(These thoughts were cross-posted on Jason Bedell's Reflections on Teaching and Learning blog)

First of all, I'd like to thank Jason for inviting me to be a part of his summer guest blogging series on assessment practices.  In a way, it seems a bit out of my comfort zone to be asked to write somewhere other than my own blog, because I firmly believe that anyone can become an expert in today’s world of self-publishing.  The difference between me and many other educators interested in assessment reform isn’t knowledge – it’s context.  Assessment reform (a.k.a. “standards-based grading” or “SBG”) will look a bit different at different grade levels, with different students and in different disciplines.  No matter what it looks like, it should be more than a mere change in the way grades are reported out.
“…changing classroom assessment is the beginning of a revolution – a revolution in classroom practices of all kinds…Getting classroom assessment right is not a simplistic, either-or situation. It is a complex mix of challenging personal beliefs, rethinking instruction and learning new ways to assess for different purposes.” (Earl, 2003, pp. 15-16)
In my reading and six years of experience, I’ve found a few core beliefs of assessment worth hanging on to – the “tenets of assessment/grading reform,” if you will and I’d like to share them with you.  Without further ado…

Allow new evidence of achievement to replace old evidence.
“Classroom assessments and grading should focus on how well – not on when – the student mastered the designated knowledge and skill” (McTighe & O’Connor, 2005)
Consider the following example. Assume that homework is graded on completion and quizzes/tests on content mastery.
Bobby: Homework: 50% Quiz: 60% Test: 100%
Suzy: Homework: 100% Quiz 100% Test: 100%

Bobby did not understand the concepts and therefore did not complete the homework. Somewhere between the “quiz” and the “test” Bobby came in for extra help and finally “understood” the concept which explains his sudden improvement on the “test.”
In the traditional grading system, which student earns a better grade? Suzy, of course. A traditional points system penalizes “later learners.” On the “test,” both students demonstrated the same level of understanding, but Johnny is penalized for initially struggling. Do we have a realistic expectation that students will “get it” the first day we teach concepts to them? If so, then why not have daily tests?
Some educators, in their standards-based grading implementation plans, have mentioned assessing a single skill twice and then averaging the two scores or adding them up before entering the scores into the grade book.  I question whether these tweaks to the grade book truly serve the Bobby’s in our classrooms – the ones who learn later.  Priority of “what” a student knows should take precedence over “when” he/she learns it.

Traditional assessment and grading schemes tell students…
"You must learn (insert big idea) by Thursday.  If it took you until Friday, too bad!”
Sure, we all have grading deadlines pre-determined by our schools, but if students are permitted to ask questions about daily/homework/practice assignments during or outside of class, what can’t they do the same for “tests,” too?  Students only see “tests” as final, because our traditional grading systems treat them that way.

New assessments and grading schemes tell students…
"Learning on Thursday is just as important as learning on Friday.  In fact, opportunities exist for you to learn the essential concepts and skills, even if it is a week or two later."
We’re in the business of helping kids “get it,” right?  Our assessment and grading schemes should encourage and reward students who understand the essential concepts and skills throughout the course, not just on our firm and rigid time lines.

Feedback trumps grades, numbers and percentages.
“Assessment always has more to do with helping students grow than with cataloging their mistakes” (Carol Tomlinson in Fisher & Frey, 2007, p. 119)
“The most powerful single modification that enhances achievement is feedback.” (John Hattie in Marzano, 2006, p. 5)
I used to think I was providing feedback to students by writing scores on their homework, quizzes and tests.  I assumed that a 15/20 on a quiz was sending the message “you need to work on some of this stuff before the test.”  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Instead the message I was sending was “get our your calculator…congratulations, you just earned a 75% in the grade book!”  As much as I hoped students would examine the quiz questions and the correct answers I wrote in, they weren’t.  Ask your students what they do when a quiz lands in their hands.  I’m fairly confident the super-majority of them will respond “I look at the score and then recycle it/throw it away/put it in my folder.”
“To be effective, feedback needs to cause thinking. Grades don’t do that. Scores don’t do that. And comments like ‘Good job’ don’t do that either. What does cause thinking is a comment that addresses what the student needs to do to improve” – Nov. 2005 Ed. Leadership article.
One strategy I found to be very helpful in making this shift in my classroom was going from number/score feedback on quizzes to a lykert scale/narrative feedback based on specific learning targets.
Quiz lykert scale

This subtle change provided clear descriptive feedback to students where they are in a learning progression.  In some instances, students were asked to first complete the lykert scale themselves in pencil.  Under each learning target narrative, the problems numbers associated are listed.  After writing in correct answers and providing written feedback on individual problems, I circled in pen where I felt each student was on the continuum, too.  When large gaps existed, it created some much needed conversation between the student and myself.  A follow-up class activity involved matching Students with relative strengths and weaknesses for 5-10 minutes to ask questions of each other or me for the sake of learning from their mistakes.  These quizzes are not entered into the grade book – they are intended to be structured feedback opportunities before the unit assessment takes place.

Grades, because they’re necessary, must have meaning.
“When grades are not deliberately connected to learning, they provide little valuable feedback regarding students’ academic strengths and weaknesses, and can even be counterproductive.”  (Winger, 2005, p. 62)
I’d enjoy eliminating grades if it was possible, but for the past six years that decision hasn’t been mine to make.  Grades are a reality in most of the secondary schools in America, so making the most of them is the best many of us can do.  In workshops I’ve conducted, I usually ask questions such as “What does an 85%, B, mean in your classroom?”
  • Does it indicate a student understands 85% of the material?
  • Does it mean a student understands 100% of the material, but didn’t turn in 15% of the assignments?
  • Is this B a result of a student who understands 90% of the material, but turned in an assignment late?
  • Did this student understand 75% of the material, but turned in a few extra crossword puzzles raising his/her grade to an 85%?
Homework, extra credit and late work penalties vary from classroom to classroom.  In my opinion, these factors only contribute to the points game and something I call grading pollution.  If you’ve taught secondary school for any length of time, you’ve probably received emails like this one…

Point accumulation without knowing where these points are coming from is the norm in the minds of our parents and students.  Low grades should communicate gaps in learning, not factors too difficult to synthesize from the list of assignments and points in the grade book.  I am a firm believer in standards-based grading.  Rather than reporting homework, quizzes and tests separately, points are assigned solely based on a students’ ability to demonstrate an understanding of essential concepts and skills.

Notice the different categories along the top. The learning targets are the only area of focus.  When parents and students click on the learning targets in the student information system, the target description such as “Define and classify special types of quadrilaterals” is displayed. I’ve found success using a four-point scale correlating to key phrases:
4 – demonstrates thorough understanding
3.5 – high level of understanding, but with small errors
3 – demonstrates understanding, but with significant gaps
2 – shows some understanding, but insufficient for a passing grade
1 – Attempts the problem
Grades now have meaning.  A 100% indicates a student has a thorough understanding of the learning targets assessed up until that point in the course.  Grades communicate one thing (learning) rather than leaving the percentage-to-understanding conversion up for grabs.  Parents and students gain a clearer picture of the learning goals for the course and how closely the individual student is to mastering those concepts and ideas.  That’s a good thing, right?

Assessment and grading reform isn’t a simple task.  Many of us grew up playing the points game and for some of us, we played it very well.  We earned A’s in courses we knew very little about because we completed worksheets and turned them in on time.  We earned B’s in courses in which we were bored silly – we were sleeping through lectures of seemingly little importance and forgot to turn in an assignment or two.  We also earned C’s in courses we knew very little about, but because we knew more than our peers, the curve permitted us to pass.  Sadly, we also earned A’s in courses because we caught on to content “by the test” while our slower learning peers were punished for learning the same content a few days or weeks later.  We could rarely distinguish between As and Bs because the game was played with different rules in different classrooms.  Each and every one of us has an opportunity to change the culture of our classrooms and our buildings by taking a careful look at our assessment and grading practices.  Do grades reflect the speed of learning or learning itself?  Are the majority of our assessments feedback-driven or do they seem terminal to the students?  Finally, are the grades we communicate polluted or do they represent learning?
Works Cited:
  • Earl, L. M. (2003). Assessment as Learning: Using Classroom Assessment to Maximize Student Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
  • Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2007). Checking for Understanding: Formative Assessment Techniques for your Classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • Marzano, R. J. (2006). Classroom Assessment & Grading that Work. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • McTighe, J., & O’Connor, K. (2005). Seven Practices for Effective Learning. Educational Leadership, 63(3), 10-17.
  • Winger, T. (2005). Grading to Communicate. Educational Leadership, 63(3), 61-65.