ACGAL blog

Equitable Grading for English Learners

A few years ago, I began a position as Curriculum and Instruction Director for a relatively small school district. After about two years, I was also given ESL Coordinator duties. Though I had over 20 years in education, I had very little experience teaching or even learning about English Learners. Thus, I was extremely nervous at my very first meeting with experienced ESL Coordinators from my surrounding districts. I vividly remember my shaky introduction of “Hello, my name is Shannon Bogert, and I know very, very little about the teaching of English Learners. I hope you’ll share your knowledge.”

Fortunately, I reached out to those with expertise and immersed myself in as much learning as possible. Since our district serves approximately 444 English Learners, I felt it my duty to ensure that those students received the best education that they possibly could. Though ESL is a largely unfunded mandate and typically districts scrounge for resources to help meet the specific learning needs of English Learners; I however, am extremely fortunate to work for a superintendent who believes in designating resources to fund teachers, materials, and professional development. Similarly, our teachers are very devoted to and extremely receptive to meeting the needs of this unique group of learners.

So yes, we have a minimum of three ESL teachers in every school, four Lead ESL teachers who provide professional development and instructional coaching support, and we have compassionate general education teachers who provide warm and receptive environments.  Yet, we still struggle with the grading of English Learners.

Here’s what I know:

  1. English Larners should be graded according to their levels of English proficiency. All English Learners in the state of Alabama take the ACCESS assessment each year. The results of this assessment provide feedback regarding the student’s English proficiency.  The levels are as follows: Level 1 – Entering; Level 2 – Beginning; Level 3 – Developing; Level 4- Expanding; Level 5 – Bridging; and Level 6 – Reaching.
  2. Once a teacher knows a student’s level, he should design lessons based on a student’s Can-Do Descriptors and the content standards. Unfortunately, that may or may not happen.

You may not have familiarity with Can-Do Descriptors. Basically, they show classroom teachers what students are able to do based on their levels of English proficiency. You can find information at

Before we really pushed planning with Can-Do Descriptors, the job of accommodating assignments generally fell to the ESL teacher. That became a huge, often frustrating task. To be more efficient, we have spent a lot of time in professional developing, working with teachers on how to write lessons using the Can- Do Descriptors. In addition, part of our PLU required administrators to evaluate lesson plans looking for the descriptors.

So what does this look like in practice? In the eLearning Course, Teaching Your First ELs, G. de Jong, shares how to blend Alabama content using WIDA standards and a formative framework. He shares the following example: Let’s say I’m a 5th grade social studies teacher. My standard is “Explain effects of European exploration during the Age of Discovery upon European society and Native Americans, including the economic and cultural impact.”  The way an accommodated lesson may look is as follows:

Level 1: Match early explorers and Native Americans they impacted with illustrations and labels.

Level 2: Identify explorers and Native Americans depicted in illustrations and phrases.

Level 3: Compare/contrast different European countries and Native Americans using graphic organizers and sentences.

Level 4: Interpret effects of exploration on Native Americans using graphic organizers and texts.

Level 5/6: (Students “test-out” at 4.8) Detect trends or make generalizations based on historical events or people’s actions using grade-level text.

We expect grades for English Learners to be standards-based, but ONLY reflective of a student’s Can Do’s. Are we perfect? No, but we are really trying! We definitely have to employ some instructional coaching to help reluctant teachers in the process; but as long as it’s a focus and expectation, we generally see success.

Shannon Bogert has been an educator for more than 20 years, teaching multiple K-12 grade levels, as well as at the post-secondary level. Shannon currently serves as Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Pelham City Schools. Her interests include creating targeted instructional strategies for diverse learners, developing teacher capacity, and mentoring instructional leaders. Her greatest accomplishments, however, are her three adult children and being Nonna to the world’s most amazing four year old granddaughter.

What is more valuable to students: A Grade or Feedback?

In transparency, I have been out of the secondary classroom for over five years.  In 2012 I was given an opportunity to join the faculty at The University of Alabama as a Clinical Assistant Professor, and much of my work is now closely tied to teacher preparation. However, I still maintain many connections to the classroom and stay abreast of the issues.

One issue that I have taken special notice of is grading (and I’m very excited to see what ACGAL is accomplishing). When I was teaching advanced placement social sciences, I found it highly disconcerting when students were more concerned about the grade they would or did receive rather than what knowledge they would gain from the assignment. The philosophy my high school students demonstrated about their grades continues to manifest itself in the college student I teach now. I have witnessed a student grieve a grade because they received an A rather than an A+. This student went through the trouble of filing a grievance and dragged many into the formal process over two points! I wish I could say this was a rare occurrence, but, unfortunately, it is not. To me, it is disheartening – not the inconvenience of addressing a grievance but the evidence that many of my students’ struggle is for a better symbol of learning, not for more learning itself.

What is a grade? What does that grade tell the student? Most educators would agree that the grade tells the student the degree to which they have mastered the learning targets, objectives or standards set before them. But, in reality, what does that grade REALLY tell the student?  What, other than a number, tells them that they have learned and gained knowledge? In my opinion, not very much.

What will provide the student with more valuable information regarding their academic progress is feedback.  Feedback allows a student to know exactly what they did correctly, what they did incorrectly, and what they need to do to improve and master the learning targets, objectives, or standards.  In the professional world, do individuals receive a numeric grade for meeting their goals? Of course not; we actually receive verbal or written feedback that provides us insight into our performance.  Should not our students receive the same opportunity to know where they stand in the continuum of meeting their academic goals?

Feedback is widely acknowledged as the crux of a learning process (Tee & Ahmed, 2014). Furthermore, feedback is critical in the development of effective learning (Black and William 1998; Carless et al. 2011; Feys, Anseel, and Wille 2011; Price, Handley, and Millar 2011). Feedback serves as a one-to-one conversation with students and can be a powerful tool to help students meet their goals.  When students are provided quality feedback, they will gain so much more than what a numerical grade can provide them.

There is much that can be discussed about the quality of the feedback provided to the students, but for this blog, I offer what, in my opinion, are three of the more important components of feedback.

  • When providing feedback use the OREO method. This analogy asserts that the two cookies are positive thoughts, while the filling indicates where the student needs improvement.  In other words, begin with positive comments, followed by the constructive comment (negatives), and end with other positive comments that encourage the student. All forms of feedback should lead the student to understand exactly what was correct about their work, what was incorrect or lacking about their work, and to what degree they met the expectations of the assignment. It is important to note that when offering feedback, it is critical for the students to have access to the rubric beforehand and that the feedback given to them is tied to the rubric components.  This allows them to correlate the feedback specifically to the rubric criteria and to be able to understand exactly what was correct or incorrect about their work, including to what degree they met the expectations.

Teachers have the responsibility to nurture a student’s learning and to provide feedback in such a manner that the student does not leave the classroom feeling defeated.  However, a constructive critique of the student’s work requires instructors to be deliberative in the comments provided.  This can be and should be done in such a manner that allows the student to gain or keep their confidence but at the same time realize shortcomings of their learning and how they may be improved.

  • Be specific and genuine in the feedback rather than generalizing.  Feedback is not “Job well done” or “You need more detail here.”  Feedback must be specific and concise to not only explain any shortcomings, but to also explain why that particular element is essential. The feedback should communicate to the student what they did well and what needs to happen differently for the student to improve. “You need more fact-based detail regarding how Roosevelt thought his first 100 days in office were successful for the county” provides more useful information to the student than “You need more detail.” Feedback should not be meaningless.  Students are quick to figure out when the feedback is insincere and over time they will disregard all feedback because they consider it to be meaningless.

Providing specific feedback reinforces the criterion that is being assessed and requires the student to return to their work and edit said work to meet the expected criteria. In doing so, they expand their knowledge and skills. Students are also encouraged by the specificity of the comments because they learn how to improve their work rather than merely feeling they missed the mark.

  • Provide feedback in a timely manner. Feedback should be provided to the student in a timely manner.  It does take some time to assess student work, so it might be a few days, but the quicker the feedback is provided the better for the student.  When feedback is given as quickly as possible after the submission of the assignment, the student tends to respond more positively because the experience is fresh in their mind.  If teachers wait too long to provide feedback, the moment is lost and the student will possibly not be able to connect the feedback with the action.

What is considered a timely manner?  That is a question that depends largely upon the personality and abilities of the class and the difficulty of the assignment. In my opinion, smaller (3-5 page assignments) should be returned to the student within 1-3 days, and larger assignments (5-10 pages) should be returned in 5-7 days. However, as I previously stated, this would be based on the personality and abilities of the students in the class.

Providing feedback may be daunting for teachers, and many may feel that it is too time-consuming.  It may feel like this at first, but teachers soon realize that providing feedback frees up time later when assignments do not drag on because the students have not mastered the standards, objectives, or targets. Also, teachers consistently providing feedback will notice a shift in the mindset (growth) of students because the students are implementing the knowledge and skills they have gained as a response to the feedback provided to them.

There are many more great ideas for providing feedback to students. One only has to Google educational feedback, academic feedback, or feedback for students to find dozens. Your approach to feedback might be different from mine; what is important, though, is committing to using feedback as a key part of turning our students’ obsession from more points to more learning.

Dr. Lisa H. Matherson, is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the College of Education at The University of Alabama. She works with teacher preparation on several levels. She received her B.S. and M.A. degrees in Secondary Education, Social Sciences, and her Ed.D. in Secondary Education, Curriculum and Instruction, from The University of Alabama.

When it comes to grading, do the right thing for students

Our first vlog post, contributed by SuperDega.

“When it comes to grading, do the right thing for students”

“Continue to challenge yourself, get outside the box, do things differently. Keep the students’ best interests in mind when you do that.”

Terry Roller is an Alabama State Assistant Superintendent on assignment as Chief Academic Officer for Montgomery City Schools. He is widely known for his effective use of social media in celebrating the good in education and educators. You can follow him on Twitter at @DegaSuper.


Save the date!

This year’s conference is scheduled!


Mark your calendar for October 5, 2019.


  • Paul W. Bryant High School in Tuscaloosa will host the conference again.
  • Dr. Tom Guskey will be our keynote speaker.
  • Group registration rates will be available.
  • A call for proposals to present will go out soon – start preparing your ideas to share!


The conference is presented by the following state-level organizations



Thanks to the Daniel Foundation for their early commitment as a sponsor. We are looking for more if your organization is interested in supporting this work!Daniel

Speak up!

After 12 posts, we pause this week to request your feedback on this blog. 12 more Alabama educators are scheduled to contribute between now and the end of May. Your peers who have contributed and those preparing to do so would love to hear from you.  What are we doing right? What can we do better? What do you think we should do next?

Please take a moment to complete this short survey.  Share both the blog and the survey with friends, colleagues and peers.

Also, watch for a save-the-date on ACGAL 2019 in the next few weeks. Planning is already underway and we are looking forward to announcing details soon.

Maximizing the Effectiveness of Multiple-Choice Qs

The following post first appeared on The Effortful Educator on May 15, 2018.

Below is a quick activity that is easily adaptable for most class settings. It maximizes the effectiveness of multiple-choice questions and is a wonderful way for students and teachers to assess student learning. I really like this activity, because unlike most involving multiple-choice questions, this template makes use of all answer choices and requires students effortfully work with all of the material.

Another reason I really like this is its ability to cover a lot of material in a few questions.  If you have 10 questions with 5 answer choices, the students could feasibly interact with 50 different snippets of material.  As you can see below, the student has to interact with the question stems in various ways:

  • With the correct answer the student must either provide a memory aid they used to help them choose this answer OR provide a sketch that illustrates the term or concept covered.
  • With the incorrect answers, students must:
    • Use the ‘trickiest’ incorrect answer to describe why this answer is most likely to trip up students and potentially lead students to choosing this answer.
    • Rewrite the question to make this incorrect answer the correct answer.
    • Give an example relating this answer to the student’s life.
    • Link this answer to information from a previous lesson/unit or to information learned from another class.

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 10.04.07 AM

How can you use this in your class?

How could you modify the template for use as a study guide, for homework, or as a quiz grade in class?

What other ideas do you have to help students interact with the answers?

Blake Harvard is the AP Psychology teacher at James Clemens High School. He graduated from the University of Montevallo with a Master’s degree in Secondary Education (6-12) in 2005. In addition to coaching football and soccer for James Clemens, he is currently working as a product advisor for Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and ISTE as well as writing his first book with Routledge Publishing. You can find him on twitter at @effortfuleduktr or check out his blog at

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.”


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


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