A few months ago, I wrote about teaching my AP Literature class sans grades (at least as much as possible). De-Grading the AP Lit Classroom

One of the main benefits has been a refocusing on the actual standards that the students need to master over the course of the year. My school does standards-based grading in the elementary and I was initially wary of the approach in high school. My concern was that by breaking everything down into individual skills and pieces of knowledge and only assessing them individually, a student could in theory master every piece and yet still not be able to put all the pieces together. That’s a particularly big concern in English, especially when it comes to writing. I don’t care if a student has memorized all the uses of a comma if they can’t use them effectively in their writing.

And while that’s still a concern, I’ve figured out how to design assessments that do both: measure the individual skills and still require students to put the pieces together cohesively. I like how the AP Literature standards are laid out by Collegeboard (though I’ll leave off ranting about their website design capabilities for another day), specifically that each strand is distilled down to just a few skills. If a student can master those skills, they will have learned a lot over the course of just one year. Yet, that’s not enough. While some of the writing (Literary Argumentation) skills do require putting pieces together, some of the others aren’t worth much just by themselves.

My assessments (writing assignments and projects mostly) will usually focus on several interconnected standards. Each standard is assessed separately (and it’s generally easy to see which skill a student met and which one they didn’t), but I also require that they put together some of those skills. The students know ahead of time which skills I’ll be looking for, so similar to a rubric, they know what they must include. But if they’re writing an essay–say, on picking a symbol and exploring its larger meaning in Frank Herbert’s Dune–it’s not good enough to just accurately identify and symbol, write a strong thesis, and spell correctly. There actually needs to be a compelling essay to hold those pieces together.

What has been so heartening these last few months has been watching students get their papers back and really grapple with what they did well and where they need to improve. They know exactly what didn’t work because it’s not just written out in my comments but because the listed skill will tell them whether they met it or not. They know which questions to ask me when they go about their revisions. And then watching a student, who for several essays struggled with turning their thoughts on a specific section of a text into literary analysis, finally succeed, is very rewarding—for me and for the student.

I’ve had students do optional assignments, and had a much higher percentage complete voluntary essay revisions, than in any of my previous classes. And it’s not because they’re concerned about a grade. It’s entirely because they know they have something more to learn and they want to demonstrate that they have mastered a certain skill.

I think when not done well, a standards-based approach can lead to just a long list of checked or unchecked boxes. In theory, students would still learn but it would likely be quite dull and routinized. Instead, through this approach I’ve become far better at designing assessments; I’ve learned to craft each assessment so that it measures the standards I need it to individually, but also requires cohesiveness, ingenuity, and creativity.