Lots of factors affect whether and what students learn in school, but most often that conversation gets boiled down into a single letter grade, a symbol of everything a student knows or doesn’t know. Because grades are often required, and easy to understand, they have become the focus for many parents, teachers and students. The problem is that grades are often subjective, arbitrary and can be demotivating to students. They are also gatekeepers for advanced classes and college admissions, so grades can’t be ignored. This complicated dynamic means that grading policies are at the center of discussions around how to change teaching and learning.
Kirby Engelman was a typical high school student at New Trier High School outside Chicago. Her first two years there she did fine academically, but she was going through the motions, doing what she thought she was so supposed to do. She felt lost among the thousands of students thronging the hallways of New Trier, which has over 4,000 students. When her mother encouraged her to apply to the Integrated Global Studies School (IGSS), a smaller program within this public high school, she did so on a whim, drawn more to the smaller learning community than to the alternative teaching style it offered.
“It felt totally different,” Engelman said. “It opened my mind to education as something more of, rather than learning content, you were learning how to learn. It opened my mind to my potential as well as the potential of humans and the world.”
The program, which has operated at New Trier since 2009, came about when teachers and parents at this high-achieving school realized that while students were “succeeding” by traditional measures like test scores and college-admission rates, something was missing. Teachers wanted to help students develop intrinsic motivation. And they believed grades were at the root of the problem.
“We were going to try to create a school that was driven by student interests, not grades, that was interdisciplinary and was built on experiential learning,” said Colby Vargas, a senior English teacher and one of the founders of IGSS. “Those are all counter to the school culture in many ways.”
The school board approved the IGSS program on the condition that students could choose to have the narrative assessments teachers give to students translated into more traditional letter grades at the end of each semester. Students apply to the program during sophomore year for participation junior and senior year. English, history, science and art are taught through interdisciplinary projects three hours a day. While teachers plan broad thematic units, student choice is a hallmark of the program and teachers offer a lot of personalized attention. IGSS is meant to be small, so there are only 40 students at each grade level. A team of three teachers works collaboratively to weave an interdisciplinary experience for each class.
“There are lots of kids who just cruise through and never get fired up about anything. That’s who we are really built for,” Vargas said. Rather than covering specific content, teachers develop broad themes and let students dive deeply into aspects of the topic that interest them, guiding them to think deeply, research in directions they haven’t thought about and improve their writing.
This style of learning came as a huge relief to Nora Grubb, who graduated from the IGSS program and went on to attend Skidmore College. “I felt really disenchanted in my early years in high school because I was around competitive people but not in the way I would have imagined,” Grubb said. “They weren’t competitive with themselves. They were competitive with other people and they weren’t interested in widening their scope.”
She said freshman and sophomore years she did a lot of schoolwork, but never felt intellectually challenged. She loved that the teachers in IGSS were interested in her as a person, not just as a number passing through. “It tapped into the curiosity I had about myself and the world around me, and the teachers were incredibly encouraging of that and wanted to have conversations about that.”
Teachers keep detailed notes about how students are progressing, including written feedback given directly to them on their work, but nothing is graded on a 100-point scale and no letter grades are given. The idea is to learn from conversations and feedback to continue making the work better. Despite the gradeless world IGSS teachers have tried to create, some students do opt for grade translation, often because they worry colleges won’t recognize the work they’ve done without it.
“We have a dirty little moment where all the qualitative stuff becomes just a grade,” Vargas said. “And then it becomes just as arbitrary as any other grade in that moment,” added Lindsay Arado, a history teacher in the program.
When they started the program, Vargas and Arado wanted IGSS to be about joyful learning without the pressure of grades. They knew that the thousand little decisions a teacher makes about rewarding or withholding points are arbitrary and that grades most often serve as a compliance tool, a way to force students to do their work. They didn’t see that system as ultimately serving the greater goal of creating passionate learners who know themselves deeply, who can direct themselves, take criticism, and who are always pushing to improve.
But the school board and parents were uncomfortable with the idea of a gradeless learning community; they thought it would hurt students’ chances for admission to the top colleges. That’s why grade translation is an option. Still, many students ultimately prefer not to get grades. And, now that the program has a track record of getting students into excellent colleges, parents and school leaders have become more accepting of the structure.
“It wasn’t necessarily the teachers who dominated the classroom,” Engelman said. “It was more we are here together; I will learn from you and you can learn from me.” Now an urban studies major at Brown University, Engelman says she sees that type of intellectual exchange in her college classes, but hadn’t experienced it at New Trier until she entered IGSS.
Engelman admits she was hesitant to give up the traditional model at first. It was all she knew. So her first semester of junior year she opted for grade translation. “Grades or no grades you get a written narrative about every assignment and how you are as a student, which showed me how unnecessary grades were,” she said. She also found the system more motivating. “Rather than just learning information and learning specific facts, we were learning how to learn and that felt a lot more meaningful.”
All juniors at New Trier, whether participating in IGSS or not, are required to write a massive research paper. In IGSS, students get to choose their topic and the year is largely structured around a deep dive into an area of passion. Engelman chose to research Colony Collapse Disorder, assembling a community of experts from professors to professional beekeepers and USDA officials in a community who shared a passion for honeybees. She knew nothing about honeybees going into the project.
“Looking back I don’t know how I had the guts as a 17-year-old to do this, but I just decided I had the authority to email anyone I wanted,” Engelman said. And for the most part, all these experts wrote back to her. She then continued to extend her passion for honeybees by convincing her parents to let her keep bees in the backyard and making a film about the experience for her senior capstone project. She also wrote an elementary school curriculum on Colony Collapse Disorder and the important role honeybees play in ecosystems, which she taught at several nearby schools.
Engelman didn’t take a traditional path after high school. She first went to the Savannah College of Art and Design because she liked working with her hands. She enjoyed her time there and did well, but she missed the deep intellectual thought she’d experienced as part of IGSS so she transferred to Brown. Her mom credits the IGSS program for her admittance there.
“My transcript, instead of being a single piece of paper, is this honking written explanation of everything I ever did as a student,” Engelman said. “I think that’s a lot more telling to universities than a letter grade.” Despite what might seem like a wandering path, Engelman says she’s never doubted her ability to succeed.
“I do think that, I don’t know why or how, but I do think that the IGSS program makes you willing to try new things and makes you see the potential in yourself,” Engelman said. She says friends from the program feel similarly capable and their approach tends to be, “let’s do this thing called life even if it’s not going perfectly.”
CHALLENGES OF TEACHING IN IGSS
Teachers in IGSS have the challenging job of keeping student interests at the center of learning while creating loose plans to hit on the skills they want students to learn. They admitted it’s challenging to design learning experiences that are flexible enough for students to find exciting entry points to the work, while offering enough structure to support deep exploration. Most students, no matter how bright, struggle to completely self-direct without guidance, especially after years of being told exactly how to do well.
“We often describe the planning as building the plane as we fly it,” said Mac Guy, a junior English teacher in IGSS. “But there’s something terrifying about that.” It can be stressful and overwhelming to go into a three-hour teaching session without feeling on top of the plan. “At the same time, every year coming into IGSS it’s going to be something new that’s interesting and it’s really going to challenge me to be creative,” he said. In many ways that challenge is also what makes the program such a stimulating teaching experience.
These teachers believe deeply that they are creating a valuable educational experience for students, but it was hard for them to let go of their previous mindsets as well. Vargas said at the outset they made a commitment not to assign any busywork. “That’s been really good for me and powerful and impactful,” but it has also challenged him to think about why he felt history should be taught in a certain order or feature certain characters.
“I had trouble letting go of that narrative,” Vargas said. “It made me realize that a lot of my teaching throughout my career has been draped around the story of history.” He’s fought to make everything he teaches feel authentic and connected to students, but he still misses the familiar narrative he used to teach.
This program has also forced teachers to collaborate and communicate much more than they did when they taught 40-minute class periods on their own. And perhaps one of the hardest things to overcome is students’ learned behaviors around schoolwork. Halfway through the year students are still asking about points and whether they will lose credit if a writing assignment is too short. While that frustrates the teachers, they understand how deeply ingrained the grading system has become for American students. And, “We’re asking some of our kids to not get grades for some of their best work,” Guy acknowledges.
The tyranny of grading is nothing new, but grades are partly why old ways of teaching and learning can feel impossible to ditch. That’s why some teachers are organizing around “going gradeless” as a way of structurally changing what is valued in classrooms.