Recalculating: A Secondary ELA Teacher’s Venture into Standards-Based Grading

Over the past two decades (almost), it would periodically occur to me that the grades I assigned my students did not necessarily reflect their level of skill. Ten points off here. Ten points added there. A zero for this assignment. A 110/100 for that assignment. Such arbitrary numbers, it would seem. But education being what it is, I would push those thoughts out of my mind and just grade like I was taught to grade…and like I had been graded as a student…and like everyone around me was grading. “It just is what it is,” I would say to myself.

Then one day I walked out of my school late in the afternoon and saw my curriculum coordinator, Khristie Goodwin, standing on the front steps, deep in thought. She asked me if I had ever heard about proficiency scales. No, I had not, I confessed. And then she encouraged me to do some research and let her know what I thought about them.

Fast forward a year, and here I am writing this blog post.

Because I did the research. Then Mrs. Goodwin sent me to Marzano Research for a workshop on SBG with my principal, Heath Harmon, and two other colleagues. And I was hooked.

It made SO. MUCH. SENSE. All I could think the entire time was, “Why hasn’t this always been the way grading has been done?”

In all honesty, I always thought of standards-based grading as an elementary thing, if I thought of it at all. I never expected to have to deal with it on the secondary level and definitely never anticipated WANTING to deal with it. Yet here I am shouting from the rooftops that this is the way to go. Here are seven changes I have made in my classroom since implementing SBG…and a couple of bonus lessons learned.

1. Everything I have students do in class is attached to a priority standard.

Upon first look, you may think, “well, of course, everything you have students do should be attached to a standard.” And I would have said the same thing. Then this happened on the first day of school:

“Okay, guys. You will have a test on your summer reading book next Monday.”

Um…

“Wait. Maybe not. I have to think about it.”

Oops.

What in the world am I assessing? I haven’t even taught them anything yet. Any test I would normally give them would just tell me if they had read the book or not. That’s not a standard.

What do I do?

So I went to my colleague, Cade Somers, who is on this journey with me, and found he was having the same thoughts I was having. Because while we like to think everything we do is connected to a standard, SBG makes it crystal clear when it is not.

I decided to use the book to teach writing standards that I would then assess. I had to go deeper and actually TEACH them something before I could assess whether or not they had LEARNED, not whether or not they had READ.

2. The amount of feedback I give my students has grown significantly.  

This is not to suggest that teachers who grade traditionally do not give a ton of feedback. As an English teacher, I have always felt like I have spent a great deal of time offering my students advice on how to improve. However, with SBG, I am giving feedback on every single assessment, not just essays. If I score it, I give feedback on it. I also give feedback on behaviors (respect, responsibility, relationships, resolve, and resourcefulness). And, as you can imagine, this takes a ton of time and thoughtfulness.

Cade introduced me to a website called Vocaroo that has helped. I can sit in my classroom with the door closed during my planning period or after school and just talk to the student about what he or she has done well or not so well, and Vocaroo records it. While this can be really awkward when a colleague or wandering student walks in, it’s great to be able to give students personal feedback that allows them to hear my voice. When I’m done, I can save the recording and send them a link so they can hear it when they get a chance.

Google Classroom also has a tool that has made this easier: the comment bank. You can type feedback that you find yourself giving over and over and just copy it into a comment on the student’s Google Doc from the comment bank. Google Keep could be used in a similar manner. And I think Cade uses the Notes app on his MacBook. There are so many tools out there to help make feedback easier and less time-consuming.

Is all that time worth it? I hope so. I feel confident that my students know what they can do to get their scores up, and those who want to work hard to get those scores up are definitely using the feedback as intended. And that’s the point, right?

3. Assessments can look like anything from an essay to a test to an exit slip to a conversation.

This one may actually be my biggest struggle–not because I cannot come up with a variety of assessment but because I cannot get a firm grasp on which ones are worthy of scoring. This has left me with priority standards that only have a couple of opportunities to show mastery while other priority standards have fifteen or sixteen opportunities. This is a work in progress for me.

I do love that I can personalize assessments for students when it makes sense. For example, I have a student who loves to write, and she is a really talented, mature writer for a ninth grader. I was waiting until the second semester to begin assessing my students on grammar and mechanics because I wanted to have time to teach them how to correct some things first. But this student was already demonstrating an incredible command of language, so I went ahead and assessed her. Because she missed several days of the semester because of surgery, I was able to average the language standard in with the other standards and not count one against her in which she was lacking due to absences. Another example is a student who is on my debate team. I assessed the speech he wrote for RI 9.1, which requires citing of textual evidence because he did such a good job with evidence in his speech for an extra-curricular activity.

4. I am much more aware of which students are ready to move on and which ones need to take a step back.

Most of my students are on the same page for the majority of the time, but I have noticed a small number who are already proficient in some skills and ready to move on to more complex ones, or at least to more complex texts. I’ve also noticed a larger number of students who could use a bit of remediation before they will be able to reach proficiency for some of the standards.

Yes, I may know this without standards-based grading, but SBG has made it clear exactly where their strengths and weaknesses are very early in the process. It also gives me an effective way to have a conversation with them about their strengths and weaknesses as we look at the proficiency scales and point out which parts they are mastering and which ones they are not.

Once we get further into the year, I will be able to push my stronger students beyond the standards while I continue to work on getting the others to proficient, and, hopefully, the students will be able to see exactly why they are working on different skills rather than having to make assumptions about why some students are being allowed to move on to new things while others are still working on standards we have already covered.

5. I have to get organized.

Guys, I am not an organized person. Organization has always been a struggle for me. But SBG would be impossible if I didn’t have a system. Thank goodness for my PLN (Professional Learning Network)! I joined a Facebook group of teachers who use SBG in their classrooms, and a wonderful, generous teacher in that group shared something called a “data binder” with me. I then shared this data binder with Cade, and Cade tweaked it to fit our needs. I could cry with gratitude for both of these humans. The data binder houses all of the priority standards with links to the proficiency scale for each one. It has a tab for each of those standards where the scores and feedback are recorded, and there is a GRAPH of the scores so the students can see their growth. One tab is a learning target tracker for the students to track their own understanding as we move through a lesson or unit. There is a tab for the “employability skills” (I listed those above as behaviors I assess), and I have added tabs for each of the standardized assessments students are required to take throughout the year so they can see that progress as well. I created a copy for each student and shared it with them and their parents…and it’s magical.

I have evidence of everything! And I can access these data binders from any computer, even my phone, at any time I need to. Awesome, right?

One place I still need more organization is employability skills. The data binders have a place for me to add scores and feedback for these every two weeks, but I’m struggling to develop the habit of recording these as I notice them. I even made report sheets that I printed and put inside a paper folder, and I still cannot get myself in the habit of keeping them updated. We all have struggles, I guess, and I confess this is one of mine.

Now that I have entered the second semester, I am trying to utilize Blackboard to house basic information about assignments so parents can more easily see which assignments students are missing. I am still keeping all of the feedback and scores in the data binder, but parents were having a difficult time keeping track, so I’m hoping this helps.

6. I do not feel pressured to score every single thing they do.

“Is this for a grade?” How many times have you heard that question? Even before SBG, I hated that question. I don’t think any of us would claim grading as one of our favorite parts of being an educator. If we had our way, we would probably just create seamless, well-crafted lessons to impart our wisdom upon the souls in front of us and the perfect students in our care would soak up everything we wanted them to learn and no mention of grades or credit would ever cross the lips of any of our pupils or of their parents. But that’s not our reality. Students expect grades. Parents expect grades. Administrators expect grades. Heck, the pizza place expects grades so they can give out honor roll coupons. So grade we must.

But with SBG, I no longer feel the need to grade (score) every single assignment. I explain this to my students like this: If you began taking tennis lessons today and had never picked up a racket before, would it be fair for me to walk up to you at the end of that lesson and tell you how horrible you are at tennis? Of course not! So why do you want me to grade an assignment when you have only had one lesson on that skill? It’s not fair to you.

And it’s not.

I can’t explain this logic any more clearly than Rick Wormeli can, so watch this video if you’d like to learn more.

The bottom line is that every assignment SHOULDN’T be for a grade. Yes, we should have checks for understanding as we go so that we can alter our instruction in order to get our students where we need them to go, but that doesn’t mean we have to formally score every assignment. And that’s not really what my students want me to do. What my students are really asking me to do is to give them CREDIT for doing this work. They have been trained to do things for points, not for the learning. And I have been just as guilty about this as anyone else.

One of my former students is now a teacher’s aide for me. He has Cade for tenth grade English, so he is being introduced to SBG this year. He was in my classroom as I was explaining how grades work with SBG to my freshmen. When I finished, he said, “So I see why this is a good thing, but it’s not what we’re used to. We are used to doing work, turning it in, and getting an A. We aren’t used to actually worrying about whether or not we’ve learned anything or mastered a standard.”

I almost cried tears of joy. YES! Yes, Gavin, that is why we are doing this!

Of course, I asked him if he would repeat himself so I could record it, and he said, “I don’t even remember what I said.” Teenagers! Am I right?

Another student told her biology teacher that it is so much easier to make a 100 than a 4. Yes! That’s what I want to hear. Grades should mean something, and I think my students are starting to understand how traditional grading can be skewed and not be an accurate reflection of what they have actually learned.

7. I have to manage my time wisely.

Remember how I said I struggle with forming a new habit of documenting employability skills? Well, if I struggle with documentation of behaviors, let’s just say time management is body slamming me to the ground right now. It’s a very good thing that I don’t have to grade (or score) as many assignments as I had to grade before because the ones I do grade take up a great deal of time. Those voice memos I record for my students? I can’t exactly do those in a crowded room. I have to be alone. And even the comment bank requires I have a computer handy. So some of the times and places where I used to be able to sneak in some grading aren’t a viable option for me anymore. I also get bogged down in feedback for the employability skills and really need to figure out a more streamlined way to get that done.

But with that said, the time is well spent. I feel like the time I spend on giving feedback is valuable, for both my students and myself. So it’s rewarding time. I just need to figure out how to create more time in the day. If you have any suggestions on how to do that, please share.

Bottom Line: I love this SBG thing. I love that it forces me to stay focused. I love that my students are getting to track their progress. I love that an A in my class means they actually know their stuff and that an A+ means they are rockin’ the standards and not just “good at doing school” or bringing me Expo markers.  I love that my students are given the freedom to mess up during the learning process and that one assignment will never ruin their grade when all is said and done.

I truly believe that standards-based grading is the way to go and that our kids deserve us to give it a try. If this unorganized mess of a human being can do it, I know you can.


Michelle Shelton teaches Pre-AP English 9 and computer science at Oxford High School in Oxford, Alabama. She also coaches the debate team and co-hosts the podcast, Across the Hall, with Cade Somers. An earlier version of this piece was posted to her professional blog at blogginintherain.wordpress.com.

Feedback Loops ~ Conversations About Learning

Do you talk with your students or to them? I have always enjoyed conversations with my students, but when it came to the topic of learning, I talked to them. I talked and they listened.

I taught and they learned. I gave feedback. I thought I was doing a good job, but now I know better! Today I talk with my students about their learning, not to them.

“We resent being talked to. We’d rather be talked with.” Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations

In my classroom today, it is essential that my students and I have meaningful conversations about their learning. I no longer take on the role of “Sage on the Stage” rather, I am a “Guide on the Side.” This framework requires dynamic communication about learning. Digital portfolio platforms, like FreshGrade, allow us to have ongoing conversations that document our learning journeys. We use portfolios to share feedback about goal-setting, assessment of progress, reflection and continuous improvement.

Effective feedback is not one-way communication. The concept of a feedback loop presumes a continuous exchange, a giving and receiving of information. The feedback loop begins by agreeing upon a learning target. Then the conversation continues with assessments, by both teacher and student, of progress made toward the goal. Reflection is an important piece of the conversation and leads to next steps in the learning process.

Feedback can come from me to my student or it could be a self-assessment by a student and shared with me. This part of the conversation can include process level feedback that looks at how a task was completed and whether or not a learning target was met. I might offer guidance, affirmation or suggest a challenge. A student might ask questions. Parents may offer encouragement. It’s all part of the loop, part of our conversation about learning.

The reflection piece of the feedback-loop-conversation is called “Feed-Forward.” This requires reflection followed by action. In our portfolio conversations, I ask my students questions about their learning process, so that they are better able to self-assess and set subsequent goals. My students are honest in their self-reflections and actively ask for my input regarding their next steps. This is not the end of the conversation; it is just another part of the feedback loop that allows students to reflect and move forward in their learning.

Feedback can also include expressions of gratitude. I frequently thank my students for persevering toward a learning target and students often thank me for my guidance and support. With the help of digital portfolios, I am no longer just talking to my students about their learning; we are exchanging feedback and having important conversations. These feedback-loop-conversations have resulted in substantial growth in student engagement and ownership of learning, in all levels of student achievement, and in parental involvement. I am grateful for the opportunity to use digital portfolios to engage my students, and their parents, in conversations about learning. We have a lot to talk about!


Kathy Cote’ Rogers – Teacher of Children at Pizitz Middle School in Vestavia Hills, AL

Purifying Grades

Disclosure: I’ve been out of the classroom for a while. But I continue to teach in a variety of ways. And there is no part of instructional practice to which I have devoted more study over the last fifteen years or so than grading practices. This blog is designed to provide practical examples of how to get better at grading. This is one such story.

Our grades are corrupted. If you doubt me, check out a grade distribution of your school or district. I saw a district level grade distribution (all subjects, all grade levels) a couple of weeks ago that made me wince: nearly 75% A’s and B’s.  In some schools, it was more than 90% A’s and B’s. The problem I have with this distortion is that no other evidence of student learning suggests that students are achieving at the level these grades seem to imply. No matter how you measure learning (and I am a rabid critic of standardized testing), there is no evidence that the majority of our students have mastered a majority of what they are supposed to. If grades don’t mean what they are supposed to, surely they don’t mean anything at all. If that is the case, we are simply teaching students to work the system to get the symbol they want. Tangentially, we teach them that same lesson in lots of other ways too; just check the bumper stickers in pick up line or the staff parking lot this afternoon.

What’s the implication here? A grade should communicate the degree to which the student has demonstrated mastery of the learning targets or standards … and nothing else. So forget “standards-based grading”. Forget all the discussion about the nuance of what to do and how to record and how to report. Let’s start with the simple notion that our grades are impure because there are factors in them that don’t belong there. All those factors need to be stripped out. Our grades need to be purified. Make no mistake though: just as the process of refining gold (or other metals) is hot, difficult and dangerous so is the process of digging out and burning off all that other fluff in grades.

Here’s how I did it.

  • Told the students exactly what I was doing. I said “I don’t really care about your grade, I care about your learning. Your grade will be an accurate reflection of the evidence of your learning. Let’s keep our eye on learning all the time. If you want a better grade, keep learning.” They got it. They bought in. They held me to high standards. Did I mention that these were seniors who had 12 years of being inculcated with the pursuit of grades and point grubbing? It still worked.
  • Ended extra credit. I said “Giving extra credit is the same thing as lying about the evidence of your learning. I love you too much to lie about where you are on the learning journey.” They wanted their extra credit. But most of the time, that was really code for “Mr. Maxey, I want a better symbol of learning but I don’t want to learn more; what deal can we make”. And, as I said, I refused to lie no matter how many tissue boxes and cans of soup anyone donated.
  • Made actual evidence of learning worth most of the grade. I never completely eliminated from the gradebook homework or other assignments that I knew perfectly well were more about completing the assignment than about evidence of learning. Sometimes I wish I could teach at least one more year so I could find the courage to take the step of eliminating that final 10% of gradebook fluff. But it was a smaller part of the grade every year and I was intimidated in my solitude of practice.
  • Instituted grading practices that valued learning over points. For example, retakes were allowed. Honestly, my practice much more crude than what I have learned from amazing teachers since then but it always provided a path to more learning. Remember the ban on extra credit? I said “The only extra credit available is for extra learning. Prove you have learned more and the report of your learning will be changed to reflect your new level.” By the way, points for effort are not a real thing either. Just because you tried to learn more does not mean you actually did. We owe students honest and accurate reporting – even when the news is very disappointing. One more aside: I never “lost” a conference with a parent angry about a grade after I started allowing make-ups. I can’t tell you how many times the parent flipped from “HOW COME MY CHILD HAS A ____?” to “Oh, he can study and make this up? And he’s known this all along? Thank you so much Mr. Maxey, we will be going now” in the space of about 86 seconds.

I speak, write and present about better grading practices all the time. And sincerely believe this is a very difficult issue for a range of reasons. But even if you never go to standards-based reporting or flip to mode instead of mean or count the most recent evidence more heavily, surely purifying your grades can not be objectionable. Why wouldn’t you want grades that work correctly.

We could spend a whole post addressing “yeah, but”s and maybe we will later. For example, yes we do care about responsibility. I’m just offended that you think I can only figure out a single way (a letter grade) to motivate a 15-year-old.  I’m smarter than that. There are concerns or objections about this daunting work. But if we can agree that our grades are flawed the way we do them now, perhaps that would be enough to begin finding a way to make them better. I did.


Andrew Maxey is the Director of Special Programs for Tuscaloosa City Schools. In addition to harassing anyone who will sit still long enough to listen about improving their grading practices, he is working hard to inculcate into his own children a love of their learning more than their grades.

Merging Current Practices with a Standards-Based Mindset

About 7 years ago, we began exploring a somewhat foreign concept at our school – standards-based grading. Gradually, we have worked our way through much research, trial and error with particular components of SBG, and implementation of a whole new way of “doing” school. The core of our belief system at White Plains Middle School has been transformed. We now have content grades that actually reflect content knowledge. We have students who no longer believe they “can’t do math” but understand that within the math class they have a hard time placing integers on a number line. We have parents who call and ask us what their children can do to master appositives instead of calling to ask what extra credit is available for English class. TRANSFORMED. This road has been a long, tiresome road; however, now that we have traveled this road we can never go back to what we were before.

We believe in re-takes on tests. It’s not a matter of giving the same test back to the student 15 times in order for him to finally eliminate all of the wrong answers and make a passing grade. It is an entire process that has been specifically designed to increase the content knowledge of our students. If a student wishes to demonstrate greater content knowledge than what he/she showed on an assessment, the student is given an opportunity to do so – any student, not just failing students. Students have to put in some extra work in order to be eligible to retest. Teachers have designed re-do packets that reinforce the skill the student is lacking. (Re-do packets are differentiated depending on the student’s current content knowledge.) Students must successfully complete this packet, and then, through either individual or small group instruction, show the teacher growth in that skill. Once all of this has taken place, a student may take another assessment to demonstrate his/her increased content knowledge.

We believe in separating non-content factors from content factors when determining a student’s grade. Each student’s math grade at White Plains Middle School is an accurate representation of his/her knowledge of the math content that has been assessed. We do not take points of off a Social Studies project because it was two days late. We do, however, deduct work skills points from that student. We do not put a zero in the grade book for a student who does not turn in English homework. We do, however, assign the child to High Expectations and deduct a work skills point. So what are these work skills? Every child in our school starts each nine-week grading period with a 100 in work skills. Instead of diluting or inflating our content grades for non-content issues (late work, unable to work in groups, organization, etc.), we have a separate grade we call Work Skills. This grade appears on the report card just as the math, reading, English, social studies, science, and physical education grades do. This grade can prevent a student from being on the honor roll just as all content grades can do. Work skills increase accountability and teach that deadlines, hard work, and working with others are all extremely important skills to possess. This allows us to target students’ interferences MUCH more accurately. We now know if a child has a content interference or a work skills interference.

We believe knowing what you know and what you don’t know is far more empowering than just knowing your numeric grade. Each content teacher in every grade level has designed checklists with specific standards taught in each of the nine-week grading periods. These skills checklists are attached to every child’s report card with each standard marked “mastered” or “not mastered”. Students can now talk to teachers about very specific standards that are causing them confusion. Parents are now able to see what their child has mastered in each class instead of just seeing an A, B, C, etc. on the report card. The conversations between teachers and students are incredible to witness. The phone calls and emails we get from parents are so unusual in that they are focused on a very specific question/concern about a very specific standard. It is AMAZING!!!

We believe that it is unacceptable to choose not to complete an assignment. Students who have a missing assignment or who have turned in a less than acceptable assignment get the opportunity to complete the work correctly on Wednesday afternoons during High Expectations. If a student is missing work, a letter goes home on Monday to let the parent know transportation will be needed on Wednesday. Students report to the library on Wednesday afternoons for an hour after school to work with a certified teacher to complete all missing/incomplete assignments.

Students at WPM are able to tell you what they know and what they don’t know. They understand it takes hard work and ability to succeed. They know they will be held accountable for meeting our expectations. Words can’t be put on this paper to accurately describe what this looks like in action. The feeling you get from witnessing all of this is simply indescribable. WPM will continue to grow and change and better the educational experience for our students. While our transformation so far has been great, we aren’t finished yet!


Courtney Wilburn is principal of White Plains Middle School, 2018 Alabama Middle School Principal of the Year, and a CLAS New Principal Mentor

Shift Happens: Communicating with Parents about Standards-Based Report Cards

When parents are used to thinking of “grades” as an A or B or C…a lot of mindset shifting has to occur as their students move to a standards-based grading format. Parents “know” what an A means, but many are unfamiliar with the idea of standards-based grading and may have never heard the term.  Making the shift to standards-based reporting will require us as educators to clearly communicate why standards-based reporting will benefit their students.

Parents will likely want to know why a new format for reporting grades is necessary in the first place, which is completely understandable. I grew up earning grades like A’s and B’s as most of you probably did as well. With that in mind, let’s compare 2 report cards brought home by a student (let’s call him Peter Parker) and see what rationale there may be for such a shift.

peter parker

  • After checking out Peter’s report card, what can you tell about his academic progress?
  • Which skills did he have a difficult time gaining or retaining?
  • What is his current level of mastery with addition and subtraction fluency within 5? 
  • How well does he read high-frequency words?

Now, let’s check out this standards-based report card and consider the same questions.

report card 2

  • After checking out Peter’s report card, what can you tell about his academic progress?
  • Which skills did he have a difficult time gaining or retaining?
  • What is his current level of mastery with addition and subtraction fluency within 5? 
  • How well does he read high-frequency words?

The second example lays out each standard that the student has been assessed on and gives a rating for each individual standard (see scale marked “Grading Key” above). Our first example, which shows a more traditional report card format, makes it pretty much impossible to answer any questions about the student’s specific skills, abilities, and levels of mastery. It also leads me to ask many more follow-up questions:

  • What percentage of this grade is classwork/homework/tests?
  • What standards were assessed?
  • Which specific standards is the child excelling in and which are a struggle currently?
  • Are there other factors besides standard mastery weighing into this score (compliance, neatness, work habits, extra credit, etc.)?

One of my favorite aspects of standards-based report cards is how easily you can communicate a student’s specific levels of mastery for specific standards to parents (and the students themselves). A couple of weeks before report cards go home, we send out letters to ensure parents are aware of what standards the students will be assessed on each quarter. These standards are phrased in “I can” statements exactly how they appear on the report card.

k report card

As you shift gears toward standards-based grading and report cards, you are sure to hit a few potholes along the way when explaining this grading philosophy to parents. It is tempting to equate a standards-based rubric with a traditional grading system (e.g. thinking of an “M” for mastery as the same as an “A,” a “P” for progressing is a “B,” and so on).  Because of this, we host a parents’ night each August to explain the grading scale and try to explicitly dispel this idea.

key

Another possible roadway hazard is student and parent expectations. If a student is used to earning “straight A’s,” then a natural assumption under this grading system would be that the same student will earn “straight M’s.”  However, standards-based grading is built on a rubric of mastery, or exceeding the standard. I have had a few conversations to explain that “all M’s” is simply not a reasonable expectation and that a “P” shows that the student is progressing with his or her ability on that skill.  A student is quite unlikely to master all standards in the first nine weeks, so that student will not have all M’s on the report card.  A students earns an “M” by mastering all aspects of that standard. Again, this is a conversation worth having on the front end of the school year so that reasonable expectations are set before the first report card goes home.

Surely, simply slapping different letters on a report card will mean nothing if it is not an extension of high-quality instructional and grading practices. This type of report card is a continuation of better teaching and better grading practices as a whole.   

It is imperative that as you switch lanes into standards-based reporting, you communicate to your parents that standards-based report cards are a true picture of what a student knows and is able to do. The drive from traditional report cards to standards-based report cards may bring its share of potholes or bumps in the road, but I assure you it’s a drive worth taking.  The trek will not be short…this conversation will continue far past the first few weeks of school. If we are to truly transform our current grading practices as an educational community, the communication highway must stay open! Just keep in mind, shift happens.


Heather Simpson is a kindergarten teacher at Hueytown Elementary. She is married to Micah and they have two sons, Daniel (5) and Nathan (1). Heather has a love for sushi, Flair pens, and all things college football.

How You Can Impact Your School’s Grading Culture

I am a former first-grade teacher. As a primary teacher, grading requirements never worked as a barrier to providing new learning experiences for students. When new ideas were presented to me, I asked questions like, “Is this best practice?” or “What does the research say?” And I could never fully understand why intermediate grade teachers were so consumed by grading. It was simple to me. Did the student meet the standard? How do you know? The end. However, if the AMSTI (Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative) specialist suggested using science journals, intermediate teachers would ask, “How will we grade that?” If the math coach encouraged teachers to downsize from 25 questions on math assessment, when sufficient evidence of learning could be collected with only 4 questions, teachers asked, “How will we grade this? Missing one question would be a score of 75%.”

Grading. Grading. Grading. At the time, sitting in my world of standards-based grades, I thought that this endless questioning about grading was simply a delay tactic or an attempt to avoid trying something new in the classroom. But now that I am older, wiser, and teaching fourth grade, I realize that grading is a factor in every decision I make. As an intermediate grade teacher, I am required to report traditional grades. (One grade per week per subject is the district’s guideline or strong suggestion.) Needless to say, I am grappling with my colleagues’ same questions nowadays.

Sparking An Awakening

Over the past three years, I have struggled to bridge the gap between communicating with stakeholders about student learning and reporting grades. I began my journey by listening to series of YouTube videos produced by Rick Wormeli on standards-based grading, which led me to attend the Alabama Conference on Grading and Assessment for Learning (ACGAL). During the conference, someone asked me, “Where do we go from here?” In response, I rattled off a list of things teachers at the conference could do:

“Tell a friend, who asks about your weekend, about ACGAL.”

“Speak up when you see bad practices taking place. Simply question it.”

“Ask for seven minutes on the next faculty meeting agenda.”

I went home feeling convicted to take my own advice. Awareness was not enough. I needed to turn awareness into action, action beyond myself. So, after the conference, I sent a text message to a group of teachers.

“Hey, it’s Rachel Hill. I attended a grading conference today and I am really wanting to reevaluate my assessment and grading practices. On Tuesdays directly after school from 3:00-3:30, I am planning to reflect and learn more about grading. I would love your input and help during this journey if/when you can come & are interested. (Feel free to invite whoever else might be interested too.) *Starting on Oct. 16th, no pressure to respond.”

Honestly, I did not know if any of them would respond. Just before sending the text message, I told myself that no matter who showed up (or didn’t), I was going to devote at least one hour to improving and refining my grading practices, even if the work was to be accomplished through self-reflection and self-directed learning. Much to my surprise, all of the invited teachers showed up.

Building Community

Since October 2018, every Tuesday afternoon, a small group of teachers, from kindergarten to fifth grade, has met for an hour (or often times longer) to discuss and reflect on topics such as the purpose of grades, defining mastery, and providing descriptive feedback. We begin with reflections, explore some research, decide on an action step based on today’s learning, and plan our central topic for the next week. Thus far, we have mostly referenced research provided in Rick Wormeli’s book Fair Isn’t Always Equal, 2nd Edition.

Discussing the research increases awareness, but the true impact often takes place in our opening discussions of what is working and what we are struggling with in our classrooms in regards to grading. This impact is compounded at the close of each session, when we openly commit to our next steps. We do not always commit to the same next step, because we are different people, who teach different groups of young people. Still, we are committed to doing the work of improving our grading practices together.

In this unlikely group, we have discovered a way of talking about instruction and grading that focuses on student learning and not the grade. When we discuss our gradebooks, we refer to the learning target and evidence of learning. At times, I felt discouraged or unqualified to facilitate a group like this one, but about a month after we started meeting, I received this message from a group member:

“Just want to say thank you for introducing me to these rubrics! I’m grading my math tests now and it makes me feel better about what my kids really know and don’t know!”

Maybe one day, compliance with district policy will not undo the good work done through conferencing with students and providing descriptive feedback. I hope we will stop being forced to squeeze weeks’ worth of learning on various learning targets into a single number, but until then I will do my part. And right now, my role is to simply ask questions and share my new learning when I can.

So what about you, what is your next step?


Rachel Hill teaches fourth grade in Tuscaloosa, AL. Her passion for teaching is fueled by the realization that, “When we know better, we should do better.” When Miss HIll is not yelling Roll Tide, she can usually be found reading a novel or watching the latest episode of GREY’s.

Take it from a Pro: Tips for Teachers in Standards-Based Grade Reporting

When I saw my doctor recently, he took me off some medications that I had been taking for a few years. He provided me a rationale for that change. I had lost a pound or two, and a couple of indicators in my bloodwork that he had been tracking were looking pretty good. Plus, I reported to him that I am still working with my trainer twice a week – so all of those factors together lead him toward that conclusion. My doctor is deliberate in linking current research, multiple data points, and personal knowledge of me in his assessment – and I trust him.

Last year, my dentist recommended a crown – much to my chagrin. During the examination, her pick stopped a bit on a certain tooth when checking my teeth. That, along with the x rays and her overall knowledge of my teeth, led her to the conclusion that I needed a crown. My dentist is deliberate in linking current research, multiple data points, and personal knowledge of me in her assessment – and I trust her.

Also last year (it was a busy year), my wife and I visited our broker who examined our finances thoroughly. He looked at our current investments, expenditures, and debts. He examined possibilities in the market and asked us about our retirement goals. From all of that data, he recommended some courses of action for us to pursue that would help us to securely meet those goals. Our broker is deliberate in linking current research, multiple data points, and personal knowledge of us in his assessment – and I trust him.

So why do you care?

My doctor, my dentist, and our financial broker are all professionals. They and many others like them are experts in their fields. They assess a given situation and provide us a thoughtful evaluation – usually with a course of action. And we tend to trust those recommendations.

Teachers, too, are professionals – experts in our field. Yet many times, we teachers lack the confidence to use our professional knowledge to render evaluations to parents. Standards-based grading practices should provide teachers with some assistance, as the focus of any grade is the relationship between the standard and the student’s mastery level of that standard. Teachers often tell me, however, that they fear the subjectivity that accompanies their personal assessments to parents. They would sometimes rather hide behind an 86.34% average, as if that figure represents some kind of definitive, objective evaluation.

So what can we as teachers learn from these other professionals?

  • Professionals use research when administering assessments and interpreting results. Professionals take the responsibility to “stay current”, to know what practices merit what level of implementation and what strategies should be employed in what situations. Their work, at all stages, is impacted by research. Teachers who allow research to inform their instruction – the work that they have students do and the manners in which they assess that work – will bring increased credibility to the table when talking with parents about their children’s progress.
  • Professionals use multiple sources of varied evidence to drive their judgments. Professionals recognize that one single assessment is NOT enough evidence to make an effective evaluation. Just as several different kinds of tests work together to shape a doctor’s opinion, the best teachers utilize multiple assessments in their evaluations. One key here, though, is that these multiple assessments are also varied in nature. My doctor looked at different kinds of blood work, but also conducted an examination, questioned me, understood that I was working out regularly, and used ALL of those varied data points to reach his conclusion. Teachers need not shy away from their observational data on students, as this “soft data” provides valuable, confirming information when lined up alongside other sources of evidence.
  • Professionals recognize that evidence and research must align with what is unique about an individual. Professionals do not operate in a vacuum. Most professionals are working to some degree with people, who all have different motivations, goals, and circumstances. My broker could have just offered me cold numbers to help with my retirement. But that data was useless in the absence of my personal goals for my post-work life. My wife and I wish to travel, while someone else may want a winter home. When teachers report out on student progress toward mastery of a learning target, individual student growth is an important component. A student could still be performing sub-par on the whole but may have made unbelievable progress from the previous grading period. The context of what is happening in a student’s life could drastically affect a number of data points and how that data is interpreted. The best teachers can offer a more personalized evaluation of a student’s set of data points, taking into account the context of a student’s given situation.
  • Professionals who combine best practices with multiple sources of evidence in a personalized context inspire trust. I have only had one cavity in my entire life, so it would be somewhat understandable for me to question my dentist’s recommendation for a crown. But my dentist didn’t suggest that I just take her word for it. She understood how I would receive this news, because she knew my history well. I appreciated the newer tools and x rays she had begun using. And I couldn’t argue with the data that she had presented. At the end of the day, I trusted her. But it’s important to note that it wasn’t blind trust; it was justified. Teachers worry that their standards-based grades and evaluations will be discounted by parents or seen as too subjective. The truth is, most professional’s evaluations usually are subjective to some degree. Teachers should not be afraid to utilize their professional judgment in assessing students. They should just be sure those subjective judgments are undergirded on a sound rationale and delivered with sensitivity.

Because….the BEST teachers are deliberate in linking current research, multiple data points, and personal knowledge of their students in their assessments – and students and parents, therefore, trust them.


Dr. Patrick Chappell is a veteran teacher and administrator in Homewood Schools. Patrick currently serves as the Director of Instructional Support for the school district and has worked as an adjunct at Samford University. Patrick has served several positions in AASCD, including president, and is in his 3rd year representing AASCD on the executive council of the CLAS Board. He and his wife, Sharon, enjoy reading, traveling, and watching films.