The Role of Letter Grades, Standards-Based Grades, and How Formative Assessment Plays a Part

Jessica Lahey wrote a thoughtful article for The Atlantic titled Letter Grades Deserve an ‘F’ in which she says:

…if the purpose of academic grading is to communicate accurate and specific information about learning, letter, or points-based grades, are a woefully blunt and inadequate instrument.

The Role of Letter Grades, Standards-Based Grades, and How Formative Assessment Plays a PartWe say take another look at using feedback in forms other than grades or points. For teachers, what systems have you set up in your classroom for students to get feedback (or give feedback) and act upon it to help them bridge the gap from where they are in their learning to where they want to go?

Using feedback in a classroom is pretty common and comes pretty naturally to most teachers. Using feedback to move learning forward is a slight twist on this common practice in that there are a couple of pieces where we need to be explicit. Mainly, the feedback we provide and the time we provide for students to use the feedback. Let’s look at the kind of feedback from the perspective of effective feedback as a formative assessment practice.

We could spend a lot of time talking about kinds of feedback and ways to provide it, so let’s focus in on some highlights. We should pay attention to these five aspects of the feedback we provide:

  • Timing
  • Amount
  • Mode
  • Focus (content of the feedback)
  • Time to use the feedback

There are a few resources that over the years have impacted my thinking about scoring and grading. Perhaps one of those listed below might stretch your thoughts.

The formative assessment approach to grading is touched on in the article, but the larger conversation is one that more clearly aligns student proficiency (or mastery) in a subject to the new common core standards and thus a ‘standards-based’ grading system. As Lahey states:

Standards-based grading establishes one high standard—mastery—for all students. Students who move often, such as kids in poverty, the military, or the foster care system, benefit the most from a standards-based system of evaluation because it would quickly and clearly communicate their competence in a given subject based on a common set of standards. As standards are not dependent on geography, socio-economics, or ethnicity, all students subject to that standard are held to the same expectations for mastery, and eventually, graduation.

With this type of grading system in place, formative assessment techniques designed to measure student mastery over the course of a subject would really play an integral role, one we’ve blogged about repeatedly over the course of the last year or more.

What do you think about grades? If you’re a teacher, how do you balance formative assessment with grades?