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The Student News Site of Palo Alto High School

The Paly Voice

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New AP Lang gradeless system fosters individualized growth

Junior Justun Kim reads during the weekly designated independent reading time in teacher Melissa Laptalo’s AP Language and Composition class. After much deliberation, the AP Language team is using a new system of grading coined as ‘ungrading’ that does not give assignments letter or number grades. According to teacher Alanna Williamson, the new system is designed to change students’ focus from just earning points to thinking about learning and growing. “It’s a completely different way to reframe your thinking about your grade,” Williamson said. “It [the previous grading system] was very quantitative and this ‘Ungrading’ format makes you think about your skills on a qualitative level and how you’re improving … not how many points you need.” (Photo: Carissa Tsui)

One semester into a new “ungrading” grading system, the AP English Language and Composition team at Palo Alto High School is reevaluating and adjusting the grading system in response to student feedback. 

The 2023-2024 guide for the course says students receive “descriptive feedback” on their assignments instead of traditional grades, with an emphasis on improvement of skills rather than just level of performance. Grades are then determined by the category of the rubric met. “Sophistication,” “Application,” “Identifying” and “Striving” rubric categories correspond to grades of A, B, C and D, respectively.

Teachers regularly hold grade conferences with students “to discuss artifacts of learning, individualized descriptive feedback, goals, [student] growth over time and participation” according to the course guide. Letter grades are decided from these conversations, which took place at the end of each month last semester.

The course previously used standards-based grading with a four-point scale applied to various learning targets. The letter grade earned at the end of each semester was determined by the number of categories with certain number grades. Though still standards-based, the new grading system abandons numbers entirely.

English teacher Kindel Launer said the new grading system aligns much better with the original goals of the AP Language class, which attempts to teach writing skills applicable beyond the AP test.

“The purpose of [AP] Lang is not to tick the box and get the A,” Launer said. “The purpose is to become an effective writer in the same way we study calculus to understand the impact of an introduced species into an ecosystem.”

According to English and Communications teacher Melissa Laptalo, the new grading system is part of an ongoing experimentation process by the AP Lang team.

“In 2020, when we did distance learning, we started experimenting with alternative learning … and that was with standards-based grading,” Laptalo said. “Last year, Mr. Kline, our principal, sent out an article about ‘Ungrading’ … and it felt for our team like the natural next step … that would resolve some of the issues we were having with standards-based grading.”

According to junior Kofi Kim, the new grading scale is valuable for being able to evaluate each student holistically and should be used in other English classes as well.  

“I would say that every class should do it, mainly because it lets people have bad days,” Kim said. “There’s a little more flexibility and you can show your own growth without having to be held to the same standard as every other student because everyone’s different.”

According to Laptalo, finding the right wording to communicate expectations to students in rubrics has been difficult, but has been remedied by one-on-one communication with students.

“Labels are great, they can be helpful,” Laptalo said. “But this whole thing is about getting away from labels and into conversation. It’s gonna be a journey to figure out what these words are and where they align. … The conferences are what get us through it and what allow us to see the [students’] individual investment and their growth.” 

According to junior Isabelle Carlsen, the subjectivity of ‘Ungrading’ led her to seek more feedback for her writing with mixed results. 

“I felt that it [the new grading system] definitely encouraged me to ask my teacher more questions regarding what they want, but not really what the AP curriculum wants,” Carlsen said. “In regard to my actual writing, I don’t think I got enough feedback from teachers to know how to improve.”

According to English teacher Keith Tocci, structuring class schedules to accommodate for grading conferences has been an ongoing issue. 

“Time of conferences [has] been a challenge,” Tocci said.  “I tried to do longer conferences towards the beginning of the semester … [with] the longer conferences students felt like they had a lot more time to talk but it took a lot of class time.”

Carlsen said the standards of the grading scale could be clarified, citing the current standards as too ambiguous.

“I know some teachers redefined it later and added certain intermediate categories between the levels to make the system more fair,” Carlsen said. “It would be better if they made a more clean-cut definition of how to obtain a grade based on their academic performance.”

Junior Maya Rajbhandari said the absence of averages in the new scale helped show growth, but the subjectivity also resulted in ambiguity, which led to stress.

“Personally, I hate averages because it’s really hard to get an A if you fail one thing, but last semester I was still really stressed because I was getting a lot of ‘I can identify’ [evaluations] which is equivalent to a C,” Rajbhandari said. “I was really trying to make my essays better and the stress helped me to improve my writing, but I feel like it might not have been for the right reasons.”

Laptalo said that this is a learning process both for students and teachers.

“We’re still trying to figure out and learn,” Laptalo said. “We’re getting feedback from students, we’re making adjustments, the model is about learning, which both we teachers and students are engaged in.”

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About the Contributors
Sophia Yang
Sophia Yang, Senior Staff Writer
Sophia Yang (Class of 2024) joined The Voice her sophomore year and enjoys running, hiking, and spending long afternoons reading.
Carissa Tsui
Carissa Tsui, Senior Staff Writer
Carissa Tsui (Class of 2024) joined The Voice her junior year and her favorite show is Survivor. Also, her favorite color is red and her favorite animal is the ocean sponge.

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