What Is It like to Teach Without Grades?

It’s no secret many people don’t think of the fine arts as real academic subject areas. As art teachers, we know this isn’t true. The skills taught in our classes are every bit as important as those taught in math or science. Where the difference does come in, however, is grading. It can be limiting and awkward to conform our classes to the assessment models used in other academic areas.

Several years ago, my school shifted the high school classes to pass-fail and took on a new method of evaluation and assessment for our students.

This is the story of how that decision came about and the continuing legacy of that change.

snippet of school paper announcing no grades

Our Current Grading System

At our high school, students in the visual arts receive only one of two grades, Pass or Fail. This system is used for students in dance, drama, music, and visual art.

However, there is a considerable amount of additional feedback they receive beyond that description.

At the beginning of the semester, students are given a set of criteria or goals on which they will be evaluated. They receive feedback based on a scale of performance for each of these criteria.

Students also receive narrative comments on their report cards, portfolio reviews, and formative feedback.

The Grading Scale for Our Classes

  • Exceeds Expectations (E)
    Students who exceed expectations have gone beyond the required level of mastery and have demonstrated a high level of motivation and excellence.
  • Mastered Requirements (M)
    Students who have generally mastered the requirements of the criterion and can demonstrate proficiency in and understanding of the stated goal or concept. Occasional errors are acceptable and expected.
  • Working toward the goal (W)
    Students who are clearly making progress and working toward the goal, but have not yet mastered the requirements of the criterion.
  • Not Meeting Expectations (N)
    Students who are not meeting expectations and have demonstrated consistently poor progress toward mastering the requirements of the criterion.

We use a similar scale at the middle school level as well.

art students working

How We Got Here

In conversation with Ty Talbot, the Fine Arts Department Chair, we discussed the process and rationale that brought about the change to our current system. You can see what he had to say below.

“It happened right in the middle of the shift in grading policy to more formative assessment, clearer learning goals stated up front in classes, and decreased emphasis on so-called compliance grades. Around this time, Alfie Kohn also spoke at PNAIS about the deleterious effects of grades on student risk-taking and motivation.

A little bit of explaining needed to happen [with students and faculty]. But, once people understood our perspective, it was pretty smooth. The department was all-in.”

The new grading system was officially adopted in 2011. To date, the fine arts department is the only department with this assessment model in the high school.

chart of process of moving to no grades

Concerns

Devaluing Art Classes

Early on, there was a concern this shift would end up devaluing art classes as a whole. However, this approach ended up demonstrating the seriousness with which we take our students and their work.

The previous system did not reflect the nuances of the fine arts process or experience. So much of artmaking can’t be adequately assessed or summarized by a traditional letter grade. This new system of feedback supported student learning to a much greater degree.

College Admissions

There was additional concern about college admissions and the impact this grade shift would have on students. According to most college admissions reps, many colleges routinely drop fine art (and P.E.) grades entirely when they calculate GPAs.

Additionally, many other high schools across the country issue pass-fail grades and colleges are used to interpreting diverse styles of grade reporting. This change demonstrated the department’s integrity, striving to avoid the trap of grade inflation.

Results

The system has been in place for several years now, and we could not be happier with the results. Primarily, this new system has encouraged more experimentation and risk-taking from our high school students. It has released them from the concern of not getting things “right” and seeing their letter grade suffer.

In addition, students are now getting substantive feedback. This feedback comes from rubrics and self-assessment. Students grade themselves on the rubrics alongside the teacher input. It’s been well-received throughout the school, and there are no plans to revert the fine arts classes to the old system.

While it took some getting used to, the pass-fail system has changed grading for the better in our school!

What does grading look like at your school?

Do you believe fine arts classes should be assessed differently than other classes?

Raymond Yang

Ray Yang is a Middle and Upper School Art Teacher and Teaching Artist in Seattle, WA. He is a passionate advocate for social justice and believes the arts can change the world.

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  • Laura Moakley

    I don’t know if this would make students work a lot less knowing that they could get by with minimal effort. I know you wrote about that it wasn’t the case. I feel like in my district those grades are needed for the work effort. Although looking at the diagram that displays the grading rubric that was displayed is similar to what I see when I read IEPS . Its an interesting approach but I don’t know if it work everywhere. We have IB art in our district and this is a very detailed grading system that gives a grade for every aspect of the art making process, The one great takeaway with this article is the continuous use of rubrics and yes it really does help with student feedback etc.

  • Melissa Gilbertsen

    Arrrgh! I go back and forth on this all the time! Ian Sands, in his book co-authored by Melissa Purtee, “The Open Art Room”, chooses to assign pass/fail vs. specific grades. I thought there was no way I could do that as I often get a number of beasties who take art because it’s “easy” (they think) and I worry this would encourage more behavior issues and not genuinely interested in art kids. BUT, at the same time, I see kids who just give up if they think they aren’t going to get a good grade. If learning wasn’t tied to a grade I know that they would take more chances… Daniel Pink writes about this in several of his recent books. I asked a dedicated student the other day if everyone wasn’t graded would they still try as hard? She said yes, and that she wouldn’t really care that someone who doesn’t work as hard still would get the same grade. She felt she was here to learn. Wow. But do more kids feel this way? More thinking and pondering left to do for me…
    Thanks for the brain poke!😆