Hacking Assessment to Go Gradeless with Starr Stackstein


I’ve been an admirer of Starr Sackstein and her work for a long time. She’s been a beacon for years on moving away from grading and moving toward a focus on self-directed learning.

She has made real movements in pedagogy and ownership of learning through her passion, practical advice, and the way she has grown a supportive educator community.

I asked her to sit down for an interview with me in light of the recent publication of Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades SchoolIt is the second edition of her book by the same title, which was published in 2015.

In the first segment of our interview, Starr talks about the way her ideas in the first edition continued to evolve over the span of six years to inspire the second edition, which delves into equity in much more depth as a significant aspect of grading and impact on student self-efficacy.

“As I become more aware of my own learning around equity, and my own biases, and the things I’ve been working on myself – post pandemic, during the pandemic, in particular – when everything came to a head, I really wanted to be explicit about that throughout the text, which was definitely not there before,” she said of the second edition.

“I think there could have been connections made without them being actually said, but I think that that’s definitely one of the biggest shifts.”

In our second segment, we focused on the way our beliefs about learners impact our expectations, aspirations, and actions that buoy their movement toward success. Inspired by one of Starr’s quotes in the book, we talked about the messy road to learning where feedback is fundamental to growth.

“(It is) my belief and opinion, (that) teachers are there to support kids, to develop their voices, but not to tell them what’s right and what’s wrong,” she said. “I am reading your work as a reader, I could point out places that I am lost or confused, and you could do with that what you will. But I always gave my students the authorial bottom line of like: you make the choice about what you change.

“And as long as you could be articulate about why you did or didn’t make the changes that you made, that is your choice, and I don’t have to agree with it as a reader. There are plenty of very famous, well-written folks who I don’t like as a reader. So it’s okay if your writing style doesn’t align with what I think it should be. I think any teacher in any subject could think about their content in that way if we’re truly trying to help cultivate authentic autonomous learners who understand themselves that way.”

Starr graciously shared the vocabulary chart above to illustrate the different ways teachers can articulate their thoughts or questions in a way that inspires learning rather than labeling something as “right” or “wrong.”

Our third interview segment clarified how regular reflection and self evaluation impacts students’ connection to learning and ownership of goals. The idea of a teacher privately jotting down notes for scoring purposes cuts students out of the feedback and evaluation process.

We want students to have a seat at the evaluation table as they have a unique vantage point on context, areas of strength, and need for further development.

“Popping a rubric out there when it’s time to assess is not the best way to get the most out of (students),” she said. “It’s almost like asking someone to show up at your house before maps and navigation systems were available and just give them an address versus that step by step way of getting there and maybe adding landmarks to make it more readily available for them to see their way successfully there on the first try,” she said.

Finally, in our fourth segment, we take on the challenge of what we put in our gradebooks and how that is communicated with students and families. We discuss the value of clear and compelling assessments where students have space to develop their concepts and hone their skills before there is a final evaluation of their work.

“One thing I used to do with kids was have them have progress tracking tools,” she said. “We started with a graphic organizer I designed and then I encouraged them to manipulate it in a way that made sense for them to keep the progress.

“One of the biggest challenges I think teachers generally have is that we are the keeper of all the feedback. We’re walking around with our clipboards, kids are asking questions, we’re writing down those questions, we’re writing down what we told them.

“But if the kids aren’t writing it down themselves, they’re likely losing a lot of that information you’re providing. So even having them keep a section of their notebook that goes specifically to questions they’ve asked and strategies you’ve provided.”

I loved the conversation I had with Starr.

There was such a synergy in our conversation and time flew by. I found her deep commitment to partnerships between students and teachers so connected to what I advocate in personalized learning.

I would love to hear your feedback on our conversation. Please leave comments or questions below for me or Starr!

About Allison Zmuda

Allison Zmuda is a longstanding education consultant focused on curriculum development with an emphasis on personalized learning. Just as she advocates for personalized learning to be used by her clients, she practices it when engaging with her clients. Allison is also a partner in Habits of Mind with Bena Kallick and Arthur Costa and in Learning Sets with Heidi Hayes Jacobs. Learn more at allisonzmuda.com.

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