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The Grading Conundrum and How I'm fighting Back with Badges

As many people who have gotten into a discussion with me about grading know, I hate grades.  I know that I'm not alone in this regard.  In fact, I would venture to guess that no teacher that enjoys teaching and watching students blossom throughout the course of a semester or year like grades.  Grades are so 1950, which is where many post-secondary schools are also stuck in terms of needing a grade point for students to attain. 

There are several colleges that are beginning to make a transition away from giving grades, which you can read about in this article by Barbara Bellesi, No-Grade Colleges Encourage Hard Work. There are even a few colleges that have begun relax requirements of ACT and GPA.  While there are studies that show a students grades are the best determinant in success in college, I would argue that it's not the grade, but the mastery of the concepts of the class that matters.  Earning a B- or C+ or an 80% or 95% can be drastically different between schools in terms of a value of knowledge.

Grading has always been a sore spot for me as teachers, parents, and students really cannot quantify what a grade really means and agree on it.  Over the past few years I have been introduce to a few super cool people with amazing ideas.  People like James Sanders, who works at KIPP Schools in California, and was on President Obama's education team as a fellow last year. James believes greatly in a system that uses badges.

Yes, you can think of them as a boy scout or girl scout badge.  It's actually a good metaphor for a school badge.  If you learn how to sew a patch on a sash, start a fire, lead troop activity or complete a ropes course you get a badge.  When you look at a badge, you know what it was that the person accomplished and what skill he/she mastered.  This is how "grades" should work in schools, and it is what I'm testing this year.
I used a web based tool called that has allowed me to create badges in place of grades.  They are all aligned to the Common Core standards, NETS, and Next Gen Science standards. Creating the badges forced me to think about what the core concepts were I needed my students to master in order to pass my course.

This also links directly to the new RTI initiative we are implementing.  There are a certain set of core standards that need to be met by every course.  Link them to badges, and when the badge is earned, you know that student has mastered that concept.  Some examples I like to give are writing an MLA paper, understanding how to graph a linear equation, or successfully completing an experiment.  Each of these have standards that are directly tied to the concepts and if a student earns that badge, the teacher, the student, the parent and any college admissions board should be able to understand what it is they have mastered.

It's also fun as you can create fun, cool, super creative badges.  You can link badges together to create super or epic class badges that require mastery of one badge to move to the next badge.  This gamifies your classroom a bit as well.  So far my students have given positive feedback to the badge system, and I encourage you to give in a try as well.  You can start by just using badges in one unit and see how it goes.

I still have to give a letter grade at the end of the course, but I made that easier too.  Certain badges are required to pass my course.  These are the essential learning targets.  If a student earns those badges, he/she pass with a C.  If she/he wants a higher grade, she/he needs to earn more badges beyond the required badges.  Below is a picture of the system in one of my courses.

For All Rubrics is not the only site that offers badge creation, but they make it pretty easy as you can simply select the standards from a list for each badge, add your description, create the badge, and award the badges all from their site.  Google Sign-in is available for schools that are Google Apps schools as well!

If you do give it a try, let me know how it goes!

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