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  • Writer's pictureConvening Storytelling Team

Connecting Grading and Learning

For this week’s AFL Stories from Aurora, Colorado, we are sharing stories that call into question the connection between grading and learning. In Chris Santangelo’s poem, “A Case Against Nothing,” readers are asked what we truly value in education when we engage in traditional grading practices. Santangelo’s poem is followed by a meme from Paul Kim that calls into question the relationship between grades and skills by looking at Martin Luther King, Jr’s seminary transcript. Our final story for this week is also from Paul Kim, encouraging educators to develop learning systems that are expansive enough to include the experiences of students from various backgrounds, drawing on Christopher Emdin’s concept of Ratchedemics. Looking at these three pieces together, this week’s stories encourage us to consider what it takes for us to create cohesive learning and grading systems that are capable of capturing students’ knowledge and learning.


A Case Against Nothing

Attendance: 36%

Worksheets: 0%

Readings: 0%

Homework: 0%

Participation: 0%

Quizzes: 97%

Essays: 88%

Final: 94%

Average: 39.86%

What do we say?

Did this student deserve to pass?What do we value, workload or knowledge?

If they passed the assessments, does this not show learning?

Do we fail the child because they didn’t play the game?

Do we fail the child when they learn in their own way?

What do they say?

If I already knew this, why do the assignments matter? Does having to help support my family and missing class mean I don’t deserve to pass?

What are you really grading me for? If I learned and grew or if I completed the busywork?

Do you want me to be a good student or a good factory worker?

What should we say?

Did they grow?

Did they do the important checks for understanding?

Did they demonstrate knowledge and understanding?

Did they demonstrate skills?

Is our system fair?

What do we really want out of our students?

While zeroes in our gradebook balance well,

For equity we must widen their berth.

Now task students to learn and to excel,

Not finish work regardless of its worth.

Our students, one and all, deserve the best,

Reflect their skills, let zeroes have a rest.



In contemporary society, the prevailing narrative that dominates the life script of students, guides them through predetermined milestones of success, to a life with all of the quintessential markers of a prosperous life. 

It is no surprise that this narrative has its roots deeply entrenched in a metric-driven approach in schools, fixated on measuring student learning in instructional days, Carnegie units, seat time, and grade point averages that perpetuate this one dimensional, linear narrative. 

This emphasis on quantifiable metrics eclipses the development of crucial mindsets and skills and a broader understanding of identity and purpose. We need a more nuanced, competency-based narrative that recognizes multifaceted identities and the trials and tribulations that lead to human flourishing.

For all students to be authentically seen, known, and to feel belonging, they need to be able renew their life narratives as they grow into themselves. 

Prevailing cultural narratives are often one-dimensional and neglect the difficult realities that people may face in pursuit of success and achievement. We often hold these difficulties within our inner worlds and struggle quietly in a space without the human connection necessary to well-being. Ratchetdemic narratives build from stories that transform because they champion the inherent worth of every person and embrace all that lies at the intersection of their identity.  

Such narratives call for a reevaluation of social norms, inviting us to find resonance in the totality of each person. These are the stories we need to weave for collective well-being. 

Competency-based assessments offer schools a framework that creates space for multifaceted student identities, no matter how non-conforming. By focusing on demonstrated skills and knowledge, competency-based assessments can accommodate diverse learner strengths, life experiences, and cultural backgrounds. 

This approach to assessment recognizes that each student possesses a unique blend of abilities and challenges and allows teachers to design learning experiences accordingly. Ultimately, this fosters greater equity and enrichment in schools for all students because there is space for everyone.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” – Joan Didion

We need a new story in order to live differently.



Chris Santangelo


Chris is a Denver native who has worked in nonprofits and education in the city for five years. They're passionate about revolutionizing education and fixing broken systems to make sure all students can succeed. They currently teach Humanities and run the concurrent enrollment program at New Legacy Charter School.

Paul Kim


During his career, Paul Kim has taught everything from kindergarten to college, receiving both teaching and coaching honors along the way. A decade ago, Paul transformed his classroom using design thinking to make it a place of inquiry, agency, and creative thinking. He currently researches and writes about innovative learning models and also works as a consultant.

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