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.

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