Recent conversations with my teammates at my school have gotten me thinking about my own grading practices. While my district takes a “standards-based grading” stance, the grading practices I see happening at my school do not reflect that stance. Most of the teachers at my school still employ very traditional practices when it comes to grading – marking each question right or wrong, and converting the number correct out of the total number of questions to a percentage. The percentage grades are then translated to a scale of 1 to 4, 1 meaning “Below Standard” to 4 meaning “Beyond Standard”.
The Problem With Traditional Grading
Education is about learning. Everything that we do as teachers should be for the purposes of developing student thinking, reasoning, and sense-making. Traditional grading, however, does the complete opposite. Collecting student work in the form of a test or quiz and assigning it one grade based on correctness of the work does not help develop learning – it sends a clear message that performance is valued over learning. It provides no valuable information to teachers, parents, or students about the learning that has taken place.
Consider this example: At the beginning of the school year, my teammates and I decided to give a baseline test for math. After a lengthy discussion, I managed to talk them out of giving a comprehensive test, instead focusing on the big ideas in our first math unit – Meanings of Multiplication and Division. We decided on several tasks that incorporated big ideas students were to have learned in Grade 2, such as recognizing rectangular arrays and using repeated addition to find the total number of objects in them, as well as the big ideas in Grade 3. Our goal was to elicit student thinking with regards to making sense of, representing, and solving problems involving multiplication and division. We all gave the test in the same way – silent classroom, little or no support from us or from each other, completing the tasks independently. Afterward, we all graded them separately before reconvening to analyze the data.
My colleagues came to that meeting with a single grade for each student, a ranking of 1, 2, 3, or 4 based on the percentage of the questions that had been answered correctly. Only answers had been considered; drawings and other models, even if partially accurate, had been ignored. I, on the other hand, came prepared with a scale score for each task, and the rubric I had created based on the standard each task was assessing. The scale for each task included descriptors for students who demonstrated little or no understanding of the task, some understanding, good understanding, and deep understanding. I was able to show my teammates, for each task, which students needed more support and practice and which students needed more challenge and extension. I also had created a spreadsheet for the upcoming unit with each standard to be addressed listed, and students’ scores from the baseline assessment listed and color coded.
I don’t intend to make it sound like I have standards-based grading completely figured out – I most certainly do not. My point is that the traditional method of grading that my colleagues had used did not provide the depth of data we were looking for. It provided a broad snapshot of their students’ performance, but gave little in terms of their thinking.
What’s Needed to Make the Shift to Standards-Based Grading
1. Changing the Mindset
Making the shift to standards-based grading is not an easy one. It first and foremost requires a paradigm shift in which teachers, parents, administrators, and even students differentiate between learning and performance and placing more emphasis on learning. In the current culture, learning is defined as knowing, evidenced by repeating back what has been taught. In a standards-based culture, learning is defined as thinking, evidenced by how students use skills in new situations (Vatterott, 2015). Making this shift requires more opportunities to learn skills through problem solving, to engage in the process of not knowing, of reasoning, of modeling, of sense-making, and of argumentation in order to understand concepts, make connections, and solve complex problems.
Grades are interpreted by students as definitions of who they are. It’s not uncommon to hear terms like “C-student” and conversations about grade point averages. When this mindset is encouraged, it creates a cycle of unnecessary low or unrealistic high expectations. If we work to change our grading mindset to one that values feedback and continuous improvement, then the grade assigned becomes all but meaningless compared to the power of the descriptive feedback about how students can improve and keep learning.
2. Changing the Way We Assess
To most, “assessment” is synonymous with “testing”. While the two are related, they aren’t the same. “Assessment” is the action of observing student work and comparing that work against a standard measure. “Tests” are things, one type of tool that can be used to help us with the act of assessing. Tests themselves are not necessarily a problem, but the way we use them definitely is. As I described in the situation with my teammates, using a test as a single defining grade doesn’t provide adequate information about student learning, especially if that test has been designed with low-level, rote knowledge tasks.
When designing assessment tools, including tests, that maximize the data we want to collect, we first need to consider the standards we are striving toward. I’ve often heard educators debate about whether standards are a “floor” or a “ceiling”; they represent neither the starting nor ending point of instruction. In my opinion, standards are stair steps, interconnected and developmental, building off previous experiences and contributing new perspectives and complexities.
During the assessment process, it is not enough to seek out what students can “do” or “not do.” Instead, we need to seek out evidence of the understanding, skill, and application embedded in each standard or set of connected standards. We can do this by creating a rubric for each question, treating each one as its own entity.
A great example of this assessment method comes from the Eureka Math Mid- and End-of-Module Assessments. These summative tests include multi-part questions and rubrics for each question, describing the increasing complexity of reasoning needed to achieve each level. One question and corresponding rubric from a Grade 3 Test is shown:
- Mr. Lewis arranges all of the desks in how classroom into 6 equal groups of 4. How many desks are there in his classroom? Show a picture and multiplication sentence in your work.
- What does the product in your multiplication sentence represent?
- Fill in the blanks below to complete a related division sentence.
- _____ ÷ 4 = ______
- What does the quotient in the division sentence represent?
The rubric shows the standards addressed in the question, as well as a 4-point progression toward mastery of these ideas. By matching student work to the descriptors in the rubric, we get a much clearer idea of their learning, and therefore can make better decisions about how to move their learning forward.
3. Changing What and When We Grade
Part of the reason students interpret their grades as a reflection of themselves has to do with the frequency with which their work is graded. In the traditional culture, that means that students are almost constantly getting messages about their ability through their grades, exacerbating the “I’m a C-student” mentality.
Another problem with the traditional system of grading is that, in order to obtain grades, teachers often give tests, quizzes, and other interruptive assessment tools. In a standards-based grading system, students know the learning goals, the progression to reach mastery of the goals, and receive constructive feedback about their learning on a daily basis. This doesn’t mean that students receive grades every day, rather their work is formatively assessed using the established goals and learning scales, and teachers and students keep track of their progress in a variety of ways. A great book by Skip Fennell, Beth Korbett, and Jonathan Wray provide some great strategies for using formative assessment. Other books by Robert Marzano, Tim Westerberg, and Susan Brookhart provide guidance to helping teachers make the shifts needed to improve the current paradigm.
No matter where teachers are in the shift to standards-based grading, its important to keep making small steps to lasting changes. Otherwise, we risk overwhelming ourselves and undermining our own efforts. I believe we can and will make a difference.