12 Gradeless Models

In 2019 I interviewed 28 Ontario secondary school educators who are moving away from marks.

They all grounded their assessment practices in clear communication of learning expectations in the form of task lists, curriculum expectations, or overarching learning goals. They communicated achievement of these expectations through the use of hidden mark, traditional four-point rubrics, single-point rubrics, or descriptive feedback. The combination of these three types of communication of expectations and four modes of communication of achievement can be expressed as 12 models of gradeless assessment, of which 10 were utilized by the teachers interviewed:

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Gradeless Model 1: Tasks and Marks

  • Marks are assigned based upon number of steps or concepts, which are added together to calculate a final mark.
  • Feedback is assumed by number of points or marks given by teacher.
  • Marks may be shared with students, or maybe hidden or deferred.

While gradeless model 1 includes marks, the two interviewees using this model expressed their belief that it qualified as “gradeless” when they hid or deferred sharing of marks until the end of the learning cycle.

Gradeless Model 2: Curriculum Expectations and Marks

  • Assessments are coded by course expectations which are then weighted to calculate a final mark.
  • Feedback is assumed to explicit links to course expectations.
  • Marks may be shared with students, or may be hidden or deferred.

As with gradeless model 1, this model was felt to qualify as “gradeless” when the marks were deferred or hidden. Gradeless model 2 was valued for its strong connection to the curriculum, and promotion of mastery learning, and was adopted by five of the interviewees.

Gradeless Model 3: Overarching Learning Goals and Marks

  • Assessments are coded by Overarching Learning Goals, or Big Ideas, which are weighted to calculate a final mark.
  • Feedback is assumed by links to goals, and is shared with students.

There were no interviewees who had developed Overarching Learning Goals while retaining marks. It is possible that it is more difficult to assign mark values to items on an assessment, where the criteria are broad and less specific, and so teachers find it necessary to move to rubrics and feedback to reflect achievement of Overarching Learning Goals.

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Gradeless Model 4: Tasks and Rubric Levels

  • A holistic or four-point proficiency scale rubric is created, with detailed checklists.
  • Descriptive feedback may or may not be included.
  • A final mark is determined at the end of the course, possibly with the use of anchor marks.
  • Conferencing between teacher and student is possible.

Only two of the interviewees retained task criteria when developing rubrics to communicate with their students. Both were teaching subjects that involved development of skills by production of physical objects, and they explained that specific criteria relating to the creation process were necessary to support their students to develop skills safely in their classrooms.

Gradeless Model 5: Curriculum Expectations and Rubric Levels

  • Detailed expectation-based rubrics are used, with a four-point proficiency scale.
  • Descriptive feedback may or may not be included.
  • A final mark is determined at the end of the course, possibly with the use of anchor marks.
  • Conferencing between teacher and student is possible.

Gradeless model 5 was the most used model, and was a component of the current assessment practice of 18 of the teachers interviewed. It was also described as a past, intermediary, practice by those who had moved to single-point rubrics or to a fully-feedback model.

Gradeless Model 6: Overarching Learning Goals and Rubric Levels

  • Generic four-point rubrics are utilized, based upon a limited number of goal statements.
  • Descriptive feedback may or may not be included.
  • A final mark is determined at the end of the course, possibly with the use of anchor marks.
  • Conferencing between teacher and student is possible.

Only two interviewees retained rubrics with levels as they moved to overarching learning goals. Both were teaching in subjects where expectations were consistent from one grade to the next and spiraling supported development of skills and knowledge.

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Gradeless Model 7: Tasks and Single-point Rubrics

  • Task checklists are utilized.
  • Descriptive feedback may or may not be given.
  • Conferencing occurs at end of course to determine final mark, possibly with use of anchor mark.

Three interviewees made use of task criteria and single-point rubrics. As with gradeless model 4, these teachers were in technology and fashion classrooms, where creation and construction was supported by clear task criteria.

Gradeless Model 8: Curriculum Expectations and Single-point Rubrics

  • Single-point rubrics are used with curriculum expectations as criteria.
  • Descriptive feedback may or may not be given.
  • Conferencing occurs at end of course to determine final mark, possibly with use of anchor mark.

Eleven interviewees utilizing gradeless model 8 had developed single-point rubrics, with curriculum expectations as the criteria, making this the second most common model in use. They used language such as “met/not-met” or “not yet” in their rubrics, and most presented the criteria in the middle of the page, with room for feedback on either side of each criterion.

Gradeless Model 9: Overarching Learning Goals and Single-point Rubrics

  • Single-point rubrics are used with a limited number of large goals.
  • Descriptive feedback is given.
  • Conferencing occurs at end of course to determine final mark, possibly with use of anchor mark.

Four of the teachers interviewed utilized single-point rubrics with overarching learning goals as the criteria. With only a limited number of criteria, these rubrics were flexible, and able to be applied to a range of demonstrations of student learning.

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Gradeless Model 10: Tasks and Feedback

  • Descriptive feedback is given, linked to checklists.
  • Rich, frequent descriptive feedback is given.
  • Conferencing occurs at end of course to determine final mark, possibly with use of anchor marks.

None of those interviewed provided descriptive feedback-based on task criteria. This may be because task criteria are commonly communicated as a checklist, with little need for further information to be communicated.

Gradeless Model 11: Curriculum Expectations and Feedback

  • Descriptive feedback is given, linked to course expectations.
  • Rich, frequent descriptive feedback is given.
  • Conferencing occurs at end of course to determine final mark, possibly with use of anchor marks.

Four interviewees made use of descriptive feedback that related specifically to curriculum expectations, but with no level or measure attached. These teachers represented a range of subject areas including English, physical & health education, visual arts, and geography.

Gradeless Model 12: Overarching Learning Goals and Feedback

  • Descriptive feedback is given, linked to overarching learning goals.
  • Rich, frequent descriptive feedback is given.
  • Conferencing occurs at end of course to determine final mark, possibly with use of anchor marks.

Three of the teachers interviewed had moved almost exclusively to the use of descriptive feedback, relating to four or five overarching learning goals for their course. Their subject areas included music, drama, French, and mathematics.

While some of those interviewed utilized one tool consistently throughout their assessment process, many made use of two or three different gradeless models, with one teacher reporting use of six of the gradeless models in his various courses.

What’s next?

I hope that one of these models might be a starting point for YOUR shift away from marks towards a competency-based feedback model.

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