Sarah Zerwin, a language arts teacher and instructional coach at Fairview High, wants her students to focus less on a grade and more on taking risks and becoming better writers.
To get there, she ditched the traditional grading system that rewards students with points for turning in assignments, writing essays, and taking tests.
A few other Fairview teachers had tried alternatives, but she didn’t make up her mind until she heard a speech from the author and ratings reviewer Alfie Kohn at a language arts conference in 2013. After he spoke, she turned to the assistant manager of Fairview sitting next to her and said, “I’m done. I will never be able to put a note to a piece of writing again.
The following semester, she asked her class to vote by secret ballot on replacing earned points with feedback and the possibility of revisions. With everyone in favor, she created the first version of her current rating system.
“In high school, I would only work as long as I needed to get the grade I wanted, and then I would quit,” Zerwin said. “The students, they know the score game. Most of them don’t like this game. Ultimately, I hope to create a system where children have power over their learning. »
Since that first release, she has revised her methods and shared her work and resources with other teachers through conferences and a recently published book, “Point-Less: An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading.” In addition to her book, she provides resources on her website, sarahmzerwin.com/resources.
“A very common concern I get from teachers is that the students won’t do the work if I don’t give them points,” she said. “Removing that is a huge leap of faith. But a lot of kids end up doing a lot more work, not less. Kids are ready to make the change. If their work makes sense, they’ll go with us.
Without the constant pressure of high-stakes grades, she said, the conversation shifted from students trying to figure out how to earn more points for a higher grade to how to revise their work to make it better. They are also more open to taking risks, knowing they won’t be penalized with a lower score if it doesn’t work out.
Students—as required by the school district—always earn a final grade at the end of the semester, with each student suggesting a grade and providing proof that they have earned it. About 95% of the time, Zerwin said, she agrees with the grade chosen by the students. If they aim too low, she shows them why they deserve a higher score. If they go too high, she offers them ways to revise their previous work to get there.
“Kids are usually brutally honest with themselves,” she said.
In addition to encouraging more meaningful work, she said, providing feedback rather than awarding marks also appears to be a fairer way to assess student writing, especially for students whose native language is not English and whose cultures include different writing conventions.
“If you look at ranking history, it’s about ranking and sorting to maintain a social hierarchy,” Zerwin said. “I just don’t want to contribute to this anymore.”
Among the teachers she has won over to her method is her husband and fellow teacher from Fairview Paul Strode, which teaches science courses at the higher level. His first reaction was “No, it will never work. There’s no way I can do that in science.
“I was wrong,” he said. “Now I will never go back.”
He said it worked so well that he shared his methods with other science teachers and used a pointless grading system in a class for education students he co-teach at the University of Colorado Boulder. .
One of the adopters is Kelcey Burris, a College Board consultant and high school biology teacher in Washington. Burris shared how Strode’s approach works for his students during the AP for All Summer Institute hosted in June by the St. Vrain Valley School District and the Colorado Education Initiative.
Strode, who is in his seventh year without awarding points, asks his students to keep digital journals with reflections and photos to accumulate evidence of their class work.
“The journal becomes a rich collection of all their best work,” he said. “They use their diaries as the main evidence for the grade they choose for the semester.”
He does not give them homework, but invites them to do homework to prepare for the next day’s class. It no longer gives multiple-choice unit exams, but only uses free-response tests. It adds a tick next to answers that are good enough, circling those that need more work, and leaving comments.
“Before, students were focused on points and how to get more points,” he said. “Instead, students read my comments. They focus on how they can show they understand that. It changes the way they think about learning.
Exams are graded with a level of progress: complete (100%), partial (75%) or reworked (50%) and feedback is provided. Students at all levels then have the opportunity to make revisions. To qualify for a final grade of an A, anything below “complete” must be reviewed. Written assignments are assessed in the same way.
The school’s Infinite Campus system automatically calculates a percentage and grade for assignments and tests, giving students continuous reminders. Strode tells students to forget about the grade and see the percentage as an indicator of progress.
“So you could make 83% progress,” he said. “It’s not a grade, it’s just the progress you’re making so far. It’s nothing to stress about. The feedback I get from students is that they are more relaxed compared to in class, more patient with themselves. When I ask them, they say they feel less stressed. This is a big problem for me.
He added that he had not seen a change in students’ scores on the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams since the switch to a points-free system. About 80% of its students continue to score a three or better on AP exams, the score most colleges require to offer credit.
One of his AP/IB biology students, Senior Andrew Prazen, agreed he was less stressed.
“It’s refreshing that I didn’t have to play,” he said. “I have to show that I have the interest and the knowledge.”
Classmate Marley O’Connor said she had asked several teachers to use alternative grading methods and now preferred a pointless system.
“It encourages you to really push yourself,” she said. “You can really take control of your whole experience.”
She said she also appreciated the feedback and the opportunity to make corrections instead of being penalized by losing points for mistakes.
“It’s great to know what you need to work on,” she said.
Senior Lucas Waitman added: “You don’t need everything to be perfect. You can see what you missed and you can learn.
Senior Allison Kirby said Strode’s rating system shows he trusts her.
“That’s up to you,” she said. “If you want the A, just get to work.”
Darrell Billington, professor of social studies at Fairview, is another of Zerwin’s converts. He said one of the benefits of moving away from points is removing the outsized penalty for late work.
He said that many of his co-workers racked up a lot of points for late work, and he used to do the same. This made late work “overwhelmingly represented in student assessments in the points system”.
“If we dig a little deeper and ask students for more evidence of their learning, they can dig deeper and demonstrate a lot more of what they know,” he said.
In his classes, he “grades” projects and other assignments based on four categories — missing, reworked, complete, and stellar — and provides feedback on how to improve. On quizzes and tests, it gives the percentage of correct answers. Students also complete unit self-assessments, discussing how they achieved their goals.
“Throughout the year, I provide a projected final grade based on student progress,” he said. “At the end of the term, we review all the evidence and I submit a final letter grade.”
Although this approach takes a lot more work as a teacher, he said, it is worth it.
“I understand my students better and focus them on habits rather than points,” he said. “They don’t ask me how to get the points anymore, they ask me: ‘How can I prove that I learned the subject?’ The difference between the two questions is monumental.