Sunday, 14 January 2018

Gimme Feedback! Getting rid of Marks in Elementary School.

A few years ago, I came to the uncomfortable realization that my evaluation methods were not working. Well, it wasn’t really that they weren’t working - they were generating grades, information and feedback for report cards. They served as a brief and fleeting triumph for students who were already academically successful. However, they were not sparking the growth and progress that I wanted to see in my students - particularly students who struggled academically.

I was trying to do everything right. I had looked over the most recently literature which, In Ontario, is the Growing Success Document. (2010) I reviewed the Seven Fundamental Principles that would “ensure that assessment, evaluation, and reporting are valid and reliable”.( p. 6) I discussed Success Criteria with students based on specific curriculum expectations and, collectively, we built rubrics and settled on “mutually agreed upon timelines” for work completion. Still, I wasn’t seeing the growth that I knew more of my students were able to achieve.


It was around this time that I began to focus on my professional Twitter account. I had been using a personal Twitter account for years (Est. January 5, 2009), but, for the most part, followed Pro Sports Teams, Stand Up Comedians, Musicians and Television Writers and rarely posted. A colleague suggested creating a professional Twitter account (Est. April 24, 2013) and a quality Professional Learning Network (PLN) was growing. I think I followed about 200 people at that time.  Wonderfully, for the first time in my career, a post on Twitter led me to an answer that was so simple that I was a bit frustrated that I had not thought of it myself. Get rid of the marks.

I began to evaluate following these steps:

  1. Continue to build “mutually agreed upon” curriculum driven expectations with students. Make them part of the process of learning from the start. Be sure that the language is “student friendly”.
  2. Give feedback at an approximate midpoint in the activity.
  3. Let the student return to the work in order to take advantage of the feedback.
  4. Have the student self-evaluate.
  5. Conference with the student about the self-evaluation. (a) Be sure to celebrate achievements, (b) Be sure to discuss potential next steps & optionally (c) Agree on report card comments that include a & b.
To help, I began using a No Marks Rubric. Once again, I want to make it clear that  the genesis for the idea was not mine - but from a post on Twitter. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to track down the author of that first post, so I can give the appropriate credit. If it comes to me, I will make the changes here immediately.

However, I have evolved that initial concept over the past four years and a blank copy of my current version is here. It is divided into four columns.
  • The center column is for the expectations
    • Mutually agreed upon with the students.
    • Curriculum connected.
    • Ideally, connected to the 4 categories outlined in the Growing Success Document (p. 17) Thinking, Application, Communication and Knowledge (TACK) or sometimes referred to as  (CAT-K) cat-ka.
  • Immediately to the right, is a narrow column for checkmarks. If the expectation in the cell beside it has been met, the box is checked. If not, it remains unchecked (for now).
  • The left column is broken into cells that match each expectation. It is here that, when necessary, next steps can be written. Sometimes, the expectation has been met and the next step is a suggestion. More often, the next step is a reminder to review the expectation or an idea to prompt additional action.
  • The far right column is a place for celebration.
    • What has been done particularly well?
    • Which things exceeded expectations?
    • What caught the evaluator’s eye as “interesting”, “fun”, “humourous” or “unexpected”?
  • There is space at the top to identify the activity and student. Optionally, a parent signature could be required at the bottom.
Here is an example using Cereal Box Biographies - a Grade 5 cross-curricular activity which draws from expectations in Writing, Reading, Media Literacy, Health & Art curriculum.

Students are asked to ...
  • research a famous person and create an aesthetically appealing, easy to read cereal box biography to share the information. EX: Obama O’s Cereal - detailing life of 44th US President.
  • create a “tag line” for the product. EX: “They’ll give you HOPE!”
  • create a food label replacing the percentage values with personal qualities instead of nutritional facts. (A little math embedded in the activity). EX: Persistence 30% Intelligence 20% etc. Here is a complete example
Some Additional Thoughts (regarding No Marks Rubrics)

Students are quick converts. There are some who persist with the question “What did I get?” and that needs to be met with the responses: “What did you learn? What did you do well? & What could you improve or change?”

Parents sometimes take a little longer - particularly parents who put a high value on grades. Sometimes, a private conversation with them helps. Ask them if they remember their Grade 4 Social Studies mark more than the things they learned in Grade 4 Social Studies ...or perhaps that awesome pyramid they built!

Unfortunately, Ontario report cards still require a grade. Consequently, the teacher is eventually forced to quantify this information and reduce it to a letter (Gr 1-6) or number (Gr 7-8).

Fortunately, report card comments are already done.  The completed rubric allows the Teacher to synthesize statements that are personal, and include both the celebration of work achieved with concrete next steps.

Optionally, the “mark” can be determined with the student present. As I was preparing report cards last May, I had frequent discussions with students about both the comment and the final grade for many of the strands and subjects - Complete transparency and, for some students, the opportunity to make changes.

My hope is that the province makes the bold decision to move away from grades, at least prior to Grade 7. For now, the No Mark Rubric has been a valuable tool in my classroom and has been well received by teachers I meet in my role as instructional coach. I hope it can be useful for you.

1 comment:

  1. Another well crafted post and very timely, as educators are currently working on completing term 1 reports. I completely agree that we need to move away from marks and grades and towards more feedback focused assessment. I love the celebration column ~ whether we are celebrating the learning skills of collaboration/responsibility or the academic skills connected directly to the curriculum. Students need to see learning as a celebratory experience, not just something that we do for marks.

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