One of the most interesting things about modernizing grading practices is that there is no one-way to go about the work. Sure, there are a few core fundamentals that are non-negotiable (i.e. grades based solely on the achievement of standards), but for the most part, teachers, schools, and districts have much flexibility in going about the business of aligning grading practices to the existing standards-based, criterion-referenced instructional reality. There is no long list of rules nor are there many always and nevers that drive the process. We certainly know through both research and practice what the more favorable courses of action are, but still, there is a lot of local decision making that goes into bringing our grading practices into the 21st century.
That said, there are three ways in which grading conversations can go sideways, be short sighted, or prove to be counter-productive. Over the years I have seen a common pattern emerge for those teachers, schools, or districts whose implementation efforts fall short of success, so while there is no definitive list of what to do, there is a definitive list of what not to do. From where I sit, there are three strikes in grading reform efforts that will (quite predictably) lead to disappointing, if not irreversible, results. These swings-and-misses must be avoided to ensure that the verification and the reporting of learning (summative assessment) re-establishes and maintains a seamless relationship with our existing instructional paradigm.
1. Having a grading conversation instead of an assessment conversation. Grading doesn’t occur in a vacuum; it is part of a larger, balanced assessment process. The balanced—even seamless relationship—between the formative and summative purposes of assessment is compromised when the principles of sound assessment are not infused into how we grade. As Paul Black (2013) wrote:
“The formative and summative purposes of assessment can be so intertwined that they are mutually supportive rather than conflicting. Unless this is done, formative assessment cannot achieve its full potential to improve learning.” (p. 176).
This mutually supportive relationship cannot be achieved if the procedures for grading are foreign to how we assess within the larger assessment context. If we discuss grading issues in isolation we’ve lost the plot. Grading is assessment so long as the fundamentals we use to verify learning are aligned to how we check for understanding. Even more, we can’t just make up our own rules because we are grading. I suppose on one level we can do whatever we want, however, if what we do isn’t aligned to sound assessment fundamentals then we can no longer claim to be providing accurate or meaningful information about achievement.
At its core, grading must be about accuracy and consistency; we must utilize valid assessment and grading practices and we must establish reliability in the use of those practices and the corresponding criteria. Validity is about ensuring that our assessment practices assess what we say or intend them to assess. Many of our traditional grading practices have the potential to compromise the validity of the scores within a gradebook, so while we can get hung up on discussions related to, say, accountability, a big miss is not realizing how a zero or a penalty compromises the accuracy of what ultimately is reported about student proficiency. Reliability must also be established since we now teach within a criterion-referenced, standards-based instructional paradigm. The consistency with which teachers apply the agreed upon criteria (often in rubric form) across similar subjects and disciplines is critical if grades are to remain meaningful. The same writing sample can’t be a ‘4’ in one class, but a ‘2’ in another. Sure, from time-to-time there will be disagreements that can’t be reconciled (i.e. ‘3’ vs. ‘4’) but that should be the exception, not the rule; being 2 levels apart indicates an issue with either the performance criteria or the those doing the assessing. While there is much more to say about validity and reliability, the big picture message here is that these two assessment fundamentals must be embedded within any discussions about grading and reporting.
2. Initiating the change through external or tangible elements. Another swing-and-miss within grading reform efforts is the belief that a new report card template, a new board or school policy, or a new grading program is the key that unlocks the door to meaningful grading reform. The upside to, for example, implementing a new grading policy at the school or district level is you get forced compliance, which means everyone has to follow the policy or process immediately. The downside to implementing a new grading policy at the school or district level is you get forced compliance, which means everyone has to follow the policy because they’ve been told to, not because they feel compelled to. I’ve lost count of how many schools and districts have contacted me after hitting an implementation wall (not just a ‘dip’) because they tried (for all of the right reasons) to force grading chan¬ges through policies, templates, or programs. Conversations about grading practices can be emotional, intense, and complex. Forcing teachers to change practices when they don’t agree or are not ready to (or both) is wrought with potential, unnecessary challenges. Meaningful grading reform begins with changing the culture of what grades are, what they mean, and the processes for determining them; I call it Grading from the Inside Out.
Meaningful, long-lasting changes begin first by shifting how we think about grading and how we perceive what grades represent. When grades are an authentic reflection of student proficiency they become aligned to our instructional processes; if grades remain a commodity that is acquired through the accumulation of points then they’ll remain a necessary, but disconnected relic from days gone by. It is alluring to find a new computer program, build a new report card template, or enact a new policy, but this approach is doomed to fail since these premature, but permanent, changes will more often produce counterproductive results; it’s a heavy enough lift for teachers to rethink the role of homework, for example, without the added burden of revamping their entire grading system. Change doesn’t always have to take a long time, but it must always take enough time to feel relatively comfortable with whatever we’re changing to.
As Thomas Kuhn (1962) wrote as he introduced the world to the idea of a paradigm shift, almost every break through requires a break with tradition; breaking with so many of our grading traditions is not simple, easy, or quick. As the saying goes, grading reform needs to be as bottom-up as possible, and only as top-down as necessary. The reporting of achievement by standards is most effectively and efficiently achieved when teachers have standards-based evidence, which emerges via standards-organized assessments, which are developed from standards-based instruction; the report card, the policy, or the grading program should be the last thing to change, not the first.
3. Only addressing the clinical side of grading. The electronic gradebook is simultaneously one of the best and worst inventions in education. The upside is that teachers have never been more clinically efficient with assessment information, but the downside is the potential loss of the art of grading. Electronic gradebooks and their inherent operational functions have convinced many educators that subjectivity is a four-letter word, but as Ken O’Connor (2006) reminds us, grading is inherently subjective since it involves so many unavoidable choices made by teachers and that the subjectivity of grading is nothing teachers should apologize for.
In our never-ending quest to find the perfect algorithmic approach to calculating grades, it’s easy to lose sight of the emotional side to grading. While grading can feel quite clinical for teachers, grades represent something more emotional than just a number, symbol, or canned description. All grades, especially those on report cards, will produce an emotional reaction in each and every student, and while these emotions may sometimes be hidden or masked from the adults in their lives, it is rare that students truly don’t care about their grades. Publicly they may put on brave faces to hide the truth, but most kids in a private moment will be honest about how they feel about their grades; we have to remember this. We can’t lose sight of the emotional aspect of grading. That doesn’t mean that the truth about proficiency (or lack thereof) should be opaque, but it should remind us that regardless of how justified a grade might be, the ultimate goal would be to elicit a productive and positive response from the students so that, regardless of their current level, students feel inspired to keep learning and can clearly see a pathway to recovery and success. Yes, grades need to be accurate, but our grading practices should also take the emotional side of grading into account so that we simply don’t stand in righteous justification of grading practices that ultimately result in students feeling hopeless about their potential success.
Other than the obvious aspect of grades-based on standards, there are multiple paths to more accurate and meaningful grading and reporting; however, there are a few simple don’t dos that, if ignored, are likely to result in an unnecessarily complex trajectory of change. By creating the space to make changes without the mandate of a policy, template, or program, teachers can begin changing how they think about grading so that if or when the time comes for more permanent, external, and tangible changes, the culture is ready to make the shift without looking back. Have an assessment conversation, begin working inside out, and never lose sight of the emotional impact grading has on students and you, your school, and even your district will be well on the way to meaningful, long-lasting grading changes that re-establish the seamless relationship between how we teach and how we report.
Black, P. (2013). Formative and summative aspects of assessment: Theoretical and research foundations in the context of pedagogy. In J. McMillan (Ed.), Sage Handbook of Research on Classroom Assessment (pp. 167–178). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Inc.
Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, Ill: Univ. of Chicago Press: University of Chicago Press.
O’Connor, K. (2007). The last frontier: Tackling the grading dilemma. In D. B. Reeves (Ed.), Ahead of the curve: The power of assessment to transform teaching and learning (pp. 127–145). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.