Making the Grades
Ensure Accuracy, Meaning, Consistency, and Support for Learning
What are the measures that schools and teachers use most? Grades. So "good grades" are the measures that schools really need. Unfortunately, many grading practices are sadly lacking.
Most teachers have little training in how to grade, so grading has developed into a private and idiosyncratic practice. Superintendents, principals, and teachers have important roles to play in designing and implementing assessment, grading, and reporting policies and procedures that will ensure that grades are accurate; meaningful; consistent; and, most important, supportive of learning.
If any of these conditions is lacking, then the grades fail as effective measures. But educators can take steps to ensure that each of the four conditions of quality for grades are met.
Make Grades Accurate
First and foremost, accuracy requires that behaviors and attitudes be separated from achievement, so that grades are pure measures of achievement. The most practical way to do this is to use K–12 expanded format report cards that have a section where valued behaviors are reported for each student separately from the grade for achievement of learning goals. For example, in the province of Ontario, for grades 9–12, five "learning skills" are reported for each subject a student takes.
Other necessary practices include
- Eliminating the use of penalties for behaviors such as submitting required assessment evidence after due dates, absence, and academic dishonesty;
- Eliminating the use of extra credit for activities that have nothing to do with demonstration of achievement of standards;
- Ensuring that grades are based on individual achievement, which means that group scores have no place in the determination of grades;
- Ensuring that every assessment meets standards for quality assessment—clear targets, clear purpose, and sound design; and
- Calculating appropriately, which involves using the median and mode as well as the mean, and finding alternatives to the use of zeros, especially where a percentage grading scale is used.
Make Grades Meaningful
For grades to be meaningful in standards-based systems, they must be based on standards, not assessment methods. This means teachers must do standards-based assessment and organize their grade books with standards as the set and assessment methods as the subset. For example, in that kind of matrix, the vertical organizer would be the target standards or strands, and the horizontal organizer (e.g., achievement evidence) would be the various tests. Each standard could have space to record comments on student strengths, areas for improvement, or observations.
Make Grades Consistent
For consistency, it is essential to have clearly described performance standards that teachers interpret in the same way. A limited number of levels (e.g., 2–7) with well-written generic descriptors become the basis for the scoring tools used at the classroom level. We must eliminate the use of the percentage system, as we cannot clearly describe 101 levels. Percentage scales are incompatible with standards-based systems where the primary focus for achievement levels is whether students are proficient or not.
Make Grades Supportive of Learning
Maybe the most important thing that needs to be done in assessment and grading is to make sure that students understand that the focus of the classroom is on learning, not just accumulating points. This can be achieved by
- Using "no mark; comment only" formative assessments and including primarily summative assessments in the determination of grades. This means that quizzes, most homework, and most daily work have no place in grades.
- Emphasizing more recent evidence and ignoring early learning failings in the determination of grades: if a student is proficient in May, the fact that they were struggling in December becomes irrelevant.
- Involving students in the assessment and grading process by providing choices in the "how" and "what" of assessment, by providing many opportunities for self- and peer assessment, and by involving students in the communication process through the use of student-involved and student-led conferences.
If schools and districts focus on the four conditions of quality for grades and implement the practices suggested above, teachers, students, and parents will have the accurate measures they need to make good decisions that help students to achieve and to develop positive attitudes about learning and school.
Ken O'Connor is an education consultant in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada.