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.

Initiating a Change in Grading Practices

This is the third of four blog posts about facilitating healthy grading conversations in schools (read posts one and two here). The series is intended to help educators navigate the challenging and sometimes turbulent waters of changing any traditional practice—but especially grading practices—where tradition, the court of public opinion, and the potential for failure at the expense of students’ future opportunities hurl immediate deterrents in the way.

Initiating changes in grading practices requires action research—there’s really no way around that. A policy change before evidence of effectiveness regarding a practice change can lead to misinformed and misinterpreted policies that can compromise the entire initiative. When teams activate a change in how they do grading, it’s important to:

  1. Document what changed and how it changed.
  2. Monitor the quantitative and qualitative impact of the change.
  3. Use the results to explore best practices as an entire school community before buying a new grading software, publishing a new report card, or enforcing new policy changes.


Even when the system is ready, avoid making this an initiative; it’s just the next logical step to ensure our formative assessment efforts are making the difference we intend. Help people see it as a part of the progression and not a separate and new initiative to be shot down.

Strive to avoid “trigger” titles like “standards-based grading.” Terms matter. Right or wrong, the term has earned a negative association, and it generates instant emotion and demands for research or proof of increased student achievement. Neither exist (yet).

Use neutral terms based on what staff have acknowledged they prefer. For example, consider calling it “grading based on standards” (what we teach), “proficiency based scoring” (what we want), or “evidence-based reporting (what students produce).” Encourage staff to work in teams. It’s easier to problem-solve unforeseen hurdles and generate data for exploration when working with others.

Outline expectations in which teams can start small by making one or two manageable changes during a given time frame. The initiating phase is a critical step. In this phase, every teacher is engaged in acting like a scientist to explore new strategies that might help them solve old problems. Engaging teams in this work will:

  1. Allow teachers to take small steps in the change process.
  2. Empower everyone to be part of the solution.
  3. Most importantly, create a system wide conversation that support the development of clarity and competence.

Using local evidence of effectiveness before launching a formal change is the most prudent way to proceed.

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