Cassandra Erkens is a presenter, facilitator, coach, trainer of trainers, keynote speaker, author, and above all, a teacher. She presents nationally and internationally on assessment, instruction, school improvement, and professional learning communities.

Investigating Grading Conversations

Note: This entry is the first in a four-part series by Cassandra Erkens.

School improvement conversations fail when everyone walks away frustrated, the public angrily engages, and all change efforts within the initiative are abandoned. Sadly, many grading conversations fall into that failing category. In fact, the mere worry that things might go badly prohibits some very smart educational leaders from ever launching the grading conversation.

Conversations about grading can prove challenging. They are fraught with ingrained expectations, past practices, emotions, and opinions. But just because they’re hard conversations, doesn’t mean they should be avoided. Sometimes, those are the most important conversations to have. Indeed, generating clarity and consistency in policy and practice across a school building or district—especially on something as significant as grading—is crucial work.  

There are many things we can do to dramatically minimize the discomfort or conflict that can occur in grading conversations. This short series of four blog posts will explore the phases of the process: Investigating, Inviting, Launching and Implementing. The theory of change leadership model looks like this:

A screenshot of a cell phone

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First, it’s imperative to spend some time investigating the work at hand with key teacher and administrator leaders throughout the organization. Form a guiding coalition that can take the necessary time to build a solid foundation. This group will brainstorm and explore all of the potential areas of concern or plausible questions stakeholders might have. A sample form for setting up a guiding coalition can be found here.

Use the guiding coalition to identify and then provide solutions to staff questions, concerns, and system’s hurdles.


Begin with the coalition of the willing:

  • Form a guiding coalition to lead the work.
  • Identify the questions, concerns, and hurdles that can be anticipated along the way. 
  • Create a proactive plan of action to find answers early but remain open to additional questions and concerns that might emerge along the way.
  • Explore other district policies from those engaged in making the shift. Identify the range of possibilities and reach out to those same places to ask implementation questions or concerns.
  • Avoid the common misconception that schools already know what colleges want and need. Ask for their admission requirements. Ask what they would want/look for in a grade. Ask what they will tolerate in any changes you might make to your grading systems.
    Check in with parents and students. Use surveys or focus groups to explore critical questions like “what should a grade represent?” “What should a grade accomplish?” “What do our current grades do or not do for you as a stakeholder?” “What could we do to improve grading practices?”

Look beyond the grade:

  • Change assessment practices and beliefs first (this one is required). Grading is the frosting on a cake—it’s the top, public layer.  But if there isn’t a solid cake underneath, it’s impossible to spread that frosting accurately and smoothly.  
  • Do collaborative work with assessments. Look at student work together, complete with CFAs, and design interventions. All of this natural conversation will lead teams to start reconsidering their own grading practices.

When ready, extend the guiding coalition’s conversation to include the entire staff, sharing key findings, concerns, and progress updates along the way.  

  • Engage staff in studying best practices in assessment and grading through reading—articles, chapters, book groups, etc.—over time.
  • Engage staff in action research after reading. Each collaborative team employs one or more improved grading practices and they report their results to the larger group for consideration before policy and software changes are made.  
    Bring short progress reports of “findings” from individuals or teacher teams engaged in action research to the board for updates.  This keeps everyone informed and focuses on the positive outcomes. 

Many organizations employ the work of advance teams—groups of people that scope out possibilities and dangers and then strategize before the actual work launches. Politicians use it before campaigning, the Secret Service and military personnel use it prior to significant events or anticipated skirmishes, businesses use it ahead of launching new companies or placing new businesses, and the medical field uses the advanced look premise before initiating life-altering procedures. Why don’t educators use “advance team” operations more consistently?  It truly would be helpful in a field where all stakeholders already have experiences, opinions, and expectations.

Going slower in the initial phases will create a better opportunity for success later. Advanced investigations arm leaders with important information and create a degree of readiness that smooths the path ahead.

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