Five Inconvenient Truths About How We Grade - ASCD
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September 1, 2020

Five Inconvenient Truths About How We Grade

It's time to slay the "monsters" that drive our grading practices.

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Of all the areas in contemporary education in which we've made some genuine strides of progress, how we grade students may well be the last bastion of outdated conventions that persist so incessantly. The reasons for this are many, complex, and varied, and not particularly the focus of this writing. Instead, my aim is to hold up a mirror, so that each of us can pause and reflect on our own grading practices, however uncomfortable the truth at times may be. My hope is that we can begin to shift some conventional attitudes and practices about grading that no longer serve us or our students. Let the brave read on.

Inconvenient Truth #1: We Grade Everything that Moves

I've been in education for four decades now, and I have a five-year-old. If you did some quick math just now, then you know I am an older dad. What's more, this is my wife's and my first child. So I'm also a new dad.

As educators, my wife and I knew going into this that, if we were not careful, we could easily become the parents who we dreaded as teachers: the ones who micromanaged every aspect of their child's education and were quick to find fault with the slightest thing the teacher did that was not consistent with the latest trends in K–12 education. We knew we would have to bite our tongues—even if we did know better—and let things play out, adopting a "wait and see" attitude.

So when my kindergartner, Ben, brought home a sample of his work in which he illustrated and wrote text for a short story about going to Walmart, my wife and I were struck by two things. First, his work depicted a wonderful example of how a student—even as young as five—could practice writing (and drawing) about a topic of their choosing. Sure, words were terribly misspelled since he and his classmates were encouraged to sound out words as they wrote their multipage stories. That Walmart was spelled Womot or some stuff was sum suf was not an issue. The emphasis was not on flawless spelling, but on getting students to use their creativity and write and illustrate a story. The spelling would come.

The second thing that surprised us was that, of the six or seven multipage stories he wrote and illustrated throughout the year, none were marked with a single grade or sticker or any bit of feedback. We wondered if his teacher (or the teacher's aide—remember he's in kindergarten) ever saw any of these masterpieces. OK, "masterpieces" might be a doting parent stretch, but his mom and I were quite impressed: Here before us were four- and five-page stories with no less than two full sentences and a picture on each page. This was no easy job for a kindergartener.

So why no grade? Or comment? Or sticker? There was no evidence whatsoever that either the classroom teacher or the teacher's aide ever saw them. That couldn't be good, right?

Well, not so fast. I asked my son, Ben, straight up: "Did you turn these stories in to Ms. J or Ms. C?" No, he didn't. "Did either of them see them?" Yes, they saw everybody's as the class worked on them. "Did they comment on them or say anything to you about them?" Well, sometimes.

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Photo by Daniel R. Venables / Artwork by Benjamin R. Venables © 2020

At that moment, something profound occurred to me. This teacher and her aide knew exactly what they were doing, but I was deeply stuck in a paradigm—a dangerous paradigm. One that we teachers have foisted on students for many decades. It is the paradigm that every bit of work produced by students must be graded. It has produced a mindset on the parts of students that anything not being graded is not worth doing, or at the very least, not worth doing well.

Inconvenient Truth #2: The Monster Is of Our Doing

As teachers, we have unintentionally created a monster. The learning objectives associated with any given assignment have taken a distant back seat to student questions like "How much will this count?" or "Is this going to be graded?" or "How many points is this?" Learning happens best when kids grapple with concepts; when grades are the sole or primary motivation for doing the work, the goal in the student's mind is simply getting it done. What have we created, fellow teachers?

I get that grades have been long accepted as a necessary evil, an ally that has, in many ways, served us well. They have motivated our kids to do what we've asked them to do. Even when we've used them in a coercive manner—as is often the case—they have forced students to do things that have helped them learn, in a genuine way. Who among us would dare assign a major unit project with no promise (or threat) of a grade? How many of our kids would do such a task? In our quiet reflective moments, we know that our students are doing the work primarily for the grade and not for the learning experience gained in the production of the work. We proceed anyway, telling ourselves that the end does justify the means. And so the grade-it-or-why-bother-doing-it monster thrives with no feasible possibility of being slain in the near future.

Inconvenient Truth #3: Our A–F Grading Schema Is Obsolete

A dear colleague of mine was a legend in our school community for his ability to teach 9th graders to write. He had a grading system in which every piece of writing submitted by a student was given a grade of A, or B, or Not Yet. If a student's piece was assigned a Not Yet classification, the student was required to continue to work on it, make changes suggested by the teacher, and then resubmit it. When a piece was finally "accepted," it was awarded a grade of either an A or B. Grades of C, D, or F made no sense in his grading system: If a student's piece was "ready" to submit, it was worthy of either an A or a B. Work deemed "not ready" simply received feedback from the teacher and was returned to the student for revisions. A student's final quarter grade was based on the number of pieces accepted and the grades he received on them.

What a concept! My colleague didn't know it back then, but this was competency-based grading at its finest. All of the grades that were assigned were done so on the basis of the work meeting a standard or not—even if the standard was one of the teacher's choosing. The learning culture he had established in his classroom was not centered on the work being done—as is so often the impetus behind a majority of the work we teachers assign, I would argue—but instead centered on the work being done well. And, from the outset of implementing his system, the students adapted quickly and almost never pushed back or whined about wanting the traditional grading schema.

As a math teacher at the time (who happened to share a classroom wall with this writing teacher), I often contemplated how this kind of grading might work in my classes. What if every math class centered on three or four or five main standards (solving equations, simplifying expressions, graphing patterns, etc.) and students had to show mastery of these standards in order to pass or advance to the next math course? Such a system would force teachers to focus on the main concepts depicted in the core standards and permit students to demonstrate mastery (or not), knowing that they had other chances to move from Not Yet to an A or B. This is a valuable conversation every math department should be engaging in.

Inconvenient Truth #4: Assigning an Overall Grade on Multi-Standard Assessments Makes No Sense

In a country where standards-based grading is gaining traction, assigning a single, overall grade on an assessment that covers multiple standards makes absolutely no sense. Yet, we still do it because, well, we've always done it. (The we've-always-done-it-this-way mindset may well be the single biggest impediment to instructional improvement and stands in diametric opposition to a growth mindset.) If teachers create assessments that evaluate student mastery over a range of standards, we have to start giving grades (if we must) for each individual standard being assessed.

A math teacher colleague of mine, as early as 1990, realized this and started designing tests that were sectioned off by learning objectives. In each section, students were assigned a grade that denoted their level of mastery. No overall grade was assigned to the test; it wouldn't have made sense given the layout and grading structure of the test.

Teachers of any subject can do this. What goes into the gradebook should be indicators of mastery (A, B, Not Yet) for each standard or learning target. The student's final quarter grade, as with my English teacher colleague, can be based on the number of standards (or substandards) mastered by the student and the grades received on them (A or B). Grades earned on the standards can even be weighted; no doubt, they are not all of equal importance. Further, this grading mindset would force teachers to think about how they design and evaluate student projects. If no overall grade is recorded for the project but instead mastery grades are assigned based on the standards embedded in the project and student work, rubrics for evaluating such projects begin to look very different. It begins to become less about what students did in the creation of the product and more about what students learned in the creation of the product.

Inconvenient Truth #5: We Grade What They Did (and Not What They Learned)

If you are a school principal, here is a challenge for you: Ask each of your classroom teachers to submit the requirements for any one project they have given or plan to give this year and have them submit the rubric they plan to use to grade that project. Then, ignore the project requirements and go straight to the rubrics for evaluation. I am willing to bet that 95 percent (19 of every 20) of the project rubrics will be dominated by dimensions having to do with what the student did and very few, if any, having to do with what the student learned. Student projects should be a form of alternate assessments that demonstrate that learning has occurred or that prior learning has been applied. Look for that in the rubrics. Do you see it anywhere? For example, are there elements of the rubric that sound like demonstration of an understanding of how linear equations are applied or understanding of how the parts of a cell work together? Or is the rubric cluttered with dimensions like organization, completeness, submitted on time, number of sources, and so forth that constitute more of a checklist of compliance than an assessment of the quality and quantity of student learning, measured against a standard, that the student work demonstrates?

Students who excel in following directions and pleasing the teacher tend to do very well in this grading schema. These "compliant kids" get high marks on projects—even when very little learning of the content is demonstrated. These are the very kids about whose low performance on end-of-course state tests we scratch our heads. (For more information and practical strategies for balancing assessment of what kids do with what they learn, see my document Looking at the Right Stuff).

The Future Is Formative

Each of these five inconvenient truths reflect a mindset of grading that has persisted for decades in education, when grades on an assignment, test, or alternate assessment were one-and-done entities. Almost all grades back then were summative. We know better now; teachers everywhere have begun to use assessments formatively. The disconnect between philosophy and practice, it seems to me, is that we're still largely grading in an outdated summative framework—even if we use the information gleaned from student work formatively. Changing our grading practices to be more consistent with some of the points I've raised will help shift attitudes about grading and align grading practices to a more formative mindset.

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