Tom Schimmer is an author and a speaker with expertise in assessment, grading, leadership, and behavioral support. He is a former district-level leader, school administrator, and teacher.

Acceptable Alternatives in Assessment and Grading

Assessment orthodoxy is easy, but for those trying to lead (whether by title or by influence) the transformation of assessment and grading practices, orthodoxy often falls short of inspiring or assisting teachers in moving away from antiquated practices. The definitiveness with which some speak of sound assessment practices is great for keynote presentations, for blog posts, and for acquiring followers on social media; however, for those looking to take the first of what might be several steps toward modernizing their assessment and grading practices, assessment orthodoxy can feel quite foreign to the practices they’ve established throughout their career.

Righteous indignation of how standards-based one is in comparison to others is more divisive than inclusive. The proclamations of you’re not standards-based if you are akin to the political conversations of what constitutes a real conservative, a real liberal, or a real centrist; no one has the market cornered on what being real means, and these statements only serve to further undermine the willingness of some to consider the possibilities of modern assessment and grading. Finding common ground through acceptable alternatives is often a way to allow for a soft point of entry into practices where there is more than potential way forward.

Acceptable alternatives are practices that find the sweet spot between the status quo and orthodoxy; they are ways that allow those who are hesitant to feel more comfortable with the prospective change while maintaining the core of the desirable change. Finding these acceptable alternatives can be challenging for two reasons. First, they require at least some knowledge of what others are and are not initially comfortable with; this will identify where the acceptable alternatives can be found. Second, it also requires those leading or influencing change to be flexible with their orthodoxy; fully embracing the alternative practices personally is not required. Change is more emotional than clinical (Heath & Heath, 2010), which means finding ways to make the emotional side of changing assessment and grading practices less aversive should be the priority.

Here is one example. The orthodoxy of sound assessment and grading practices submits that homework is never graded, scored, or leveled for a number of reasons, including the body of evidence regarding effective feedback and the fact that some students take longer to learn.  However, there are teachers who believe that if they don’t grade homework, the students won’t do it. Now, we could stand in righteous indignation and tell those teachers how wrong they are, or we could try to meet them halfway with an acceptable alternative if the orthodoxy of not grading homework feels initially like too much of a departure from their own personal experience and perspective. Again, orthodoxy is easy, but orthodoxy may not move the needle.

An acceptable alternative I’ve presented to many teachers, given the homework dilemma mentioned in the previous paragraph, is to grade homework temporarily. This means that the teacher would follow their current practices of scoring and recording the homework assignment, but would be willing to reconsider the validity of that homework evidence at a later date when students demonstrate a higher level of proficiency with the very same learning. Several things are true. First, the students’ scores on the initial attempts do, in fact, represent the students’ current understanding of the learning. Second, the subsequent instruction will increase most (if not all) students’ proficiency within that same learning. Third, this increased proficiency will render the initial homework scores invalid and inaccurate. When students know that initial scores are temporary, they are more likely to productively respond to any initial stumbles. Given all of this, the teacher would be wise to remove (or no count) homework assignments when they no longer reflect student understanding so as to ensure that the grades, levels, or summaries accurately reflect the full value of what students’ have learned.

To be clear, I believe in the orthodoxy of formative assessment, practice, and continual learning, and while it is not true that grades, scores, and levels always interfere with learning, the research suggests that there is the potential that it can (Kluger & DeNisis, 1996; Wiliam, 2011). I don’t think the scoring of homework is the reason students complete that which has been assigned; low quality busy work disjointed from essential learning does more to discourage students from investing in completing their homework assignments consistently. I am, like you, intimately familiar with what the research says about grading formative work and feedback; however, what I believe and know is often irrelevant to those hesitant to take the next step in reforming their assessment and grading practices. While I don’t agree with those who say if I don’t grade it, they won’t do it, I believe that they believe it, which is why finding an acceptable alternative is essential.

Telling people how wrong they are doesn’t necessarily inspire them to be more right. Certainly egregious and harmful practices need a more immediate response, and while it is possible to argue the harmful nature of many traditional assessment and grading practices, the goal is always long-term, sustainable change, not just a short-term fix. Acceptable alternatives lead teachers through (not just to) the change process by allowing for more than one step toward the ideal, and while it is possible that some may believe that the acceptable alternative is the desirable, it is important to be clear that this is the first of several steps forward.

Leaders and influencers who pair an internal urgency with external patience typically find that sweet spot that keeps change efforts progressing. The internal urgency is driven by orthodoxy; that changing our assessment and grading practices is an urgent matter. The external patience is driven by acceptable alternatives that allow for a pacing of change that is palatable. The combination of the two sends a clear message that the orthodoxy is the desirable end (thereby preventing the illusion that the alternative practices are good enough), but that there will be overt and necessary patience with the means by which the orthodoxy is arrived.

Acceptable alternatives are not about compromising principles or slippery slopes; they about meeting people where they are so as to make what can be a daunting task of change more personally and professionally manageable. The goal of change is actual change; so thoughtful leaders and influencers understand that if the orthodoxy of assessment and grading practices is interfering with the willingness to take action, then an acceptable pathway forward is the necessary first step.



Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to change things when change is hard. New York, NY: Random House.

Kluger, A., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin119(2), 254–284.

William, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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  1. Veronica Saretsky

    A great read for administrators who are working towards reforming assessment practices at their site. We need to meet teachers where they are.

  2. Scott Miller

    Just the idea to implement I was looking for…I’m leading a new school next year and this gives me a non-dictatorial way of having staff examine current grading practices.

  3. Bill Worley

    As a teacher who is in year 2 of a personal move towards standards based learning, I absolutely love your message here. It seems clear to me that our district has a desire to move to standards based grading, K-12. My fear is that, rather than finding a way to allow teachers to MOVE through this progression naturally (and, to an extent, at a personally acceptable pace), it will instead come down from on high as an edict of sorts – which is typically how these things happen. I’m absolutely copying your post to share with leaders in our district, hoping your words will make them stop and think.


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