Review of Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School by

Book cover for Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School

I have been wanting to go gradeless for a while now. Assigning numbers to students’ work has always felt very arbitrary. Even in a system as steeped in rubrics as Ontario’s, I still don’t have any confidence in marking work—particularly English, but also math—and giving it a number. Really, at the end of the day, what is the difference between an 82% and an 83%? Or an 85%? It’s so silly. And by putting a number on the student’s work, you are basically guaranteeing they won’t look at anything else, at any of the other meticulous, descriptive feedback you’ve put on there because your assessment standards tell you that you should be doing so.

Fortunately there is a better way, and in Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School, Starr Sackstein provides ten practical suggestions to facilitate this process. This is a book I needed. I don’t need to be convinced of the benefits of going gradeless; I did need practical suggestions for what that actually looks like. We are programmed, during our training, to refer to everything in terms of grades and standards. What does gradeless feedback and assessment actually look like? More importantly, what do I do for that final grade we need to report at the end of the class?

I’ll give a little context: I work in adult education right now. It’s a high school; we grant Ontario Secondary School Diplomas. But our students are adults who were not successful in regular high school, for whatever reason. Their ages vary greatly. Classes are mornings or afternoons, five days a week, for seven to eight weeks. So my teaching environment is somewhat different from your typical secondary school teacher. As such, some of Sackstein’s tips don’t directly apply—I don’t need, for instance, to get parents on my side. Most of Sackstein’s tips, however, remain relevant.

I’m not going to go over all ten tips. Instead, I just want to highlight a couple of my favourites, and positive points about the book as a whole.

Firstly, Hacking Assessment is short. It’s about 130 pages, and those pages are crammed full of practical advice. Teachers have a lot of demands on their time, and few of us want to give up some of our precious free time to reading a bulky book full of case studies and other “helpful” educational knowledge. I want to learn professionally, but I want to do it in a smart way. This was a good investment of my time.

Secondly, the structure of every chapter makes it easy to read, absorb, and refer back to Sackstein’s tips. This is my first time reading a book in the Hack Learning series, but I’m given to understand this a staple of the series. The sections are as follows: The Problem, The Hack, What You Can Do Tomorrow, A Blueprint for Full Implementation, Overcoming Pushback, and The Hack in Action. I like it. It acknowledges so many of the realities of teaching: we need tips we can use tomorrow, not at some vague point in the future when we have time to revamp our entire course; we need help when people (colleagues, parents, students) push back at our experimentation; and we need success stories and reflection on failure too. The structure is so useful.

Anyway, some of my favourite hacks?

Hack 3: Rebrand Assignments as Learning Experiences resonated a lot with me, as a teacher of adult learners. So many learners come into class with an attitude that they just need to do some worksheets, get some marks, and move on. I understand where this attitude is coming from. But I want to help re-awaken their appreciation of education and lifelong learning; to do that, I need to deprogram them from what they learned in school was the only way to learn (and at which they were, ultimately, unsuccessful).

Hack 4: Facilitate Student Partnerships is something I am struggling with in my environment and need to keep working at. We like to use the word “empowerment” often without thinking about what that looks like in our specific classroom situations. I know I’m not fully succeeding at this yet, but I want to get better at it. I want my adult learners to step up and take the driver’s seat more often and help each other with the learning, so I can truly step back to be that guide on the side.

Hack 7: Track Progress Transparently is so important to me. I want to stop hiding behind a gradebook full of such arbitrary weights and numbers. I want my students to know, at any given moment, how they are doing a course because they themselves are the ones keeping track. Portfolios are an essential tool for this, and improving my portfolio-fu is one of my next, ongoing goals.

Hacks 8 and 9, Teach Reflection and Teach Students to Self-Grade, are inter-related. I want to get better at teaching reflection, particularly in math, where the prevailing attitude is often one of “did I get the right answer?” instead of “oh, that’s an interesting problem, I wonder how I can solve it”. Similarly, in situations where evaluation based on a standard is necessary, I want to help students do this themselves. They are adults, after all; they’ll need to evaluate themselves constantly outside of the classroom.

I ran two gradeless classes in May/June after reading this book, and my two summer classes are also gradeless. I’m not going back. I’ll work on a blog post at some point that goes into more detail about my experience so far; I’ll link that in this review when it’s out. For now, suffice it to say that nothing is ever perfect the first time, or the second time, or probably even the tenth time. This is a process and a journey, not a switch you can flip in your teaching.

If you have seen the light, and you want to go gradeless too, Hacking Assessment will help you do that. Bottom line: it’s a worthwhile book.

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