Project 180: One Teacher’s Journey to Turn Grading Upside Down

August 9, 2016 Updated August 8, 2016

Project 180 is the first step in an effort to transform education by turning it upside down--challenging the status quo and disrupting convention. For the next two years, I will set aside traditional grading practices in my high school English classroom, seeking to improve my students’ experiences by making learning, not grading, the central focus.

For now twenty years, I have been unsettled by and dissatisfied with traditional and conventional grading practices, suspecting that there had to be a better way to approach learning, that grades--in the traditional sense--did little to help and, in many cases, made worse the learning in my classroom. I have dabbled in and experimented with standards-based grading and found it to be a promising alternative to tradition, but I think that--though it is radical in its own right, it is not radical enough to bring about the necessary shift in a system far too settled in the it’s-how-we’ve-always-done-it-rut approach to education. So, in an effort to turn things upside down, I am going to give my students A’s on day one. I am going to take grades out of the equation by giving them what they, their parents, and society have come to believe is the golden stamp of approval in American public education: an A. Then for the next 180 days, I am going to give them an opportunity to learn, to grow, free from the pressure and pretense of grades.

Can students learn without grades? My instincts say yes. But my critics--including the ghosts of my own self-doubt--will suggest otherwise, clinging to the deeply-seated standard of traditional grading as the way, the mark of learning. But two decades in, I am going to listen to my gut and take a monumental risk to learn and grow, and ultimately, hopefully make better the learning experiences in my classroom.

I first flirted with the idea after reading the Zanders’ The Art of Possibility. In one of the chapters, the authors discussed the “practice of giving an A,” an approach where students were given an A at the outset of the year during which they had to live into the A, proving in the end the end that they had earned it.

And though I found it intriguing, it never amounted to more than a casual fling, for I could not fully wrap my head around taking such a crazy path in a traditional, public-school setting. That was ten years ago, but now armed with the confidence--maybe craziness--that change not only must but can happen, I am ready to get this journey underway. We can change practice. We have to change practice. But it will happen neither easily nor expediently. It will take effort. It will take time. I am devoting both.

My original intent was not to gift A’s to all my students. My original plan was to give each student a P for pass, a seemingly simple, harmless way to take traditional grades off the table. However, after discussing the idea with our lead counselor, it became clear that a “P” could be problematic on students’ transcripts when it came to college entrance and/or scholarships. So, wishing to never do harm, I decided to go with A’s for all, which I believe better set the desired course anyway. One, it took traditional grading out of the equation. Two, it was radical enough to call attention to the shortcomings of conventional grading practices. Thus, the stage was set. But how was I going to do it?

Below is a rough sketch of my plan. But before we get there, here is a necessary preface. Students (and parents) will be given full ownership of their learning in my classroom this year. As the lead learner in the room, I will provide opportunities for students to learn and grow in an ELA environment. I will provide direction, feedback, and encouragement, but only they can provide the motivation to learn and grow. They already have their A’s for the year. Now it’s their turn to live into their A’s by making the experience what it should be in the first place, an opportunity to build themselves over the next 180 days, not a year-long sentence to get a grade. They will grow or they won’t. I can only provide the opportunity. They have to own their learning. Here is how I plan to do it.

  1. Actually, there is a possibility of two marks in my classroom. There is a qualification to the A. An A requires the signature of both students and parents on any and all “progress reports” (details below). They do not have to complete the report, but they must sign it. Failure to sign, will result in a “P,” which indicates credit for the course with no effect on GPA.

  2. Our work for the year will center around what I have come to call our 10 “Super-Student Standards,” standards derived from not only the Common Core but also my 20 years in an ELA classroom. I basically approached it with, “these are the things that we will hang our hats on this year, the things that we will learn.”

  3. In addition, I came up with a “Super Student Profile” emphasizing 15 habits/behaviors of learners, things that matter, things I want my students conscious of, things I want parents to know, but things that would never be attached to a grade (in the traditional sense).

  4. “Reporting” will happen frequently. Every day, students will reflect on their learning in their notebooks. Every two weeks, students will complete learning logs: self-assessments on standards and profiles (must be signed by student and parent). Every nine weeks, I will complete a progress report that is created through conferring with each student. The students will either agree with or challenge my assessment. Challenges must be supported by evidence. Nine week progress reports must also be signed by student and parent. Every semester, students will complete a student-led conference, a comprehensive review of their growth (must be signed by student and parent). For practice, I will use our online grading system to report completed practice.

  5. Learning experiences will primarily occur within the context of project-based learning.

There are so many more details to share--many more, too, that I will consider and discover over this two-year project. But for now, I hope this provides a skeleton for my approach.

Why project 180? Well a few things. One, 180 degrees turns things upside down--a necessary step for change. Two, there are 180 days in a school year--this endeavor will be the most difficult thing that I have done in my career, so I will have to take it one day at a time. Plus, I plan to share my journey one day at a time on my blog ( Three, because “upside down” is uncomfortable it must be set upright again--another 180 degrees, bringing things full circle, at which point, I hope I have learned to make learning better in my little corner of the world. If you are interested, please join my journey this fall, as I daily post the stories from the adventure at

Crazy? Maybe. Determined? Absolutely. We have to change education.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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