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How to Take Letter Grades Out of Your Art Room to Refocus on Learning

Do you ever feel like grading is a thorn in your side? Many art teachers do! Giving a letter grade in a class that champions creativity can feel confusing at best and punitive or arbitrary at worst. You may find that when your students focus only on the end game, their artwork and critical thinking skills suffer. But assigning letter grades is something most of us have to do; it’s part of the job.

But what if it didn’t have to be? Taking away the focus on letter grades sounds unimaginable, but it can be done! If you are looking for ways to shift the focus in your classroom, keep reading. Helping students understand the importance of product and process through feedback and assessment can greatly impact their learning. If you haven’t read The Inequities of Grading: How to Assess Your Own Grading Practices or How to Motivate Your Students Beyond Grades, you may want to take a peek before diving deeper into this topic.

In this article, we are going to address the following three questions:

  1. What is the difference between grades and assessment?
  2. How can you shift the focus from letter grades to assessments to benefit students?
  3. What are some strategies to implement in your classroom to help your students focus on more than letter grades?

Note: Adhere to your district and school’s grading policies. It is imperative to get permission, support, and buy-in from your administration before implementing any changes. 

think outside the box

1. What is the difference between grades and assessment?

How many times have you heard the phrase, “Will this get me an A?” If you rolled your eyes just now, then you know the problem. Our students are trained at an early age that to achieve, they must check the boxes dictated by the teacher. Unfortunately, this has created disengaged learning for many. We have unintentionally supported habits that can make students focus more on the product than the process. Our students know exactly how to work the system because they are a long-standing product of it.

This isn’t your students’ fault. But we can change this in our classrooms despite it being a recurring hurdle. When students check their grades and toss their artwork in the trash, they are saying, “The purpose of this class is simply to get a grade.

Like our students, we often equate grades with assessment and feedback. However, grading and assessment are not synonymous. Grades can be arbitrary, inaccurate, and assess the “wrong” thing. Because art teachers struggle to accurately and equitably assess student artwork, we often attach behaviors and reward compliance over learning. Grades rarely give effective feedback to help students develop further in their practice.

Shift the reward from grades to feedback. This doesn’t have to take hours to write or be as long as a novel. Authentic feedback is already happening. You help students with short bits of support, advice, and quick critiques through informal dialogue as well as more formal structures. This type of feedback is much more effective than a letter grade in helping a student develop and grow. After creating a culture of feedback, students yearn for what you have to share rather than who received the top percentage. Engage students in the feedback loop, assess with a growth mindset, and meet them where they are. Shifting this process shows how much you care about a student’s development through what and how they are learning.

boarding assistance

2. How can you shift the focus from letter grades to assessment to benefit students?

The first step is to create an environment that values learning. Fostering such an environment takes time to establish but creates long-lasting buy-in. We know we don’t simply insert knowledge into young brains. Students must actively engage in the process of learning. Shift the focus from outcome-driven expectations to the journey it takes to get there.

Here are some ways you can shift the focus from product to process:

  • Prioritize practice, experimentation, failure, and persistence as an important cycle in learning.
  • Focus on reflection as a key ingredient to identifying how learning impacts future ideas, artworks, and artistic decisions.
  • Prompt students to articulate how challenges, successes, and failures are a normal part of learning.
  • Provide space for students to demonstrate learning by revising and resubmitting.

When students believe their teacher values the learning process, they will begin to shift how they approach their classwork.

pool steps

3. What are some strategies to implement in your classroom to help your students focus on more than letter grades?

There are many approaches to “ungrading.” If you are skeptical or nervous, there are some easy steps to dip your toes in the water.

Here are four ways to get started:

  1. Remove grades from any homework you assign.
    If you want to make homework a practice in your classroom, set it up as part of the class routine. Let’s say you want your students to do sketchbook drawings outside of class. Establish the expectations around this activity from the beginning and model what it will look like for them. Share the importance of the activity and the why behind it. Reinforce how that day’s sketchbook drawing will help their specific in-class artwork. Affirm those who did the assignment, and reference the drawings as a valuable resource during studio time.
  2. Stop deducting points from late work.
    We want our students to turn work in on time. However, removing points from their grades is not as effective as we think it to be. It can be punitive and does not teach them how to manage their time. If you have a student who is habitually turning in late work, sit down and have a conversation with them to troubleshoot the root issue. Schedule check-ins leading up to deadlines to help students stay on top of their work.
  3. Refrain from assigning points to behaviors. 
    Our job as art teachers is to teach and assess visual art. While behavior can impact artmaking, the standards that guide this process only assess student artwork. Of course, you can still manage behavior by affirming the behaviors you want to see and rerouting the ones you want to improve.
  4. Allow students to resubmit summative work for a higher grade.
    Make your deadlines clear so you can give timely feedback. Students can take that feedback, revise their work, and resubmit, adhering to a new deadline to demonstrate further skill and concept development. Create the mindset that learning is an ongoing process, not a “one-and-done.”

Try these out first to see how they feel for you. Observe how your students respond and how outcomes are impacted. We can also use a sports analogy to illustrate this shift to our students. In order to win the championships, first, put in the time and effort each and every practice. Daily responsibilities such as completing homework, turning work in on time, following behavior expectations, and resubmitting work for a higher grade all contribute to stronger final artworks. Help students see the big picture so they care about the “smaller” steps and understand that learning is an ongoing process.

learn sketchbook

If you are prepared for a bigger action step to explore grades-free assessment, let’s look at one way you can approach this.

Pilot Program

Breaking free from the mold can be daunting when working within the traditional public education system. One way to approach this is to propose a pilot program. As a new teacher or a veteran teacher at a new school, you will probably want to wait on this until you are more established. Knowing the school culture and your administration is crucial to making any meaningful change.

A pilot starts with collaborative conversations around grading policies and researched best practices. In my district, I was an established teacher and a 504 Coordinator. This allowed me to work closely with families, instructional coaches, counselors, and administration. You don’t have to have all of those connections, but it helps. At the time of my pilot, our teachers had been having grading conversations across the district on a consistent basis. In my department, we were rethinking our grading policies and practices with our Professional Learning Community (PLC) weekly. The time was perfect for piloting something new and seeing what impact it could have in the larger context.

Piloting a program is an excellent option that promotes collaboration, accountability, and support without bucking the system head-on. The first step is to broach the subject with your administration. Your school most likely has very specific parameters and expectations for grading steeped in years of tradition and research. This is not something to go rogue on!

Proposal

If your administration is receptive, it’s time to create a thoughtful, well-researched plan. Consider this a working document that you will adjust and alter. You will want flexibility and grace from your community to pivot when things don’t feel quite right. Set up a time to meet with your administration to present your proposal.

The proposal should include the following three parts:

  1. Rationale: Research, Observations, and Reflections
    Why am I interested in trialing this in my art room?
    What have I observed from my students in connection with grades?
    How will this benefit my students?
  2. Logistics: Nuts and Bolts
    What will this look like?
    What is my expected outcome?
    What are possible challenges?
  3. Accountability: Buy-In and Adjustments
    How will I prepare my students and parents for this program?
    How will I assess my progress in this program?
    What will I do if it isn’t working?
    How does having no grades result in a grade for the transcript?

Pitch

When preparing to meet with your administration, keep an open mind and provide options for slowly making this change. Their approval of your ideas is essential. Support for even the smallest shift in grading policy is a huge step toward making lasting change in your classroom and beyond. Start with one class, receive approval, and trial it. The pilot process is ongoing, with adjustments and constant feedback from students, families, colleagues, and administration. Collecting data and presenting your observations and findings is key to turning one piloted class into a wider change.

Home Communication

Once you have your administration’s approval, you will still need buy-in from students and their parents/guardians. Make sure they are aware of your pilot program and understand your policies from day one. Send home a letter explaining how this new system will benefit their student, what it will look like in your classroom, and how you will assess and provide feedback throughout the semester. Most likely, your students will still need an assigned grade at the end of the quarter, semester, and/or year. Demonstrate how you will align your pilot program to your district’s grading policies to provide an accurate grade.

Buy-in from students is an ongoing process. Students will continue to ask, “Is this for a grade?” Students will begin responding to each other with, “There are no grades in this class.” This doesn’t happen overnight but rather through constant reinforcement of the process. Some students will thrive in this new environment, while others will struggle “not knowing” how they are doing. Remind them that the feedback they receive daily, not a letter grade, informs them of how well they are doing. Integrate reflection consistently to support this process.

Gradebook

Most schools require a letter grade for calculating grade point averages and credit allocation. So how can you translate your no-grades classroom into an actual grade? This feels off-putting after all the work you just devoted, but sometimes we still have to work within the system.

You may be allowed to set up your grade book using comments, feedback, and drop-down options instead of letter grades. Students can see where they are in their formative work by receiving a proficiency mark. For example, if a student completed their value scales and did an amazing job, mark them as “Exemplary.” Maybe they struggled with their color mixing worksheet. Providing marks of “Developing” with a specific comment gives students much more information than a letter grade. This tells students exactly what they need to work on as they develop their larger artwork. Students have fewer questions about their grades because it is clear throughout the process.

Another way to do this is to use “on-track” or predictive grades. Each month, review the data you collected, including ongoing feedback and proficiency marks. Create a system that provides a letter grade in connection to this progress. Remind students that this is not a final indicator of their end grade but rather an opportunity for dialogue and further feedback.

The following is an example of what this can look like at the high school level with a year-long foundations course that normally uses traditional letter grades. Adapt the principles to your own course/class. 

  1. End of First Quarter
    Students are getting warmed up for the school year and are learning the ropes in your class. They are practicing, exploring, and dabbling in trial and error. Students receive a pass/fail grade with written or verbal feedback.
    Example 1: An example of specific feedback for a student who is passing can be, “You are doing a great job with your artwork. You have designed strong compositions by emphasizing your focal points. Our work is going to get more complex next quarter. I look forward to seeing how you push through some of the upcoming challenges!”
    Example 2: An example of specific feedback for a student who is failing can be, “Unfortunately, you have not been to class and have not submitted enough work for me to see your progress. I am worried about you! Schedule a time to chat with me.” Note that this should not be the first time the student or their caregivers have received this message from you.
  2. End of Second Quarter
    Students receive an on-track letter grade correlating to the standards. This is through the development of a growth portfolio comprised of individual units or artworks. Follow your district and school policies to determine your standards, and align your objectives and criteria accordingly. Assess students for each unit or artwork based on the aligned standards, objectives, and criteria. If a student disagrees with their on-track grade, meet to discuss it further.
    Example: Let’s say you have five standards for a particular unit. Here is what you can say to a student who has only reached four out of the five standards, “Your ‘on track’ grade is currently a B. You are consistently meeting four out of the five standards identified in our coursework. The fifth standard covers planning. To master this standard, take some time to research and plan out your artwork. It will pay off in the long run and give you a more meaningful and unified artwork! Based on our ‘no grades’ system, four out of five standards corresponds to the letter grade of a B for the purpose of report cards.”
  3. End of Third Quarter
    The grade becomes a predictive grade closely aligned to an expected outcome. Follow your district and school policies to determine what the expected outcome of the course should be. This can be found in curriculum documents, scope and sequences, and standards. At this point in the course, you should see a pattern of strengths and weaknesses as well as areas of growth and improvement for each student. The specific feedback and predictive letter grade will look extremely similar to the previous example. However, you can make it more personalized by referring to specific artworks and evidence in their growth portfolios. If a student does not agree with their predictive grade, meet to discuss it further.
  4. End of Fourth Quarter
    Students submit their finalized growth portfolio with reflection. This holistic grade takes into account their full journey of learning and development, and referencing their reflections will include areas of growth you may have missed. You and the students will be able to see their artistic growth as well as their ability to make big picture connections over the course. The specific feedback and predictive letter grade will look very similar to the previous examples. However, you can pull in elements from their reflections and capture their growth over the whole course versus individual quarters. If a student disagrees with their holistic grade, meet to discuss it further.

Reality

Here’s the truth: most students end up receiving A’s and B’s but not for the reason you may think. Taking letter grades out of the equation doesn’t lower standards. In fact, because students take feedback to heart, they create at a higher level than if you cap their imagination and ingenuity at a percentage point. Students strive to create and develop what interests them as artists. Through their portfolios, they demonstrate how they work through their unique creative processes, fail, persist, and consistently reflect. They articulate where they were going and why. All of this is authentic evidence of their learning. When holding that evidence up against the standards, they almost always exceed expectations. This is what authentic learning looks like when unobstructed by a system of letter grades.

Taking the letter grades out of the classroom takes deep reflection and flexibility. As adults, grades are nothing new to us, both as previous (or current) students ourselves and as teachers trained to grade in return. It’s not easy for us to turn off our grading minds and reimagine how it could work for our students to receive no letter grades. As we grapple with grades and grading systems, perhaps it’s a good time to consider the “why.” If the goal of education is for students to learn and develop, then it’s our job to find ways for them to do so in the most authentic way possible.

How do you feel about grading in your art room? 

Have you ever tried to take letter grades out of your classroom? 

In what ways can you minimize grading to refocus on the learning process?

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.

Janet Taylor

Contributor

Janet Taylor is AOEU’s K–12 Content Specialist and a former AOEU Writer and high school art educator. She geeks out about choice-based curriculum, assessment strategies, and equipping new teachers.

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