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.

Implementing Changes in Grading Practices & Policies

This is the fourth and final entry of four blog posts about facilitating healthy grading conversations in schools. The first three posts (read posts one, two, and three here) outline a tremendous amount of work that may span a few years’ worth of preparation before implementing changes in grading practices.  

It’s a common mistake to assume that implementation simply involves pulling the lever while saying “ready, set, go!” Even after a solid foundation of establishing coherence, clarity, and readiness has been built, much care and attention must be given to the implementation phase.  The Guiding Coalition is active through the entire implementation phase. Members of the team help to facilitate conversations and consensus processes. They also engage in enacting staff decisions and monitoring the effectiveness of their efforts. The implementation phase offers the formal launch to a public process that is rife with opportunities for things to go askance. During the implementation phase, the Guiding Coalition is still actively pursuing evidence of effectiveness and troubleshooting concerns along the way.

Implementing

First and foremost, create safety when launching the decision-making conversations with staff. Be extraordinarily clear on what will—and maybe even will nothappen in the meeting. Consider, for example, providing parameters like the following in the initial implementation conversation with staff:

Purpose behind changing how we grade

The interpretation of assessment results must be accurate, accessible, and reliable. (Erkens, Schimmer, and Vagle, 2017)

(Note: It’s helpful to use local data/findings regarding what hasn’t worked and what has worked as bullet points to anchor the need for change.)

Decisions to be made today

  • What to grade (team specific)
  • How to grade (1, 2, 3 or A, B, C)
  • How to determine the final grade
  • What to report (1, 2, 3 or A, B, C)
  • Accountability options (school wide, classroom specific) for intentional non learners

Defining how we will make the decisions

Consensus—when all of the voices (perspectives) have been heard and the will of the group emerges.

Norms to guide our work today  

(These statements guide how we will take care of ourselves and each other during this challenging conversation. For more information on norm setting, try this resource.

From Garmston and Wellman:

  • Pausing
  • Paraphrasing
  • Probing
  • Putting Ideas on the Table
  • Paying Attention to Self and Others
  • Presuming Positive Intention
  • Pursuing a Balance Between Advocacy and Inquiry

OR

  • Stay calm
  • Remain flexible
  • Know that all decisions made today will be investigated and from the place of evidence and our decisions can still be changed. 

Evidence Based Reporting Guidelines 

  1. These guidelines provide the rationale and parameters for our decision making.
  2. Evidence is more precise than any formula.
  3. We determine what students deserve.
  4. We never fully realize curriculum without evidence-based practice.
  5. Evidence based grading improves team collaboration.
  6. Communication with the community is essential.
  7. We must take a postsecondary perspective.

(From: Pathways to Proficiency: Implementing Evidence-Based Grading)

Complex changes—those that impact many systems and stakeholder groups—can quickly cause confusion or allow emotions to hijack reasoning, so clear parameters are paramount to your success. With these structures in place, you can have healthy conversations that result in a great day of decision making.

Remember that grading and reporting are separate but linked processes. Uncoupling them for a short period of time will help. You can use the evidence that teams produce in their gradebooks to inform how the grade will look on the transcript.

Keep the traditional transcript if preferred. Parents and universities want it. Just agree at this point that it’s how the grade will be calculated that will determine which letter grade appears on the transcript.  

Use logic rules or grading criteria instead of point accumulation, percentages, or algorithms to determine the final letter grades. Sample logic rules (assuming the use of a 4 point scale) include things like:

  • A student can earn an A if 100% of the scores in the gradebook are a 3 or above and at least 30% of the scores are 4s. 
  • A student can earn a B if 80% of the scores are a 3 or higher and no score dips below a 2.
  • A student can earn a C if 60% of the scores are a 3 or higher, less than 5% of the scores are a 1, and there is no 0 in the gradebook.

Conclude the conversation formally by documenting the collaborative agreements that emerged during the discussion. Send them out in writing immediately following the meeting. One savvy high school staff concluded their grading conversation with the following agreements: 

Our collaborative agreements to inform our policy 

  1. We will use numbers in our gradebook during the assessment process to score proficiency and we will convert to letter grades for the report card.
  2. We will use criteria (rather than points, percentages, or averages) to make grade decisions/translations.
  3. Teams will work together to score work and determine consistent levels of proficiency at key points in the curriculum.
  4. When determining the grade, we will use later samples of work and find the mode in the proficiency levels.
  5. We will remove the “D” option during the assessment process, but use the “D” sparingly (and commit to reduce it over time) during the formal grading phases so that borderline students can still graduate as we are adjusting the grading system.
  6. We will not hold a student hostage to glaring problem in our new grading practices. If we believe a student should be scored other than our system allows, we will use professional judgement – from the preponderance of evidence and context and with team input to determine the appropriate grade.
  7. We commit to study and continually improve the system. We will bring our action research findings back to the table as often as required to ensure we have a more accurate and viable way to grade based on standards.

Do not make premature ‘final decisions’ on policy or software applications, etc. Allow everything to be in draft form until the evidence proves the system will work.  

Find work-arounds for existing grading software or other impacted systems. For example, turn off averaging and/or enter formative assessments, but assign 0 value so that proficiency scores like 1, 2, 3, or 4 are visible to students and parents but don’t factor into the final grade, posting grading expectations on teacher webpages, and so on.  

Invite technology companies to join the conversation so they can see what you are trying to accomplish in order to offer you a bid on a revamped grading software system that will accommodate your needs. 

Finally, provide a clear path for navigating concerns that emerge during the implementation process. What should teachers do with their concerns or frustrations? Where will they funnel their information regarding what works and what doesn’t? Where do parents go if they have concerns or frustrations? Providing open pathways of communication can ensure that all information is channeled to the appropriate places and challenges can be addressed. Like the previous phases, implementation requires monitoring.  

A note about sustaining the work: Complex change takes a lot of time, energy, and focus. It could be easy to turn away from the efforts once policy and practice are in place out of sheer relief that it’s “done.” As Einstein said, however, “yesterday’s solutions become tomorrow’s problems.” It’s always important to continue monitoring systems to ensure that the changes were implemented with fidelity and the results are proving the changes to have made the desired improvements. A leader’s work is never done.

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