Posted in Assessment, Virtual Book Club

Assessment 3.0 by Mark Barnes

Using grades to rank and compare, to reward and punish, to motivate or otherwise control student behavior is so engrained in our practice that it’s difficult to imagine teaching any other way. Returning student work with no grade on the top is unthinkable, but that’s exactly what Mark Barnes suggests in his book,  Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grade Book and Inspire Learning.

Papers thrown down stairs to determine grade
flickr photo by ragesoss shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Barnes begins by explaining why grades are actually harmful and impede learning, and he cites the research to back this up. Grades are arbitrary and generally meaningless; they unfairly label kids, and they usually stop the learning rather than furthering it. Instead, he suggests using descriptive feedback to assess assignments or projects and giving students multiple opportunities to improve their work. He has developed a model he calls SE2R for Summarize, Explain, Redirect, and Resubmit. When assessing an assignment, he first writes a one or two sentence summary of what the student has done. He then explains what the student has mastered based on guidelines for the assignment. Next, he redirects the student to lessons and resources to be reviewed to improve the work and further understanding of concepts and skills. Finally he encourages the student to resolve issues with the assignment and resubmit it. Work is collected in a portfolio and when it’s time to put a grade on a report card, Barnes has a conversation with each student about their learning and the student determines the final grade. This sounds simple but there’s a lot to think about if you’re considering this, and the book is full of examples and tips for making this change in assessment practices work.

So, what would it take to make this work? Can we stop giving grades and instead focus on giving feedback? What reaction would the teachers in your school have to this kind of change? Would students respond well to it? Would parents accept a report card with no grades?  I’d love to hear your thoughts about Assessment 3.0, whether you’ve read the book or not. If you want to learn more about how teachers are changing their assessment practices, check out the Facebook group, Teachers Throwing Out Grades.

This week I’ll be reading 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools by David C. Berliner because Shawn Carlson suggested it. (I’m hoping he’ll write a review to get the conversation started). I’ll also start Ditch That Textbook: Free Your Teaching and Revolutionize Your Classroom by Matt Miller and I’ll post something about that when I’ve finished it.


Reader, Writer, Educator

9 thoughts on “Assessment 3.0 by Mark Barnes

  1. Barbara,

    I am reading Mark’s book, also. This past spring I had a chance to talk with some high school students about feedback versus grades. Their perspective was interesting. Many described the current feedback they receive as either a numerical mark (percentage correct) or a letter grade with the exception of feedback they were given on an English essay. On their English essays, they received comments but often times had to conference with the teacher to understand what the comments meant they needed to fix or revise. All the students expressed value in conferencing with their English teacher about their work.

    When I asked what the numerical marks or a letter grades told them about their learning they simply replied it meant the passed / completed the assignment or did not. They felt the numerically marked or a letter graded assignments were “one shot” assignments. You either got it right or got it wrong. Seldom was there a chance to revise the work to make it better.

    As they spoke, the students talked about how they preferred feedback to grades seeing feedback as an opportunity to improve their work thus providing a better learning experience.

    At the end of our discussion, the students explained the conflict they feel and experience in their educational setting. Simply put they felt the grades were of primary importance if they wanted to get into a “good” college. However, they felt they learned better when allowed to learn from mistakes, and given meaningful, actionable feedback to improve their work.

    1. Lisa, I think a lot of students would prefer feedback to grades but, as you said, they have been conditioned to think that grades represent their learning and their ability to learn. We perpetuate that belief by referring to a kids as “A students” or “B students”, by calculating class ranks, by publishing an honor roll based averages, and by giving prizes for high marks. In truth, grades are always arbitrary and more representative of a student’s compliance than of his or her knowledge, skills, or potential.

      What if a high school stopped giving grades and reporting GPAs? Would colleges deny admission to all students from that school?

      1. Barbara, I attended a New England Secondary Schools Consortium meeting last fall. During a presentation about standards-based learning a presenter explained to the audience that colleges already know an “A” in one school is different from and “A” in another school. She explained In her conversations with college admissions directors, the directors made it clear they will accept (already do accept) students from high schools who do not give grades or post GPAs. Students, parents, teachers, and communities are conditioned to think that grades represent learning. I hope we can work to change this conditioned thinking.

  2. I think students may be the easiest group to convince that we don’t need grades but what about the other groups like parents, teachers, and community (school board)? How do we convince them? Let’s start with teachers. How do we help them see that they don’t have to use grades to motivate students to do work, finish projects, etc.? It seems like a huge leap of faith for them. Most teachers are risk averse and for good reason. What kind of support will they need to throw out grades and start using feedback and portfolios instead?

    1. In response to, “Let’s start with teachers. How do we help them see that they don’t have to use grades to motivate students to do work, finish projects, etc.?”, Mark Gorey would be an excellent resource in our school. My impression is that he spends a lot of time giving specific feedback, and revision of work is a cornerstone in his classes.

      1. I agree. Mark does take the time to give feedback and he encourages peer feedback as well. Maybe that’s where we start the conversation with teachers. If we become better at giving feedback, it may become easier to give up grades.

  3. Hello All,

    I just started reading “3.0” yesterday, and there are certainly points that ring true (by the way, I am a “STEM” teacher going on 20 years). The idea that feedback is overshadowed by a grade is absolutely true, and a recent cause of frustration for me. I think that kids tend to look at the grade and say, “Well this is a done deal.” and skip over the comments. The feedback idea is great, but there has to be a chance (or requirement?) to revisit and resubmit the work for it to be effective. It has me thinking back to the most successful grading system that I used for years as a physics teacher: assignments were either “Acceptable” or “Needs Work.” A needs work was accompanied by feedback and a student could resubmit as many times as needed to get an acceptable. However, grades were used as leverage/incentive – an Acceptable was worth %100 and a Needs Work %50. Kids bought in, and the vast majority would resubmit work. Thinking back now, it may have removed the stigma of the A, B, C, grades, leveling the playing field I think

    Also, the piece about the difference between an A student and a C student resonates with me. It isn’t until I got out in the world/work place that I realized that grades in school had no bearing on a persons ability to problem solve, work effectively with others, etc. I think that I was that C student. Traditional school education does not resemble the world outside. It would be great to give kids a more realistic, well rounded experience. I never received a grade on the job…..just some feedback accompanied by a pay raise!

    The reality of a school without grades is compelling, but the task would be daunting. Barbara, I am really looking forward to trying this out in Making and Marketing. Also looking forward to reading the nuts and bolts of Barnes methods.

  4. I am completely on board with the feedback loop, performance reviews, a portfolio, and eliminating grades – it puts the focus on learning and relieves the pressure of the “one shot” assignment. However, I still have a hard time envisioning, in a practical sense, no grade at the end of a course. Negotiating a grade at the end as Barnes suggests would be of great value for kids – a wonderful chance to reflect (something which we do a poor job of). However, that “negotiated grade” would have to be based on a specific, objective, set of criteria if it were to be reported out. Would that then negate/go against the benefits of the “no grade” assessment?
    At the bottom of it, no grades would seem to promote learning better than traditional methods, so we should do it. A good assessment system should improve learning, not hinder it.

    1. I have a hard time with the “negotiated grade” too. I think it’s a compromise – a simplified way to report to others on a student’s achievement. Negotiating a grade with the student may make that grade more meaningful to the student because it forces the student to reflect, but how meaningful is it to anyone else? I think it’s a step many teachers are forced to take because they are required to put something in the grade book that can be used to compare one student with another. The goal is to get to a point where we can report on a student’s individual progress without simply rating it with a number or letter.

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