3 ways to make the switch to grading for learning

I have a confession. Last August, I wholeheartedly believed that 2020 could not get any worse. I was wrong. Schools opened, then closed. Even with glimmers of hope about a COVID-19 vaccine, November and December were long. Very long. You likely spent your winter break redesigning lesson plans for the 300th time, taking online trainings about how to reach every kid, and not sleeping (no, naps don’t count). I hope you recognize that your efforts are not in vain. You are making a difference every day.

Perhaps, between the hours at your computer and during the precious unoccupied space on your calendar, you’ve considered the value of reimagining the way we, as educators, have always done things. Pandemic teaching has upended everything, and there’s power in giving ourselves permission to seize this moment and abandon conventions that, when examined a little closer, aren’t always what’s best for kids. That’s the silver lining to all of this upheaval: the abrupt end to “normal” has provided us a unique opportunity to revisit and reform, to design a new future.

The trouble with grading

Not to bring up a sore spot, but think back—way back—to last March. Remember when we all looked around and wondered, “How are we supposed to grade this?” I bet you felt a bit uneasy giving a student a zero on an assignment when you knew they simply couldn’t access the internet at home. Or, despite participation points helping in the classroom, I’m sure you worried that enforcing that same system online set you up to punish students who were just plain overwhelmed at asserting their opinion on a Zoom call.

Coronavirus school closures have made us painfully aware of the flaws in the grading system. Some schools have moved to a more flexible pass/fail model while others have maintained a staunch focus on the familiar, though more problematic, A–F scale. Either way, the air has been thick with an unspoken message: These grades don’t count.

But wait. Aren’t we still teaching? Aren’t kids still learning? Were those sleepless nights spent redesigning your whole instructional model for nothing?

[T]he abrupt end to ‘normal’ has provided us a unique opportunity to revisit and reform, to design a new future.

G is for “grading for learning”—and Guskey

You probably read Thomas Guskey as an undergrad. And when your professor spoke his famous words to the class—“Is my purpose to select talent, or is my purpose to develop talent?”—you likely shouted, “Develop!” (if not out loud, then at least in your head). Grading for learning is rooted in a mindset shift that brings us back to this belief, one that aligns far more than you may realize with practices like formative assessment that you implement on a daily basis. It frames grades as a source of feedback from which future learning can begin and serves as a communication channel to inform a student of where they are in their learning journey at a specific moment in time.

I have no magic wand to whisk us all back to a land without a pandemic. The truth is, we are seeing that our “new normal” is here to stay in some form for a while. But I can share some ways to make the transition to more equitable grading—that is, grading for learning—easier in your classroom. (If you’re reading this and thinking, “Here goes someone else with her unrealistic expectations of teachers and delusions about the time it takes to implement an entirely new grading framework,” please stay with me. The goal here isn’t to add stress, but to mitigate it!) Here are three things to try.

1. Start with formative assessment

We know that feedback promotes development and fuels growth. Take this post, for instance. I’ll be very honest: this is not the first draft I wrote (or the second, or even the third, if you must know). It is the result of clear, specific feedback, followed by my targeted efforts to create a better-quality piece. It was the process, along with the formative measures of my progress, that resulted in my ability to create the desired product. So, what does this look like in your classroom?

Formative assessment is more essential than ever as our students experience interrupted learning throughout the school year. Because it’s designed to show you where students are in their learning (not for grading), it can help you shift the focus from a number at the top of a page to your feedback, which guides next steps. But how can you report student learning without grading the 120 formative assessments you administered last week?

One of my personal aha moments around this was when Rick Wormeli shared, “Students can learn without grades, but they can’t learn without timely, descriptive feedback.” When you’re planning for the various formative assessments you’ll provide, recognize that they are, in fact, practice. There are myriad ways to provide that feedback: student self-assessment using specific criteria, conferencing, or one of my new favorites, a Flipgrid review! These approaches will help you get the view into student learning you need to report on their progress on a regular basis. Practice and progress still merit reporting; just remember that formative assessment shouldn’t ever get a grade.

Give yourself some grace here by relieving that obligation to place a grade on everything students complete. Build a culture of assessment—and grading—for learning, not points.

Grading for learning […] aligns far more than you may realize with practices like formative assessment that you implement on a daily basis. It frames grades as a source of feedback from which future learning can begin.

2. Don’t grade behavior

You might have had cringes of discomfort when you realized your syllabus says, “10% of overall grade for participation.” We’ve all been there. The problem is that having grades drop when students haven’t earned points for speaking up in class (or turning in a tidy notebook or following instructions correctly the first time) interferes with accurately grading learning. Furthermore, how can we fairly, or, more importantly, equitably, report on behaviors such as participation when we cannot ensure every child is able to participate because of their home learning environment?

Trust your intuition of how unfair grading behavior is. If it won’t put you in hot water with your principal, strike behavior from your grade book—and don’t bring it back after the pandemic.

3. Give students a do-over

The most learning opportunities lie in the chance to redo a task after receiving feedback. If ever there was a school year to give students an extra chance to get it right, this is it. But if you’re going to do this, you need to be sure to set clear expectations and protect your time.

Avoiding the pitfall of students thinking they don’t need to give their best effort the first time around is paramount. Endless freebies on retakes only lower expectations—and create an impossible, always-grading situation for you. To avoid this, establish a system of accountability for the learning. Begin by focusing on your rubrics. Is it clear what is expected of students? (Is it really clear?)

I’m a huge fan of involving students in identifying where to focus their efforts before they even begin an assignment. Give them a copy of the rubric, talk them through how you’ll use it to evaluate their work, and ask them to self-assess before turning in their assignment. If they want a do-over after you grade it, have them use the rubric to identify what they should focus on. If you’re willing to take the time to reevaluate an assignment, then set up an expectation of what the student must do for you to reassess it. When looking at your rubric and feedback, is it clear which standards the student is struggling with? How about focusing the revision on those? (Hint: This will help you with planning for differentiation and remediation, too!) You might find you’ll save precious time once used for grading and can put it to more productive use conferencing with students.

There will come a time when grades need to be reported and the opportunities for reassessment end, of course. Be sure to let students know how many second chances they get—and why.

If it won’t put you in hot water with your principal, strike behavior from your grade book—and don’t bring it back after the pandemic.

How to rebuild your grade book

Redesigning your grade book may not have been on your to-do list until now. I assure you it’s not as daunting as it sounds. It is crucial to ensuring consistency between any grading practices you change and the way you report grades.

As it stands, online grading systems can be one of the biggest barriers to reporting student learning in the ways described in this post. They are, as you know, perfectly set up to calculate points, weighting, and averages. But that’s about it. Don’t let this stop you on your journey toward authentically grading for learning. It can be as simple as changing a few names and locations. The key is to disaggregate because the more data we pool into one grade, the less valid the grade is for reporting on any one standard.

Consider the difference in what information you and a student can glean from the different titles here for the same assignment: 1. WWI Classwork vs. 1. Identify Causes of WWI and 2. Analyze Impact of WWI. A change as simple as this one will help you avoid lumping too many skills together (in this case, identifying and analyzing), which will result in a clearer, more accurate assessment of each.

Do you use rubrics for providing feedback to students? (If the answer is no, please consider it. Rubrics can help you grade more quickly and equitably.) Use the standards categories in your rubrics in your grade book to tie everything together. You’ll then be able to look at your grade book to identify students needing extra support and begin planning for differentiation. Students will also have a much better idea of how they’re doing and why.

One last thing to try: Organize your grade book into two major categories, formative assessment and summative assessment. By separating work completed on the road to mastery and final measures of student learning you’ll be better able to document everything that goes into learning. If you’re worried about students skipping formative assessment tasks because they think there’s no consequence, show them how very wrong they are. The practice formative assessment provides makes it much easier for them to do well on assignments that are graded.

Ready to get started?

As the page turns to a new calendar year and you rally every scrap of energy to kickstart 2021, what better time to commit to refining your practice to ensure everything you do is intentionally about what’s best for your students? Grading for learning doesn’t require tying yourself in knots. No matter what your district decides to throw at you next week, grading for learning will ensure you are meeting all your students where they are, free from consequences out of your—or their—control.

I encourage you to visit the Grading for Learning page built by Rochester Public Schools in Minnesota. It’s chock-full of valuable resources that will surely help you along the way. Here are some discussion questions as well. They can help you get started as you begin to tackle this work.

Questions for teachers

  • What effects of traditional grading practices have caused you to consider alternatives during pandemic teaching?
  • How might your grading practices influence your student’s attitude toward learning?
  • What grading practices can you control right now?
  • Of those grading practices in your control, what’s one change you can make to support grading for learning?

Questions for administrators

  • What effects of traditional grading practices have caused you to consider alternatives during the pandemic?
  • How might your grading policies influence your student’s attitude toward learning?
  • How can you support teachers in transitioning to grading for learning?

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