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Going Gradeless: What it Really Means

report card

Can we talk about grades?

Teachers all over the country are experimenting with what is known as “going gradeless,” which means that students are not evaluated with traditional letter or number-based values. This approach is considered highly controversial, often experimental, and downright challenging to implement without roadblocks. In addition, the entire concept is often misunderstood as a free-for-all method where students are not held accountable for their work, which is not an accurate perception. To better understand why so many educators are excited about looking at student achievement differently, we can lean into the philosophy of going gradeless by considering its benefits and drawbacks and by experimenting with just one or two strategies in practice.

What Does “Gradeless” Mean, Anyway?

Depending on the teacher, school or district, “gradeless” can mean anything from reducing the number of graded assignments students complete to developing a different system for determining student achievement. With the former, the goal is to prioritize the role of feedback in academic progress so that both students and teachers see the value of learning for its own sake, not just for the extrinsic reward of a grade. One strategy that comes into play with this method is to continue collecting work while judiciously determining what receives the evaluative grade vs. what is returned with action-oriented feedback. That way, students know what they have learned, and what they need to improve. With the more complete overhaul that involves removing grades entirely, schools implement a variety of qualitative, descriptive methods (often narrative) that help students and their families gauge progress toward desired outcomes. The latter is harder to achieve, as well as to get buy-in for. However, many schools have made this leap successfully.

Benefits to Going Gradeless

When teachers reduce or eliminate grades, the benefits can be vast and enduring. For one thing, removing the emphasis on a number or letter forces everyone to focus on the reason we go to school: to learn. In addition, the increased emphasis on reaching specific targets helps hone instruction more directly toward student needs. Suppose a teacher notices that the class struggles with a specific content standard, such as producing evidence to support an idea. With that added knowledge of which skill to reinforce more fully, the teacher can look at qualitative growth over time through student work, such as a series of writing samples. With that close analytical lens on a specific area of academic performance, going gradeless makes it more likely that teachers will become more thoroughly steeped in the ways they teach content, and that they will pass that deeper awareness of the targeted skill or standard to students.

Drawbacks of Going Gradeless

As one might expect, making such a profound change to a long-established system of evaluation comes with disadvantages. In addition to significant pushback from students and their families, teachers may also encounter resistance from colleagues or school leaders. In this country, educators have grown accustomed to the concept of reaching accountability through grades and test scores, and there is a widespread perception that grades are an indispensable data point in determining success. If teachers wish to foray into gradeless teaching, they can expect (and rightfully so) to be challenged, so being prepared to explain how students will still make measurable progress is key to addressing some of the conversation around the drawbacks of going gradeless. 

Strategies for a Middle Ground

For teachers who wish to take steps toward a gradeless approach but do not have the support or interest in dispensing with grades altogether, there are some ways to find a middle ground. Reducing the number of graded assignments is a first step, along with reflecting upon what truly needs to be recorded in the gradebook vs. what will act as a formative indicator of progress without a score attached. In addition, to increase success with a gradeless approach for the future, it is important to become familiar with content standards for whatever courses and grade levels we teach. Otherwise, there is no way to determine whether the work we assign matches desired student learning outcomes.

There is an awful lot of controversy around the whole idea of jettisoning grades, but the approach is not as radical as some make it out to be. Like so many other educational practices, gradeless instruction does not need to occur as an absolute. Instead, teachers can experiment with some of the tenets and techniques that the approach values most highly. That way, if and when it seems like a good idea to increase the focus on feedback over grades, everyone will be ready to make the transition to a new way of assessing student progress. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and Lead Like a Teacher. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS.

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