So what is it that creates such animosity, builds up resentment, causes angst, turmoil, even anger? Farristown’s teachers and I engaged in the same debate I’ve been having internally for years – and it feels great to know I’m not alone – and each session finished in some useful problem solving: we all want the same thing Tovani wants for her students, and for herself. We want our attention to student work to be manageable, to be relevant, to be authentic, and to contribute to student growth. When our time spent grading takes over our lives, when the stack seems insurmountable, when the hours we put into our feedback and the precision with which we assign a score or a percent or a letter is ignored by students and reveals “mistakes” or “errors” that show up again and again we lose it. In response, we search for a method that means something, a practice that makes a difference. Tovani offers direction. As I talked with Farristown’s faculty, I listened for ways to put into words the things I’m still in the process of figuring out. What solutions do you have? How do you make it work? How does your assessment, grading included, help students grow?
1. Grades should reflect both what students learn and what teachers value (Tovani 130). Ideally, those are the same thing. Our priorities should be clear to students before and as they work and they should be clearly and consistently communicated to students. Standards based assessment makes this easier when the standards become the language of learning not just the language of assessment. When we start with learning targets and provide targeted feedback that helps students grow toward achievement (or mastery) of the standard, then assessing or grading in that same way is neither a surprise nor unfair.
2. Students suffer when they are forced to make decisions about what is important in a class and what is not (131). When students are paying attention to points they are shifting their priorities away from their learning and onto their attainment. This leads to all those things teachers hate: groveling, asking for extra credit, asking for make-up work, submitting work in week nine that somehow disappeared in week two. Tovani talks about students “playing the game of school.” When we encourage such “play” we are suggesting that school is artificial and arbitrary. Instead, assessment should be a natural outgrowth of the learning, work and performance that happens as students grow in their knowledge and ability. They should not have to guess at the rules and they should not strive only to “win.”
3. Grades cannot ignore what really matters, even when figuring out how to assess such things is difficult (132). Standardized tests offering multiple choice and constructed response questions are convenient, efficient, and useful for broad comparisons. Their model, the ACT, is supposed to suggest college readiness. As numerous studies have shown, it doesn’t. And the “career” part of the CCR Common Core Standards has no connection to such forms of assessment at all. Tovani references the article “Rigor Redefined” as emblematic of the kind of thinking required in the professional world and, thus, the kind of scaffolded learning students should be engaged in. How well do End-of-Course assessments and K-Prep measure students’ ability to “collaborate with colleagues, ask the right questions, and problem solve” (132)? Those things are impossible to quantify, slippery, even, to qualify. But they’re what matter, and we must find ways to teach them and ways to assess them.
4. We don’t grade practice. And there should be more practice than “game time.” But we can’t wait until the end, the “game time,” to offer a grade (136). We don’t live in a vacuum. Students don’t come to us knowing everything they need to know to be successful in our class. We have to meet them where they are, give them what they need to be successful, let them figure things out, then determine how well they fare. The other day I heard someone say, “Of course they can’t do it right the first time; they’ve never done it before.” This thought should drive our feedback. It should give us pause when giving students only one chance to demonstrate understanding and when thinking we need to grade every single thing students do.
5. Maximizing standards-based instruction is going to require a culture shift. GPA’s will have to go away. Colleges will have to find measures other than grades for admissions. Scholarships will have to use criteria other than grades for awards. Parents will have to evaluate their children’s success in ways other than honor roll and traditional report cards. Report cards will have to change. They already have in elementary schools. Recently the Kentucky Association of School Councils advertised its “Student Mastery Gradebooks” for purchase. Standards can communicate real information to students about their learning, their progress, and their success. They can communicate this same information to parents and to universities, but thinking must change. If the result is that we stop comparing students with each other and instead compare individuals to established competencies, all the better.
6. Every teacher needs a grading philosophy. Tovani writes: “we need to know why we grade the way we do and be able to communicate it clearly to students, parents, and administrators” (148). For many of us, if we grade the way were graded when we were students we do our students a disservice. By doing so we give them too little information, draw their attention to weaknesses much more than strengths, and force them to work for a grade rather than the learning that happens when students are engaged in their work and teachers are assured that the work really matters.
What’s your philosophy? How do you make grading decisions? What matters to you? And what difference does it make? Let us know. We look forward to hearing from you.