Traditional grading systems often encourage students to focus on achieving higher grades rather than on their learning. In this episode, Starr Sackstein joins us to discuss how classes can be redesigned to improve student engagement and learning. Starr has been an educator for 20 years and is currently the COO of Mastery Portfolio, an educational consultant, and instructional coach and speaker. She is the author of more than 10 books on education, including the best-selling Hacking Assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional grades school, which has just been released in a new edition.
- Sackstein, S. (2015). Hacking Assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional grades school. Times 10 Publications.
- Sackstein, S. (2022). Hacking Assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional grades school. 2nd ed. (Amazon link) Times 10 Publications.
- Mastery Portfolio
- Kohn, A. (2012). The case against grades. The Education Digest, 77(5), 8.
- O’Connor, K. (2012). How to grade for learning by using 15 fixes for broken grades.
- Kohn, A., & Blum, S. D. (2020). Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). West Virginia University Press.
John: Traditional grading systems often encourage students to focus on achieving higher grades rather than on their learning. In this episode, we discuss how classes can be redesigned to improve student engagement and learning.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…
Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Starr Sackstein. Starr has been an educator for 20 years and is currently the COO of Mastery Portfolio, an educational consultant, and instructional coach and speaker. She is the author of more than 10 books on education, including the best-selling Hacking Assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional grades school, which has been released in a new edition. Welcome, Starr.
Starr: Thanks so much. I’m excited to be here.
John: Today’s teas are… Starr, are you drinking tea?
Starr: I am drinking water. No tea unfortunately, not yet.
Rebecca: Not yet. Okay. See, there we go, there’s promise there. I have Scottish Breakfast tea today.
John: And I have spring cherry green tea.
Rebecca: Well, that’s good.
Starr: Those both sound delicious, really.
Rebecca: So, you haven’t had that one in a while, John.
John: I haven’t had any in a while…
Rebecca: true that…
John: …we took a pause in recording for about a month. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Fair. But even prior to that it had been a while I think.
John: I think so too.
Rebecca: We invited you here today to discuss Hacking Assessment. The first edition of your book seven years ago helped to launch the ungrading movement. Could you give us some background on what prompted you to move away from traditional grading systems?
Starr: Absolutely. In years one to five when I was in the classroom, I would say that I pretty much did grading and assessment the way it was done to me. And the one major significant thing that changed during that time was I had a child. And in his elementary school, they actually use standards-based grading. And when I got his first report card and saw just how much information I got from his teachers, and how the behaviors were separate from the actual learning and the narratives were really aligned with where he needed support and what was going on. I was like, Mmmh…for someone teaching AP English, only having the opportunity to give one grade, with pre slugged sort of comments that I was allowed to bubble into my… back then we were still using Scantrons for entering grades. I’m definitely dating myself by saying that, but it’s the truth. And I started getting really frustrated with that. And from there, I started doing a lot of reading. Alfie Kohn has really played with a lot of these ideas for a long time now. And then folks like Ken O’Connor, who had the book 15 Fixes for Broken Grades, his first edition, I think it’s been republished twice already, in the time since I’ve read from there. I read his book, and I was like, “Oh, my God, I am doing all of this wrong.” There are so many things on this list that I do, and I never thought about it that way, and it’s just not how I want to keep doing things. And I think there’s a synergy with when you decide to read a book, whether or not it resonates with you and whether or not you’re ready to start implementing the things that you learn. And I think I was very ready to first acknowledge that the practice I was doing wasn’t serving my students as well as I could. And I was looking for alternatives. So having those jumping off points, having read a bunch of different things, and then meeting Mark Barnes along the way as well, and experimenting with alright, well, these are suggestions for this kind of space. What does this look like in New York City public schools, as an 11th and 12th grade English teacher and also as a journalism teacher? How do I start making this work? And that’s sort of how it all happened and then it took years to figure out how do I make this work well, because I did it for a while before it worked well. [LAUGHTER] There were a lot of mistakes, unfortunately.
John: We’ve been dealing with a number of people starting to experiment with ungrading in college, but it’s a little bit easier in a college environment, I think, to make these changes, because there’s a little bit less structure imposed on teachers. How were you able to implement this in a K through 12 system?
Starr: So I think I was very fortunate to be in a very small community when I started doing this. We were six to 12. I was already a very established teacher in that community. I had a track record of getting students prepared for college. And most of the families when I made choices, always kind of knew that they were intentional, and there were reasons. And in my AP classes, that was probably the most struggle, because parents get nervous when they have 12th graders, what is this gonna look like on the transcript? How is this going to impact my students moving forward from school? And I just really tried to set up systems and to be super transparent about everything that we were doing so that first of all, I live streamed my class a lot, for better or for worse. And I say that because not every class was a winner. So if you were watching when it wasn’t a winner, like, well, this is reality, it wasn’t a good day. But I think they were able to see the rigor of what was going on in the space and despite the fact that it didn’t look like what normal AP classes looked like, they could appreciate my wanting to be flexible to the individual learners in my classroom… that even the creative projects I was asking them to do was often a lot more intensive than just doing a test or just writing a paper and gave that level of inquiry into that process as well so that students could be really excited about the learning they were doing. And the more comfortable I got with different technologies… I experimented with blogging to increase reading. That’s one of the biggest problems in English classes. I think most kids don’t read the books for a lot of different reasons. So how do you get them to read when you’re teaching a literature class, beyond just the five or seven or 10 books you’re reading as a whole class. So they started blogging, and we started using the blogging communities for recommendations on different books they were enjoying on their own and why they enjoyed it. And I really encouraged them to use that space too as a way to develop their writing voice. So it wasn’t like analytical writing all the time, it was more conversational… reaction sort of stuff to what they were reading and focused instead of like overviews of everything that they read… an analysis paper, which isn’t always fun for every single kid. I started tweaking that and I think parents appreciated my transparency. I did screencasts of our dashboard, because I had changed the way I was using the tool that my whole school was using. So like, if you have any questions, this is what it looks like, this is what you’re seeing. And if they emailed me, I just really tried to get back to them immediately, so that I could really put their concerns to rest before they started doing the thing that parents do, where they start making it a lot worse than it actually is. So I tried to catch that right away. To be honest, though, my colleagues were the ones with the greater pushback than parents and students… a couple of students, but just shifting the conversation away from grades, instead of what did I get? What did you learn? How can we track that progress over time? How do you know you learned it? Where do you see that evidence in your own learning. And I think very soon after getting in the routine of this is how we do things now they got it and saw that the level of metacognition as well as the rigor in the actual tasks were much greater than what they would have been seeing in a regular class anyway. So sometimes I got the: “this writing reflection is like a whole other paper that you’re asking us to do.” And I’m like, “Yeah, it is. But it also helps me give you better feedback, and it also helps me know where I need to adjust my instruction. So there’s a reason and it’s worthwhile, and it’s gonna help you, when you’re not just in school. This is a practice that you’ll probably carry with you.”
Rebecca: One of the things that you just brought up, Starr, is something that I definitely want to follow up on, which is getting our colleagues to also buy into this, and administrators. We exist within systems that require grade inputs. Grades are transcripted. So how do we get the people around us who support us professionally, to get on board? And what does that actually look like, functionally, when we’re generating grades when we’re saying we’re kind of ungrading all semester.
Starr: So those are really good questions. And in the second edition, I actually have built in leadership tips to support leaders who are unfamiliar with this kind of assessment practice and how they can support teachers who want to do it, if they’re not doing it wholesale as a school. I advocate for systemic use of this practice, because if we catch kids much younger, by the time they get to high school, their language and fluency in discussing their own learning is a lot greater. I was a 12th grade teacher, my kids had come through an entire system where this was not how it was done. So it was like, literally at the last minute, I’m like, “Yeah, I know, that’s the way you’ve been doing it this whole time. But we’re gonna do it a little differently and I promise you’ll still get into college.” It’s a different vibe. And my colleagues, I think, knew my students appreciated it, because they would start hearing from my students: “How come you don’t do this?” …which is also like a little bit of a target was put on my back, because if a school or a district is going to make the shift, it requires a lot of professional learning. And if you aren’t the kind of teacher who makes the time to do learning on your own, then there really does need to be supports put in place prior to it’s happening. And I’m a super reflective teacher, I did National Board Certification, I will go out of my way to get myself to a conference even if my school wasn’t paying for it. Because as an educator, I felt it was an essential part of my job to continually grow and model that for my students. But not every teacher is like that. And I’m not suggesting that everyone has to be or whatever their process is, but I do think it’s important to invite colleagues into your space, give them that “what you could do tomorrow kind of tips” like what are the first few steps you could take to try this out before you commit to it wholesale. And in terms of the grading aspect, the way that I got around the traditional grading was assessment conferences with my students. So really building in a vibrant and robust portfolio system where students were collecting their learning over a larger period of time, giving them the vocabulary to talk about their growth as they looked at those things, and then a conversation just like this. So based on the standards we worked on this marking period, where do you find yourself in terms of mastery? And what does that translate to for a report card grade, because I had to put a grade on the report card as well. So it was really just making them acutely aware of what exemplary work looks like, how they were meeting benchmarks to get there over time, and then also switch that transactional sort of relationship around getting grades to a more progress minded model, where they understand learning doesn’t happen in one sitting. And even though you may have successfully completed one assignment, that doesn’t mean you’ve mastered a particular skill, it’s just your first go at it. In order to get to that mastery level, you have to do it over time with less and less support, and kind of do it on your own.
John: What sort of buy in did you get from other teachers that you were working with?
Starr: It was secret at first. There were like people just dropping by out of curiosity to see what was going on in my classroom. Then a couple of other people just asking, “what would this look like in my gradebook?” I was very lucky in the one sense that our whole school was a portfolio school. So that part of it was already there. And then I also did some PD with my colleagues around reflection practices. We tried to really create something that was consistent, and also the same. So like I had created a process for doing reflection, which is that five steps sort of: first, you have to reexamine what was it I was asked to do? What were my steps for completing the assignment? Where do I think I’m meeting the goals that I set for myself? How am I doing that? What level am I doing that at? And what would I do differently in the future? And then we kind of scaffold that down to sixth grade up to 12th grade. So what is that kind of reflection look like in a sixth grade classroom, a seventh grade classroom, all the way up to 12. So that there are realistic expectations in that space around those things. And my classroom was always open. And I resented the fact that when my principal decided that she wanted us to go to a standards-based model, I implored her to not do it the way she did. I think we should have a pilot team, we should have a committee that does this, we should test it out first, try to get either a grade level team or a content area vertically to commit to doing this and then have input from more people. And then we need to train folks in the areas they aren’t already familiar with, starting with unpacking standards and getting them comfortable with that kind of language and what our expectations are. But that’s not what happened. It was like an email that went out. We’re going to do this this year. And it was a disaster. And I got attached to the disaster as a direct correlation to how all that happened. And unfortunately, you get one good shot to make a significant assessment or grading shift in a decade, because unless your folks are leaving quickly, no one forgets. So really setting up systems in the future, if folks who are listening want to do this on a bigger scale, set yourself up for a three- to five-year implementation plan, start small and grow it organically and provide tons of support along the way so everybody feels confident and not just your teachers, your community also. What does this look like for your parents? What are they going to be receiving that’s different? And just make sure that you have answers to commonly asked questions on the front end, so that when new stuff starts coming in, you’re ready to triage that, you’re not just answering the standard questions over and over and over again.
John: You mentioned in your first edition of the book that one of the motivations for this was to get students to focus on their learning rather than on grades. How successful was this? Did this work for most students?
Starr: For most, yes. And believe it or not, the ones that don’t traditionally do school well, who don’t play the game, it worked best for them. And as three educators sitting on this podcast right now, I think we can all agree that sometimes our brightest students are not the ones who do the best. The ones who do the best are the ones who are most committed to getting high grades and kind of checking the boxes and doing everything that they have to be compliant for in order to get that score. So when we shifted the focus away from that and started looking at skill acquisition and content deepening, and really getting them to be able to advocate for their own needs in that specific area, I think that it wasn’t just about them completing the tasks I asked them to do, but it required them to engage with me in a dialogue in the kinds of tasks they wanted to be doing, the way they wanted to be doing it. And it required my flexibility with taking that input and actually putting it into action. So I think that once they saw that I was listening to their feedback actively and using it right away to shift the way class looked, they understood that I wasn’t just saying, “I’m asking you to do this,” it was a real partnership, where if this is going to be successful, and you want your voice to be heard, you need to contribute or else you can’t complain when you don’t like what ended up happening, because I really did try to say “yes,” just about to everything, if they could articulate how their decisions and their choices aligned with what the objectives were, then I was totally hands off in their process to sort of help them be successful in the big picture. And it also really decreased the amount of folks who didn’t participate in the group work or didn’t participate in the learning. So when people say my students don’t finish work, or they don’t submit things, to me, that’s a red flag that either something else is going on that you need to get to the bottom of, or the kind of learning you’re asking them to do isn’t resonating. And rather than just pulling out the binder from what you’ve done for the last 20 years, you really do have to make a concerted effort to make changes so that it meets the needs of the kiddos that are sitting in front of you right now.
Rebecca: So you’ve talked a lot about reflection, and the role reflection is playing. Can you talk a bit about how you were able to get students up to the level of reflection that is really meaningful and gets to this metacognitive skill, building
Starr: Feedback, feedback, feedback. We give a lot of feedback to everything that kids do in the classroom. But the first few times we ask them to reflect, it’s so important that we’re also giving them feedback on their reflections, providing exemplars for them, really creating success criteria too, like that co-construction, like if I’m telling you, these are three examples that are wildly different, but all successful, what do you notice about all three of them? What are the things that need to be a part of every single reflection that we do. And then as they do them, rather than have them revise every single one that they do, since they’re doing them with every major assignment, it’s like, “alright, well, now take the feedback you got from the last one, apply it to this one and let’s see if we can’t grow you.” And usually by, I would say November, they’re already writing fairly good reflections and their ability to have conversation about their level of learning already starts to increase, because by November, you’ve already had a progress report conversation, you’ve already had a quarter one report card conversation. And I was doing a lot of modeling myself, like I would reflect openly on how successful projects went, in my estimation, and be really, really tied to the outcomes. And not just what I think or what I feel, but what I noticed, and how I would do it differently if we had the opportunity to do something similar again. And I think, again, that level of transparency and my comfort with saying to them, I don’t know how to make this better. What do you think? What made this experience challenging? Were my directions not as clear as they could have been? What do I need to learn from this experience? So it was very much a two-way street, which took time. And I do want to say that too. Like, I think I was seven or eight years into the classroom before I was comfortable enough to say “I didn’t know something.” That takes confidence in a way that you don’t really think. In the beginning of my career, I felt like I needed to be the expert over all of the students in my room, and I had to have an answer for everything. And I said a lot of wrong things because I was trying so hard to look like an authority. And I think the older I get, the more I work with educators, the more I realize that I’m a learner, I don’t know everything, even the stuff I’ve spent a lot of time teaching I don’t know everything about and new perspectives are incredibly useful in how I approach something because it’s the first time this group of kids is seeing something I might have tried before. Their input is extraordinarily useful for me to make changes moving forward.
John: It’s also a great way of nurturing a growth mindset in students by reminding them that we’re all part of this learning experience together. And that no matter how much experience you have, there’s always more you can learn. And so I think that’s a really great process. And it’s something that I think it generally takes a while for most people to get to.
John: So you mentioned having conferences with students, how often do you conference with students?
Starr: So, there’s lots of different levels of conferencing. So you have your in-class formative conversation where they’re asking questions and you’re taking the pulse of whether or not you’re going too fast or if you need to stop the class and do a mini lesson on something you notice everyone’s struggling with. Or if you pull a small group because only a small group of kids are really having an issue. So there’s that kind of on-the-fly conferencing where you’re walking around with a clipboard or an iPad and you’re taking notes on what you see. And then listening to the questions kids are asking and making a determination as to whether or not this is a small or bigger issue that needs to be addressed. And then there are formal conferences where kids are coming prepared to have that conversation where you’re giving them time in class. So part of my structuring… because remember, I said it took me a long time to find a system that worked that ended up in Hacking Assessment… so I started creating Google Forms, where there were very targeted questions that also aligned with the assessments that we did, and the different pieces of learning and the standards that we were addressing at that time. And before they could set up a conference, they needed to fill in that whole Google form, then I had all that informatio, so I could really target clarifying questions or gaps that we could spend our five minutes talking about. If they had done all the work to do certain things, they don’t have to rehash what I could read. And if I had 34 students in most of my classes, so there’s a lot of kids, there’s a little time, you really have to make that three to five minutes count, and give every student the opportunity to give you the most information that you could have to be able to determine what was going to go on the report card. So those conversations certainly got a lot better over time as well. The first one, there was a lot of prompting from me, a lot of questions to get them ready by conference number 2, 3, 4, and certainly by the end of the year, if you watch on my YouTube channel, I have examples of what those look like. By the end of the year, the student is doing 98% of the talking. And I’m just redirecting if they kind of get off a little bit, or if they miss a spot versus at the beginning, it’s more of like a 40-60 where I am interjecting and kind of bolstering confidence, helping them set goals and stuff. So there’s more of a give and take at the beginning of the year.
John: You mentioned giving students some choice in terms of the assignments and so forth. What are some of the more interesting assignments or learning activities that your students have come up with?
Starr: The one that always comes to mind was, towards the end of my time in the classroom, before I became an instructional coach, I literally gave my students my entire unit plan for Hamlet. And I said, “Alright, this is the way I always teach it. But I want to do it differently this year. So I want you to look at the overall objectives. And as a group, I want you to come up with something different, then we’re going to vote as a class, which group suggestion we want to go with, and whichever group is chosen, you’ll come meet with me at lunch, we’ll design an assignment together and work through the success criteria and benchmarks for doing it successfully.” And if I tell you some of the things these kids came up with, I would have never come up with in a million years. And what we landed on was these psychological profiles of the characters of Hamlet, where they had to first use the text, to use Shakespeare’s language, to diagnose them with some kind of psychological issue. For example, Gertrude would be a narcissist. And then they do research on the actual issue, so there’s a research component as well. And then they had to come up with a treatment plan for the character and create a movie that demonstrated the growth from whatever the treatment plan was. And what it really did was have this really in-depth character analysis of each character from Hamlet, regardless of which character you did, you were set on a course. And then we also created this Google form, so that when we had screenings of the movies at the end, students were actively taking notes about what they learned about the characters and giving feedback at the same time to the creators of those movies about what they learned and what they were still curious about. And it was really phenomenal, honestly. I think that I wish I would have started doing stuff like that sooner. Other examples would have been students creating movies in Minecraft, like for our satire movies, that’s usually so like, just technology, but I was very uncomfortable with, that they were able to use that. I was like, yeah, “If you could do it without my support, I could help you with content, but you’re on your own for the technology.”
Rebecca: So you’ve hinted at some of the changes in your second edition. Can you highlight some additional changes between the first and second edition?
Starr: Okay, so yes, there are a lot more resources. So over the last seven years, part of the reason I hadn’t made a second edition up till this point, was because I really wanted there to be a value added. I wanted there to be new voices I can highlight. I was really also looking for systems that started doing this work because I wanted there to be more case study material that kind of went in that it wasn’t just single teachers kind of playing with it, but actually systematizing it in ways that work for them. So there are brand new hacks and actions for every single chapter, all of them have read the first edition and implemented it in their own way. So what you’re getting is people’s take on how what they learned looks like. I really tried to implement K to higher ed. So Susan Blum did write a section as well on what it looks like in college for all of my reticent K-12 folks who were like, “This isn’t going to be viable in the future.” I had central office people write about stakeholder buy in and how they brought this into their space from a leader perspective, instead of just a classroom perspective. A lot of new tools that have been developed in the last seven years, lots of stuff about that, rubrics, progressions, not just in English, which was my background, obviously, really trying to span math, science, social studies, related arts. So there’s one with a music teacher writing about how they’ve done that in that area… elementary teachers. So there really are tons of resources with a lot of different fresh voices who are using this now, as well as a very intentional talk about equitable practices. I think a lot of this stuff is equitable, but I never thought of it in that lens until COVID. And then once COVID happened, really trying to talk about how these things address some of those gaps that need to be addressed, but weren’t explicitly tied to them in the past. So that’s really where the bulk of things have shifted. And then there’s an incredible appendix with lots and lots of examples of everything.
John: And your first edition was wonderful. It provides a lot of good resources. And in each section, it talks about how to deal with pushback, which is one of the things anyone introducing something new has to deal with. So I’m assuming that continues into the second edition.
Starr: Yep, sure does.
John: So your first edition was very successful, and has received a lot of traction at all levels of education, and helped spur the ungrading movement at the college level that we’ve been talking about a lot in the last couple of years with our guests, and with many of our colleagues. For those people who have read the first edition, what would be the benefits to them of picking up the second edition, and who should they share that with at their institutions?
Starr: So I’m really hopeful that this time, it’s not individual teachers picking the book up on their own, although I certainly advocate for that. I want to see teams use this as a PLN opportunity and explore the text in a way that makes sense to them. It is not narrative, necessarily. So each chapter is its own sort of entity. And so I would encourage folks to choose the chapter that they’re most ready for at this moment and pick it apart in a way that’s going to make most sense for their practice.
John: We always end with the question: “What’s next?”
Starr: Oh, I’m so glad you asked. So what’s next for me right now, we are doing a free book study with the new book when it launches August 2, and it’ll be on Amazon. And then also, once this one launches, and things are moving, I’m under contract with ASCD for my next book, which is specifically about portfolios and student-led conferences. So that is still something that’s a little thinner in Hacking Assessment, because I think that that really requires a little bit more depth than I could give it in that book in one chapter. So I am currently working on that and really trying to gather with some of the districts that I’m working with to build really great systems for building portfolios. What does that look like? And how do you parlay that piece into these student-led conferences so that you can have a robust system in your space?
John: That sounds like a great supplement. Well, thank you. It’s great talking to you. We’ve heard mention of your book from many of our past guests, and I’m glad I was finally able to get to read it. And I’m looking forward to the second edition, which should be arriving soon.
Starr: Awesome. Thank you so much.
Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much. This is such great information and we’re looking forward to all your new work as well.
Starr: Thank you.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.