de-testing and de-grading schools

Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization

by Joe Bower (Volume editor) Paul L. Thomas (Volume editor)
©2016 Textbook VIII, 308 Pages
Series: Counterpoints, Volume 492


A century of education and education reform, along with more than three decades of high-stakes testing and accountability, reveals a disturbing paradox: education has a steadfast commitment to testing and grading. This commitment persists despite ample research, theory, and philosophy revealing the corrosive consequences of both testing and grading in an education system designed to support human agency and democratic principles. This revised edited volume brings together a collection of updated and new essays that confronts the failure of testing and grading. The book explores the historical failure of testing and grading; the theoretical and philosophical arguments against testing and grading; the negative influence of tests and grades on social justice, race, class, and gender; and the role that they play in perpetuating a deficit perspective of children. The chapters fall under two broad sections. Part I, Degrading Learning, Detesting Education: The Failure of High-Stake Accountability in Education, includes essays on the historical, theoretical, and philosophical arguments against testing and grading. Part II, De-Grading and De-Testing in a Time of High-Stakes Education Reform, presents practical experiments in de-testing and de-grading classrooms for authentic learning experiences.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: An Unexamined Pedagogy Harms
  • Part One: Degrading Learning, Detesting Education: The Failure of High-Stakes Accountability in Education
  • Chapter One: NCLB’s Lost Decade for Educational Progress: What Can We Learn from This Policy Failure?
  • Chapter Two: Assessment and Quality: Policy-Steering and the Making of a Deus ex Machina
  • Chapter Three: Technocratic Groupthink Inflates the Testing Bubble
  • Chapter Four: America’s Obsessive-Assessment Disorder
  • Chapter Five: Solidarity and Critical Dialogue: Interrupting the Degradation of Teacher Preparation
  • Chapter Six: Feeding the World = Reading the World: Let Them Eat Tests
  • Chapter Seven: Bubble in B for Boredom
  • Chapter Eight: Reconciling Student Outcomes and Community Self-Reliance in Modern School Reform Contexts
  • Chapter Nine: The Role of Assessment in Empowering/Disempowering Students in the Critical Pedagogy Classroom
  • Part Two: De-Grading and De-Testing in a Time of High-Stakes Education Reform
  • Chapter Ten: “How Long Does This Have to Be?”: Confronting the Standardization of Writing Instruction with Teachers in National Writing Project Invitational Summer Institutes
  • Chapter Eleven: Telling Time with a Broken Clock: Moving Beyond Standardized Testing
  • Chapter Twelve: The Grading Mousetrap: Narcissism, Abjection, and the Politics of Self-Harm
  • Chapter Thirteen: Leadership Denied: Principal as Compliance Officer
  • Chapter Fourteen: Journey into Ungrading
  • Chapter Fifteen: An Oath to Stop Degrading Students: A Story of De-grading an Elementary Classroom
  • Chapter Sixteen: De-grading Writing Instruction: Closing the “Considerable Gap”
  • Chapter Seventeen: One Week, Many Thoughts
  • Chapter Eighteen: Striving Toward Authentic Teaching for Social Justice: Additional Considerations
  • Conclusion: Yes, to Be Clear, I Am Anti-testing, Anti-grading
  • Author Biographies
  • Series index

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An Unexamined Pedagogy Harms


Frankly, I was surprised Paul Thomas and Joe Bower asked me to write this introduction to the new edition of De-Testing and De-Grading Schools. I spend considerable time training educators on the merits, ethics, and practicalities of standards-based assessment and grading. It seemed I perpetuated at least some of the very thing this book advises against.

Then I took a step back and recognized that I’m a big fan of Mark Barnes and his latest book, Assessment 3.0, which describes the research and classroom realities for students whose teachers stop grading their work, and of his Facebook community, “Teachers Throwing Out Grades.” Todd Farley’s book, Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry, is one of the most upsetting books for education I’ve ever read, and I recommend it to everyone in the profession. I also look forward to every time I read the works of Alfie Kohn, Steve Krashen, Diane Ravitch, and the late Grant Wiggins and Gerald Bracey. I know Paul and Joe from past experiences as well, and I respect their work and writings very much.

In addition, early in every training on assessment and grading that I do, I remind participants of the bigger picture: In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have grades. I explain how they limit learning, are really nonsense symbols giving us a false sense of scientific measurement on which many of us attribute inerrant mathematical reasoning about a student’s messy journey toward competency. With grades, we justify all sorts of false indictments of students and sometimes their ← 1 | 2 → parents, and we declare unwarranted causal relationships between effort, perseverance, family function, being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, achieving NFL fame, purity of heart, and one’s K–12 grades.

In these same presentations, I describe the steep limitations and absurdities of standardized testing, advocating instead for teacher professionalism, regular and descriptive feedback, and community cultural shift over punitive testing and reduction measures as the best ways to improve student learning.

Then I looked at all those years of assessing in my classroom and preparing students for the state exams, wondering at my enterprise. Okay, it’s not such a stretch—I’m in.

Imagine the response of parents when viewing this kind of report card on their child:

In traditional grading, this is basically what we report: Student compliance. Many teachers’ gradebooks are reports of activities completed when they should be reports of learning, the evidence of mastery demonstrated for each standard or outcome—Or should they? Wait, is it instructionally effective for teachers to be the final arbiters of what is and is not acceptable performance? We claim that our grades are accurate and have integrity, but it sure is hard to see that in many classrooms: Is this tiny little symbol representing an aggregate report of all 87 standards in this year’s course really accurate for any one of them? And should I use them to make a high-stakes decision regarding this child’s future? And, am I guilty of teaching so students achieve to my level of content understanding only, or am I teaching to get them to surpass me, not just get equal to me?

Just posing the questions removes 45 minutes of guilt-free sleep at night. We struggle to do the best we can and do right by the profession and our students, but we rarely ask the larger questions required of our endeavor:

Is this what good teachers do: Report students’ learning against society’s goals assigned to this subject at this grade level? Or, is our job something more than record keeping and checking off boxes on accountability sheets? Are we supposed to ← 2 | 3 → identify how our students rise and fall with curriculum goals, and that simple act will lead to their success, or is it something else?

Do I teach only concepts and skills that are easily testable on standardized tests, and if so, am I okay with that?

Am I teaching to elicit a singular, correct response on test items, and if so, how does that prepare students for the messiness of a dynamic field of study or of life? I’ve failed if I just teach them models in science, writing, and math. They have to know how to mix and match them as the situation warrants, or how to know when to not use them at all.

Is the one-sitting short-essay or multiple-choice test the most valid way to assess students against the curriculum goals? What happened to the need for a larger sample size over time and via multiple methods to increase the accuracy of the report?

Do the goals and their evaluative criteria I impose on my ninth graders reflect only what earlier generations or those with the most money find meaningful, but not what the current generation or those of all economic levels find meaningful?

What other factors could be affecting this student’s journey so far in his learning, and should I include them in my assessment report? If I don’t include them, have I just changed this child’s potential learning for the worse?

Am I facilitating feedback so each assessment is an information session that empowers students for the next steps in the learning journey, or am I emphasizing extrinsic, final judgment in my assessments which will likely translate into students’ diminished perceptions of self-worth, making the development of their self-agency all the more fragile?

The authors of the assessments from the testing company must know more about this content than I do, given all those people working on each item and all the validity and reliability reports included in the background material. My tests are a poor substitute for what they create in their headquarters. I can’t count my individually prepared assessments very much in the student’s grade because they can’t be as accurate as those from the testing company. [Pause] Wait a minute, when did I start doubting my professional content expertise or my skills at generating useful assessments? Am I using only what they call for on their tests to be the full extent of the curriculum I teach?

How would I teach differently if there were no grades, only descriptive, narrative feedback and student self-monitoring on goals?

How would I teach differently if there were no standardized tests, only curriculum meaningfully structured and responsive to students?

An unexamined pedagogy harms. We are easily deluded by complacency, rationalizing that the lack of parent complaint, deep correlational analysis of our quizzes and tests, or former students returning to admonish us for not preparing ← 3 | 4 → them for life are tacit approvals of our methods. We fabricate a sense of professional expertise that belies a more useful humility.

A candid, examined pedagogy, on the other hand, elevates our enterprise, leading to students’ and teachers’ success. It can be scary because such candor may reveal we were not as effective as we thought we were or that we thought we were teaching one thing when we were teaching something else entirely. What a blow to ego! Ultimately, though, an examined pedagogy liberates and inspires us. It is the right choice.

This is the great gift of De-Testing and De-Grading Schools. Here, we vaporize complacency with critical examination against fierce realities. Intellectuals who are also practitioners have taken the time to compose and share their vetted evidence, compelling discourse, and extended insights for all of us to consider. Even better, they demonstrate the true professional’s tool: Revising one’s thinking in light of new perspective or evidence. If these thoughtful, dedicated craftsmen and craftswomen can do it, we can, too.

Moving rapidly toward the third decade of the 21st century, we are experiencing a global “Re-Think” in education, bearing with it as much impact as the Committee of Ten and the rise of high schools and standardized curriculum, John Dewey and the Progressive Movement, the catalyst of Sputnik, or the Nation at Risk hoopla of the 1980s. We’re wiser now, of course, and burned by some large government reforms, but no less susceptible to fallacies such as schools should be run like businesses, children and teachers are broken and need to be fixed, or it’s okay to rely solely on what we discovered about children 40 or more years ago as we teach the children of today. With parent approval, large numbers of students are walking out of state testing. With innovative, new school designs and technologies, education experts gaining status on the world stage, re-energized schools of teacher education, and a growing number of TED Talks by creative outliers offering radically different perspectives on the traditional schooling paradigm, we’re stirring our educational stew with postmodern skepticism and heavy doses of real optimism. Both are nutritious and, happily, contagious.

None of this is a blind epistemology, as evidenced by the contributors to this thoughtful volume. There is intentionality here and the hope that these writings can be the initial vector for many. With the authors’ considerable expertise and unflinching insights, we hold current assessment and grading practices up to the prism of modern pedagogy and decide if our current course is justified. It requires simultaneous micro- and macro-focus, of course: Just as a prism separates light into a very narrow band of wavelength colors that we can see, we remember that what we can see is only a tiny portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that runs from radio/TV waves, microwaves, and infra-red waves, through ultraviolet rays, X-rays, and gamma rays, with visible light somewhere ← 4 | 5 → just off center. We cannot know the full electromagnetic spectrum that affects pretty much everything in our daily lives using only the tools and prejudices used to perceive visible light.

The charge, then, is to read each chapter and capture the points that illuminate the other powerful elements in the pedagogical spectrum, and see how perceiving them changes the way we view the known world of current practices. As we adjust perspective, our intent and actions adjust as well. Seriously, every time we discuss assessment and grading with others, we expose our true colors as teachers. The more teachers reflect on ethical, helpful assessments, the more they want to examine and adjust their instructional practices, including how they cultivate positive teacher-student relationships. Assessment and grading are that entwined with all we do as teachers. We can’t leave them to chance; they’re too potent.

And that’s just it, isn’t it—what’s at stake? This is a lot of stuff and fluff if it doesn’t change lives. Whole futures are built or destroyed based on one percentage point in traditional grading and some standards-based grading. The difference between getting into an intended college program and a life of dreams fulfilled, and not getting into that college program and a life of Langston Hughes’s dreams deferred, is a 90 versus an 89. In some places, a single valedictorian is elevated above others and earns a full four years’ in-state tuition, while students of the same academic caliber are summarily dismissed based on not just one percentage point, but by 0.1, and in some places 0.0001 of a percentage point. Really? This is our goal: To sort humans, to find which Sneetch has “stars upon thars”? Every child sees the vicious nature of such thinking; why don’t we?

In times of insecurity such as we have today in our worries over the economy, jobs, terrorism, depleted water supplies, and political and religious divisiveness, we often want things that are quantifiable and effortlessly compared. It makes us feel safe, like we know what we are doing, but these are the wings of Icarus flying too close to the sun, and deadly hubris is imminent. Not all that is important to learn and teach is easily measured. Not everything that is assessed on standardized tests is among the most important things to assess or assessed in the best way. A timed writing, for instance, is not a test of real writing. No professional writer would ever tolerate this as a test of writing:

This is not a test of writing. It’s a test of how children do in inappropriate high-stakes testing situations compared to how other children around the state or province do in inappropriate high-stakes testing situations. ← 5 | 6 →

Many items on standardized tests are those items that are financially feasible to score, or items to which we’ve attached a mathematical formula so our computers can do the measurement for us. Readers of this book will be stunned by the evidence presented here of inaccurate, unethical scoring and practices employed by some testing companies, pundits, and school districts in order to improve timely score results; remove teacher subjectivity; or justify monies paid, political talking points, or international comparisons. The PISA material that sets the comparison record straight posted later in these pages by itself will make some readers want to run for office and oust those that would dupe us into such simplistic, distorted comparisons and teacher demoralization. If, as Anthony Cody writes later in these pages, the “value of test scores is inflated beyond their true worth,” what will that change in our decision making? Will it be the final wake-up call for principals and school boards dedicating time, energy, and money to test-score pep rallies to end them?

When we are unsure of our way, we grant preferred status to the single datum; claiming reductivism to that level creates an unblemished view and we see clearly. In reality, however, such singular myopia devoid of the larger context will distort any conclusions drawn. The decisions made from such a false trust and narrow focus are often revisited due their poor results. As John Hoblen writes in his chapter, “Numbers become artificial proxies for real, meaningful forms of critical introspection.” Let’s not give that proxy to anything other than dynamic feedback interactions between teacher and the student or the student and himself.

We’ve come a long way in education only to make such serious mistakes as worshiping at the math altar to justify what we do: “Sorry, Miguel, the numbers don’t lie. If you had 89.5 or higher, I could round up, but it’s an 89.4, so I’ll have to keep it at a B+.” We know averaging distorts the accuracy of a student’s grade, so much so that to post it is a form of overt lying to the public, yet we cave in to school board members and parents who want grades to be based on the average of all grades.

We are enamored by accountability on both sides of the political aisle, yet our most common definition of accountability runs counter to our goals. For many, accountability and its most visible tools, standardized tests and grades, are put in place to hold someone else personally responsible for an outcome. It’s a way to “shape them up,” a “gotcha!” mindset.

Successful accountability, however, is when we enter into a mutual and positive ethos for one another: I’m looking out for you and you’re looking out for me. Does this benefit me without diminishing you? Is meaning and usefulness derived for both of us? As a teacher, I do not condescend to students or lessen my preparations for each lesson I offer. I am mindful of each student in my planning and interactions. In turn, my students honor me by participating fully and giving the ideas and skills presented a serious test drive, willingly comparing them to current schema ← 6 | 7 → before accepting, rejecting, or improving upon them. They grow in maturation and competence as a result, and so do I. Effective accountability requires purposeful reciprocity.

Excessive testing and grading thwart such accountability, however. They require a one-way relationship: Teaching and assessment is something we do to students instead of something we do with students, and opportunities for building self-efficacy, positive resilience, active learning, and real competence are lost. In the old-school way of thinking, the teacher is the Oracle, bestowing knowledge upon passive recipients, rather than a facilitator of student creations.


VIII, 308
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (September)
Education reform Testing Grading Race Class Gender Accountability
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. VIII, 308 pp., num. b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Joe Bower (Volume editor) Paul L. Thomas (Volume editor)

Joe Bower was a teacher in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. He spent ten years teaching grade eight language arts and science in a middle school, and then served as a special education teacher in a children’s psychiatric assessment unit. View his work at www.joebower.org and @joe_bower. P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville, South Carolina), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He is currently a column editor for English Journal (National Council of Teachers of English) and series editor for Critical Literacy Teaching Series: Challenging Authors and Genres. Follow his work at https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/ and @plthomasEdD.


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