Rethinking Grading Practices

It is amazing that I wrote this almost five years ago. So much of it remains essential to our work to improving schools. 

There has been a lot of emotional pain along the way said one teacher as we discussed our school's journey into standards based grading, but she was quick to add that it was worth it because she is a much better teacher today because of it. Three years ago, our middle school began to receive students that had become accustom to a standards-based grading environment from their elementary experience. In order to maintain continuity and provide parents and students with more meaningful information through our reporting process, we began creating a system of standards-based grading that could be effective at the middle level. During the investigation stage of this work, a host of issues arose, creating, at times, a tense environment for change . Much of this tension stemmed from asking professionals to truly dig into long standing practices on grading and assessment, and begin to judge their effectiveness in the current standards-based environment. This was difficulty territory to tread, but credit all involved with the process for wisely choosing to value trust. 


After three years of thoughtful examination and challenging collegial conversations, we have found that the greatest impact on learning has come from students learning longer. Many schools struggle with how to keep all students focused on learning until the end of the quarter or semester, and for our school, this is no different. There has traditionally been a group of students that have realized that there lack of performance during the initial weeks of the grading period has doomed their chances to achieve a passing grade during the final weeks of the grading period. This led to disengaged students and a deteriorating classroom environment. These students counted the points still available to them and decided that the effort wasn't worth the reward. In transitioning to standards-based grading, we have eliminated the concept of points, introduced additional opportunities for students to demonstrate their knowledge and learning, and removed the behavior indicators that have co-mingled with academic grades in the past . We are seeing this difficult cluster of students doing work in and out of class right until the end of the grading period, and the benefits are now showing up in our annual state test results in the way of additional proficient students. 


On the other end of the academic spectrum, we are tackling one of the quiet killers of learning, grade inflation. To do this, we have created greater precision in our grading rubrics with careful attention to our demands at the surpassing expectations level. The demands include making connections to previous learning, showing the ability to analyze and synthesize concepts as they relate to current events or real-life problems, and integrating technology.   The benefit has been a greater depth of knowledge for our top students. Students, who in the past, had been able achieve at a top level through the process of "doing school" (i.e. collecting points by turning in everything on-time with no real attention to quality) are now being asked to truly show understanding at a high level for them to earn a top grade. This shift caused some stress with students and parents initially, but the new high standard has been locked in, and the benefits are being seen in the performance of all students especially those at the top. 


The other major impact caused by the implementation of our new grading practices has been the reexamination of our traditional grading practices and a deeper understanding of how assessment and grading impact learning and motivation. One example of this came from a social studies teacher who commented that since the beginning of his career he had used the same system to grade (total point/ point earned), and he had never thought about the implications, the math behind it, or whether it was accurate. He said that he used it because it was all that he had known. While reflecting on how our mindset about assessment and grading was shifting, teachers identified the two important actions that moved our system forward. They were: identifying the essential learning criteria that would be on the report card and removing points and/or averages from the gradebook in favor of rubric-only scoring for all assignments.  


Identifying the essential learning criteria solicited robust conversations about the sequencing of curriculum, how to develop more meaningful learning objectives, and establishing a common understanding of the "have to know" versus "nice to know" elements of the curriculum. Some of the conversations allowed for teachers to make linear progress, while other conversations circled and shifted multiple times. The outcome was a new report card that has a set of criteria that specifically speaks to students' knowledge levels in the essential areas of each class as well as a set of descriptors that speaks to a students' mastery of the behaviors that affect learning such as: completes work, follows directions, participates, and arrives prepared. These new reporting tools have had a positive impact on learning as they have focused our instruction, provided new, meaningful way for communicating with parents and students, and allowed teachers to make stronger connections between activities, learning goals, and assessment. One teacher commented that as we made it crystal clear about what students needed to do to achieve at the very high level, there has been a growing number of students working to reach these high expectations.


Removing points and averages from the gradebook in favor of rubric-only scores was the greatest shift for many of our teachers. The enormity of this change was due to the fact that classroom grading decisions are still emerging from the shadows. After about two years of conversations about whether the new system could work with points, weighting of assignments, weighting of categories, and other legacy practices, we realized that true change would only happen by leaving past practices at the door. This belief allowed our grading committee to recommend that only rubric scores (1-4 with use of 1.5, 2.5, 3.5) would be available for entry into the gradebook. This move has seemed to break our dependency on using points to decide grades, but it has forced us to look at a number of things differently including how teachers' judge success. Teachers have started viewing all assignments, assessments, and individual conferences as opportunities for students to showcase their learning. This shift to a more holistic system of judging understanding has helped to fix many of the fallacies of grading outlined by Ken O'Connor's and Robert Marzano's work on grading.


No systematic change is ever complete, and as the staff continues reforming our grading practices, we are realizing the need to do some things better. They include developing urgency for further grading changes using both data-driven and emotional means, creating the necessary time to have professional conversations about best practices, and owning the inherent limitations of the improved system.   


After three years of intense work on grading and assessment, it would be easy to fall into the trap of shallow implementation. To avoid this, the teacher leaders are refreshing the conversation about why we are changing our grading practices by focusing on enriching our common understandings about assessing students. Included in these conversations are data-rich moments that point to how the system has been successful for students, while still problem-solving around struggling students. These fresh conversations have also reminded us how essential our work is to the success of the children on the margins of the academic system. There is now a feeling that standards-based grading is a cutting edge tool in the fight to eliminate generational poverty, crime, and underemployment.


Time is precious in education, and reflection on our initial two years of professional development on grading brought the realization that for long-term deep implementation to occur, a more laser-like focus was necessary to avoid teacher frustration. To do this, we are narrowing the focus of professional development to three areas: building clear expectations for students on how they can surpass expectations, writing summative assessments that concisely address learning goals, and continuing to assess the quality and quantity of our formative assessments. To create a work environment for this to occur during our monthly staff meetings and early release time, we created varied groups (like subject and grade; like team; whole subject; and heterogeneous).  Each section of the meetings is then divided into threes: providing new information, sharing work samples, and reflection. This focused time paired with the appropriate grouping of teachers has continued to grow our understanding of how best practices in grading and assessment can truly impact both teaching and learning.  


Moving from the idealism of the early stages of implementing a new program to the practical, workable final details can be a tricky maneuver, but most shifts in thinking require a stretch before an organization can return to a new comfort zone. In our work with grading, we are starting to settle back into reality, and for most teachers, it is a place of new growth and better classroom learning, but reality has also asked us to accept the limitations of our new grading system. For example, the new system relies heavily on intrinsic motivation, and it allows retakes, so the responsibility of deadlines is a concern. Another question to still be answered is how do we create every assignment with a means of surpassing expectations. Even with these challenges, the large majority of teachers have been patient with the issues and have remained focused on the positives.   


Growing an organization with as many moving parts as a school takes a tremendous amount of work and attention to detail. There isn't a sense that we have created the perfect system for kids, yet, but the dedication of all of the teachers involved has been tremendous. We are also realizing, with an ever growing intensity, that by only maintaining our current efforts with curriculum, instruction, and assessment, we will never fully maximize our kids' learning potential. Our challenge then is to dedicate ourselves to continuous growth in a way that brings the best practices to all of our students.