Eileen Depka, PhD, has a background in assessment, common assessment design, rubric development, standards-based assessment, question design, classroom questioning practices, positive practices in grading and reporting, and the implementation of standards-based grading and reporting.

What If Policy Focused on Learning Instead of Grading and Reporting?

Lately I have had cause to review a variety of grading policies from various districts. Clearly, I realize that the focus of a grading policy is obviously grading, but I can’t help but think that they unintentionally take the focus off of learning.

For example, the policy might state that if a student performs poorly on an assessment, they have the right to retake an assessment in order to improve the original grade up to a certain percent. I certainly don’t object to the thought of grade replacement or improvement, but can we word policies in such a way that the focus is on learning and the grade is a sideline?

If were to consider the policy instead to be an accurate Reflection of Student Learning Policy the mindset might change. It could take the emphasis off of grading and place it appropriately on learning.

Let’s consider how that might change what might be suggested in a policy. Think about the use of a percentage scale. What does a 73% really mean when it comes to a level of learning? If the goal is to be an accurate reflection of student performance, the percentage scale would be a thing of the past. Instead teachers, in advance of any summative work, could determine levels of success, not by percent, but by evidence of mastery.

Let’s say there was an eight-question assessment based on theme like the one below.

Assessment Based on Theme

  1. Who were the main characters in the story?
  2. Where did the story mostly take place?
  3. When did the story take place?
  4. In your own words, retell the main events of the story.
  5. What is the theme of the story?
  6. Find evidence in the story that supports the theme you have identified.
  7. What techniques did the author use to develop the theme throughout the story?
  8. Assign a new trait to the main character. Determine how the trait could support or contradict the theme.


The first four questions are foundational and determine if students have a good enough understanding of what they read to determine theme. They don’t deal with theme, though, and even if students answer them correctly, they have not yet demonstrated understanding. Question 5 takes us to theme identification and a correct response would indicate that the student has some understanding. That level of understanding can be associated with a grade. However, the focus is on learning. The student needs to be able to identify themes. Question 6 shows that students have a good understanding and can back up their thoughts with evidence. Questions 7 and 8 would indicate an in-depth level of understanding.

When introducing this assessment, the teacher could say something like the following:

“Students, in this assessment you will be expected to clearly demonstrate your knowledge of theme. Foundational questions will be present and are designed to help you remember what have read and show that you understood the piece. The goal, though, is for you to identify the theme and back up your thoughts with evidence. You will be asked to extend your knowledge as well, showing how theme was developed and use your creativity in a way to show how theme might be impacted.”

The entire statement is about learning. I don’t feel the grade needs to be mentioned at all. After the assessment, feedback and reflection would help the student to understand where their performance was on target, and what they need to do to achieve and missed goals.

Could the policy, then, state something like the following:

“In this district, our focus is on student learning. Prior to any work that the student is asked to do, they will know the learning expectations and they will know what needs to be accomplished in order to show that they are proficient with the identified learning standards. After assessments, students will self-evaluate and teachers will provide feedback to identify how the student has performed compared to the intended outcomes. When necessary to enhance student learning, a plan will be developed to close the gap.”

Of course, there would need to be an explanation of a grading system that can correspond to a model based on student understanding. Letter grade or descriptors can work well. However, the focus is on learning and the grade can reflect the highest level of achievement the student has earned after work has been evaluated and student learning is at a level appropriate to the intended learning outcomes. Perhaps no grade is given until learning has been adequately demonstrated.


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