Self-Reporting Grades in Maths

Dilemma: How do you arrive at an A-E grade twice a year in a maths class without using points or grades or summative tests?

Answer: You don’t — trust students to “do the work”.

A while back, when contemplating uncoupling grading from learning in our classroom, I wrote these goals for maths,

I want to eliminate the learn and burn mentality and replace it with slow, deep thinking and increased understanding. I want all students in our class to become more confident, skilled, creative, resilient and flexible in their thinking. I want to meet students where they are with their learning and be able to provide productive feedback that drives individual learning forward beyond percentages and scores. I want to develop and maintain a culture where mistakes are valued and used as opportunities to learn. I want students to see the value in collaboration and take opportunities to “share the wealth” of knowledge that exists within our class. I want students to enjoy Maths and see themselves as Mathematicians!

Since then, removing grades, scores, percentages, and unhealthy competition from our maths lessons has had a significant impact. And I’m not just talking about growth and achievement; I’m talking enjoyment. Students enjoy learning maths in this environment. They don’t avoid “the struggle”, there is less fear of failure, in fact, we rely on it. Failing forward is the common factor in our room; if we aren’t struggling and making mistakes, then we probably aren’t learning.

Problem is, I‘m mandated to report a letter grade twice a year for semester reports. Without a grade book filled with numbers & percentages from ongoing tests and assessment, how do I accurately report a grade?

Show Me How You Can…

I started by pulling the Australian Curriculum achievement standard apart for both of the year levels I teach, and reduced it to the following 16 outcomes:

I considered using “I can” statements but settled on “show me how you can” stems instead. Students use a select and defend conferencing framework for arriving at a grade, which means students are tasked with collecting learning evidence that best shows their achievement and growth. This evidence can take many forms, including formative/summative/diagnostic assessments including oral explanations, observations, and other authentic means. All that matters is that students can show understanding of the outcome being reported.

An important part of our self-assessment and conferencing is a 1–4 scale which I borrowed from Andrew Burnett’s article How to Create a Gradeless Math Classroom in a School That Requires Grades.

  • 1) I need more time to understand this.
  • 2) I can do this with the help of an example or when collaborating.
  • 3) I can do this on my own, but I am still making computational or minor errors.
  • 4) I can do this on my own and explain my solution path to others.

Using the 1–4 scale has allowed students to better track their progress, and double back around to weaker areas later. Students regularly reflect on their understanding at the end of a lesson or unit. It gives our conferences a focus for discussions and has made arriving at an overall grade much easier.

It does irk me that, despite my best efforts, I remain the gatekeeper of the grade. The requirement to measure and sort students remains as we are forced to reduce an incredibly complex year-long learning journey of creativity, growth, critical thinking into a single letter grade. What exactly does that communicate again? But within our public system, this remains the price of admission at this time, so we will continue to play the game, albeit by our own abridged rules. Are we just gaming the system? Maybe. But perhaps this is a system that needs to be gamed.

Can a student be trusted to self-report a Maths grade? Is it fair to expect them to? Yes and more yes. Students are extremely capable and accurate at predicting and evidencing grades. Anecdotally, nine out of ten students select grades that are in the ballpark of my own gut feeling when entering a grading conference. If anything, students tend to lean towards under-grading themselves.

Can this use of authentic assessment and self-reporting be easily moderated to accurately, objectively and repeatedly identify the difference between A-E grades? I doubt it. But I know, in my context at least, that one-size-fits-all assessment and reporting does not work; it isn’t fair and certainly isn’t equitable. Arthur Chiaravalli’s tackles more on this in his article It’s Time We Hold Accountability Accountable which is well worth a read if you haven’t happened upon it.

I’ve successfully used this system of self-reporting grades now for three years. The “accountability police” haven’t come knocking at my door. Yes, students “do the work”, even without points and grades. Strangely enough, they enjoy the challenges associated with the learning. Interested in how our maths class works or how we self-report in other subjects? Consider reading out "A Year of Mathematical Freedom” or “A Shift Towards Student Self-Reporting”.

Thanks for reading.

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Abe Moore

Abe Moore

Education blog. "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say" - Flannery O'Connor