on returned writing assignments was decidedly not next day. A week or two, maybe.
Of course by that time, students really didn’t care. Well, they might care briefly about the grade. But it would definitely be a minority of students that would look much further at that point.
So what, exactly, was being learned through this assessment process? Very little, I suspect.
In fact, I knew it was very little, because my writers would tend to make the same mistakes all year long.
Rethinking Our Role: from Boss to Coach
In the last three years especially, my thinking on assessment has started to change in big ways.
For one thing, this is only my second year in nineteen years of teaching that my gradebook contains no numbers. I’ve gone gradeless. By itself, that’s a massive change in mindset with a ton of implications.
For one thing, I no longer regard marks as currency. In older models of education, students and teachers lived under the understanding that for every piece of work done, there ought to be a payment.
Students (workers) completed work for their teachers (bosses) and were paid grades (wages) for their efforts. Every piece of work was worthy of compensation.
The size of the reward matched the level of compliance. The game of school.
The problem with the game of school was that it often ignored the true business of education: the learning.
Putting More of My Focus on Real-Time Feedback
In school and in life, people learn best in the moment.When I learned to launch a podcast, caulk my shower, or build a website, it would have done me little good to receive feedback or assessment a week or two after I attempted the task.
I needed the help and feedback right then and there — precisely when I was engaged, prepared, willing to learn, making mistakes and finding my way.
That’s when feedback and coaching made the biggest difference. That’s when it was powerful.
In Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School, Starr Sackstein writes that “Assessment must be a conversation, a narrative that enhances students’ understanding of what they know, what they can do, and what needs further work. Perhaps even more important, they need to understand how to make improvements and how to recognize when legitimate growth has occurred.”
And that’s where I’m at today — intensely interested in those conversations, those in-the-moment, real-time, productive struggles.
I’m interested in helping my students wrestle with and through problems, create solutions, collaborate efficiently, and communicate effectively.
I’m interested in helping them understand where they are, where they need to get, and the steps they need to take to get there.
I’m interested in helping my learners assess their peers more effectively, offering feedback that is kind, specific, helpful, and accurate.
And I’m interested in tech tools like Google Classroom, Google Docs, Seesaw, and others like them that facilitate all of these ongoing, powerful, real-time conversations of learning in new and effective ways.
Just as it is on the sports field, my most effective coaching will never happen a day, a week, or a month after the fact. My best coaching and feedback happens right there and then in the classroom as my students study, learn, create, build, design, and share their learning.
That’s where the action is, and that’s why I’m putting less energy into summative assessment and more energy into formative. It’s why I don’t worry about the marking mountain as much as I used to. It’s even why I can relax enough to reflect on my practice and write this blog post.
Because the best feedback my students will ever receive happens right in the moment.