Last night I attended a small panel session for some students at Bryn Mawr College that made me cement my decision to convert and I may even go farther in the future. I met some students and two staff from the Watershed integrated learning program at Radnor Middle School. For their entire 7th grade year, 40 students conduct experiments on local streams (leaving on field trips at least 40 times), come up with questions to ask and research, learn all they have to learn about English, History, Science, etc under the banner of this program. With the small exception of taking their Math and World Language classes outside this room, they are immersed in a program that defies logic: it fosters intelligence in its students without grading.
While I don't think I'm ready to make that leap (especially in the strict environment of the School District of Philadelphia), it is an amazing thing to see a bunch of middle school-aged kids talk about biological material at the bottom of a stream and trying to understand where it comes from. We even touched on calculus when they were discussing the flow rate of the water!
One of the major things I got out of this experience was a peak at their Sketchbooks: they keep a log of new organisms and sketch them, read about them, research then, and keep it all in one book along with history, english, and other assignments. It was note-taking to the extreme! Additionally, the teachers actually commented on their work! With 160 students I would find this impossible - but with two staff and 40 students, it becomes much more doable. The feedback they received was worth way more than grades - the students even said so.
I endeavor to provide that kind of feedback on class assignments but find it difficult with the sheer number of students I have. The standards-based grading system is a compromise that is working well for now, but could work better in the future. I hope to streamline my procedures so students view grades as feedback for learning and not the end grade.