Garnet Hillman is an instructional coach at Caruso Middle School in Illinois. Also a writer and presenter, she consults around the country on assessment, grading, and student motivation.

Zeroing the scale

As an instructional coach, I have the fortunate opportunity to work with a wide variety of teachers and in various classrooms and content areas. Recently, I worked with a sixth grade science teacher to create and implement a classroom experience that required students to use their problem solving and critical thinking skills. Their mission was to find and solve clues regarding forces and interactions and subsequently piece them together as they went along. One of the clues led them to a scale where they had to make a precise measurement. The students had to weigh a foam ball in order to move on to the next step. Many of the students found the scale quickly and began weighing the ball. The excitement swelled in the room; the kids knew they were on the cusp of solving another clue. The students weighed the ball and arrived at a number in grams, but when they tried to proceed, something was off. The code didn’t work. Returning to the scale, they tried again. The same or a similar measurement came back and to no avail, the students could not get any further.

The kids spent some time thinking and looking at the scale. One finally exclaimed, “We didn’t zero the scale!” At this point, they were on to something and they knew it. The adjustment was made to the scale, and a different, accurate weight was determined. The new number worked and the students celebrated as they continued on toward their goal.

What does this process have to do with standards, assessment, and grading? As educators, we need to zero our scale as well. How is this done? Teachers must align instruction, assessment, and grading practices to the standards in a clear and concise way. The standards provide a measure by which we gauge evidence of learning. They are a foothold that teachers and learners can return to as often as necessary when charting the course to proficiency and mastery of the standards. When learning targets and standards are clearly communicated, they zero the scale for everyone. Further clarity is provided when exemplars of student work at various proficiency levels are shown, vetted, and explained.

According to Rick Wormeli, “For each standard or outcome, identify the specific knowledge students should know and understand, have at their mental fingertips, and what they should be able to do with it.” (p.258) Consistency and inter-rater reliability is something we want for all of our students. Zeroing the scale supports this consistency, yet it is an ongoing process. If a time comes when the same evidence of learning could result in a different grade, it is necessary to take another look at the standards and make an adjustment. Ask the questions—what does this standard mean? What are the demands on the students? What evidence will elicit the various levels for reporting?

Including behaviors and non-academic factors in assessment and grading also skews the scale and doesn’t give an accurate picture of student achievement. For example, when completion of tasks is assigned a point value, this can show an inconsistent or inaccurate level of proficiency with academic standards because in this instance, compliance is being assessed. The focus for students and their learning should be clear to all stakeholders. When everyone is zeroed in on the goals, students own their learning and develop confidence in the process. Self-efficacy increases and becomes commonplace in the learning environment.

Douglas Reeves comments in his book, FAST Grading: A Guide to Implementing Best Practices (2016), “Expectations outside of the standards, such as participating in class discussions, submitting assignments on time, and working honestly, can lead to significant distortions in grades.” (p. 74) While these factors are important skills learners need to develop, they can create inconsistencies in assessment and grading practices that impact accuracy. Inflating or deflating grades with these expectations can mask true strengths and gaps in learning that have the potential to go unrecognized.

Zeroing a scale in science class doesn’t hold in the long run. It must be recalibrated often and checked for accuracy. Mimicking this procedure in schools and classrooms levels the playing field for students. Revisiting standards frequently allows teachers and students alike to deepen their understanding of the demands and expectations for their learning. The separation of behavioral and academic factors reveals true proficiency levels. Provide students a clear direction for their learning and reference it often. Zero your scale, deepen your understanding of the standards, and help pay it forward to your students.


Reeves, D. (2016). FAST Grading: A Guide to Implementing Best Practices. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Wormeli, R. (2013). The Collected Writings (so far) of Rick Wormeli. United States: Association for Middle Level Education.

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