Why are we doing standards-based instruction, but not standards-based grading?

When we see a student’s grade what does that really mean? How did they earn it? What contributed to it? Was it based on behavior? Effort? Mastery of the standard? A crazy mix of all these and other factors?

So many times as a school counselor who sits in parent conferences, RTI, 504 & IEP meetings, I see grades that do not match what other pieces of data are telling me about a student. Just the other day I had a student who has the highest score on the spring standardized reading test, but a C in his reading class. His parents asked how that is possible? It was very hard to explain to the parents … because we are figuring behavior into that grade, not basing it solely on mastery of learning targets. Grades like that certainly do not give parents a clear view of what their child does/does not know or where exactly their learning needs to continue advancing.

This practice has been the status quo in grading practices for way too long though and it is time to change that. Behavior is important and often impacts learning, but we must stop muddying the learning water with behavior-grading in we want to truly see where a student is on her/his learning journey.

Currently, I am serving on my district’s grading committee task force. We have been charged with helping to create a new (standards-based) grading manifesto for our district. The status quo we are tackling includes (but is not limited to) the fact that

  • for years we have used a 100 point scale
  • students are not graded for mastery of standards alone
  • student grades include a plethora of other things (such as effort, extra credit, attendance, completion & participation).
  • we are not consistent. Not from school to school. Not from classroom to classroom. Not even from assignment to assignment.

Rick Wormelli says “students should be allowed to take and retake until they show mastery and that may take time.”

So where has my learning taken me about how all this fits together and translate to grading and reporting?

Learning Targets
Ron Berger suggests that “learning targets are the foundation of a student engaged assessment system that translate standards into learning goals for lessons.” In other words, we first have to know what we want students to know and be able to do (Kramer & Schuhl). Collaborative teacher teams must write rigorous learning targets based on the standards and to the depth of the standards in order for everyone to know what the expectations are for the lesson and learning that will take place. It is hard to show mastery if we doesn’t start with the end in mind.

Proficiency Scales
According to Kramer and Schuhl, “creating meaningful formative and summative assessments require very intentional planning. Before a team can write any formative assessment they must know what standard/standards are to be assessed. Robert Marzano (2006,2010) has contributed much work in the area of proficiency scales. Proficiency scales lay out what is adequate for proficiency related to a standard. Tom Guskey suggests that fewer categories on the proficiency scales allow for greater reliability. He recommends using levels 1-4.

Formative and summative assessment are how we formally assess whether students are learning. Do we collaborate and work together to have common formative assessments among grade levels? Should we? What if this teacher uses weighted grades and another does not? What if one teacher counts homework and another does not? Is that fair? Should kids on the same grade level be graded the same? Should all teachers use the same assessments across the grade level? It seems to me that opportunities for grades should be consistent and based on mastery of learning targets/standards.

Assessment should be for the sole purpose of giving feedback to students to help move their learning forward. That feedback can come in many forms. It can be teacher led or student led. It can also be through celebrations of learning. Guskey and Berger both say that feedback should be ongoing & individualized to each student. Kramer (2017) provides four recommendations with regard to feedback:

  • feedback should address what is correct and elaborate on what students need to do next
  • provide feedback in a timely manner
  • provide feedback that is criterion referenced
  • Engage students in the feedback process

Grades should accurately convey a student’s achievement, not habits such as timeliness, effort, participation & completion. Grades are for communication, not for motivation or punishment. Student engagement is also paramount to the grading process. Students should be involved in every step of the grading process if we are truly doing standards-based grading.

You might be asking yourself if my school is implementing standards-based grading schoolwide.  No, we are not, but we are on a learning journey regarding standards-based grading. I implore you to start the journey at your school or district as well. If you are interested in the research used in this article please consider the work of Tom Guskey, Rick Wormelli, Ron Berger & Robert Marzano.

Miranda Little is currently the school counselor at Rock Quarry Elementary in Tuscaloosa, AL. She is also a certified social science teacher and is finishing her certification in Instructional Leadership over the summer. She has been in education for 13 years and is also a mom & wife.

3 “Don’ts” of Standard-Based Grading

This is my fourth year teaching, but it was not until the latter part of this school year that I understood how to actually grade my students. Often times when report cards came out, I would look at grades assigned to certain students and think “I know this student knows more than what this grade implies”, or “This student really doesn’t know my content as well as the grade suggests”.  I struggled with how to ethically “fix” these situations.  How do you accurately connect the report to the amount of knowledge and mastery the student has attained?

I found my answer in late fall 2018 when I attended a workshop on Standard Based Grading (SBG). The main concept of SBG is to measure the student’s level of mastery on a given topic/standard, and the effectiveness with which that material is taught. Retakes of summative assessments are a must – especially if the student self-assesses and determines he can show more growth. This differs from traditional grading methods in which classwork, bellwork, homework and formative assessments are assigned during the process of learning and then graded. SBG looks for mastery at the end of a unit instead of factoring the learning process into the report of learning. The ideas presented at this workshop made me excited about assessing and grading again. I was eager to try them in my classroom. However, what seemed to be an easy concept soon became a struggle for my students and myself.

Before I tell you what happened (or what didn’t), let me say we have now come to the end of the school year and I wish I had found this practice years ago. I know my students are better for this and I am a better teacher for it. But, it was difficult for a type A personality like me to start this in the middle of the year. I discovered three Don’ts that I wish someone would have told me before I started this journey.

Don’t Look Back
By the time I found this classroom-changing strategy, I had finished my first nine weeks’ unit.  My students and I were ready to begin something new after a much-needed Fall break.  One would think I came back to the classroom enthusiastic about trying this new approach to grading with new material.  Nope!  Instead, I decided to look back with my students at the three standards already covered and start over with them to make sure they fully understood the material. Not only had I covered cells, organisms, and cell theory in the first nine weeks, I was going to teach those standards more. I was determined to make this material stick and use what I had learned about SBG to do so.  To say my classroom was filled with grumpy students and a grumpy teacher is an understatement.  We were all so bored with the material I think in the end students were studying at home to earn a good grade not for the learning, but just to move on to something new.  So my advice, whenever you start this process, just start. Don’t look back to the material you have already covered, and don’t feel as though you have failed the kids you have taught in previous years that have not had the opportunity to take advantage of this strategy.  Make the commitment to start now and move forward.

Don’t Rush
Wherever you are in the school year when you start this process, understand it will take time, a lot of time, to get it right.  This is not a miracle “fix it all” strategy that works instantly for every student and every classroom.  I had the mentality that I would walk into my classroom fresh from a break with this newfound tool in my belt and it would just work perfectly.  Nope!  Students resisted, teachers resisted, I resisted.  I tried to merge standards together; I tried to fit it all in.  I realized one key piece: I am the expert on what students should know.  In order for any of us to be successful at this approach (or successful at teaching in general), we have to change from a mindset that values Quantity to one that values Quality.  Take your time teaching, assessing, re-teaching, and reassessing standards that you know the students need.  Slow down and enjoy the material along with the students.

Don’t Give Up
This is the biggest one.  Don’t give up on yourself or your students.  This is a journey we are all taking and no one has it perfect yet (I have to repeat this to myself hourly).  Each class you teach will need something different from you.  It will be difficult to find times for students to retake a test, and it will be difficult when you need to reteach a topic to only a handful of students while moving the rest on to the next standard.  But, it is worth it.  I have been called crazy for allowing a student who slept through my test to make it up.  A zero would not have shown me what he knew.  Students have cried for easy classwork grades in order to pad the grade book.  Believe me, many times I wanted to just to stop the parent conferences and the tears.  But, I have also been told my class is one in which learning happens.  And students have been overheard saying they wish all teachers graded like this.  I am, for the first time, confident in sending my students on to the next grade with an accurate representation of what they learned in my classroom. Stay strong through the chaos because the reward is sweet.

So even after all the stress and overwhelming days, you might ask, “Would I do this again?” The answer is OF COURSE.  It works!! And, now that I have figured out (at least some of) what not to do, the results will be that much better next year.

Amber Emerson has a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology and a Master’s Degree in Secondary Education, both from the University of Alabama. She has been teaching middle school science since 2014. She lives in Tuscaloosa with her husband and her two dogs. She enjoys traveling the world.

Awkward Conversations about Grading

Have you ever brought up religion on a first date?  Or politics at the Thanksgiving table? How about comparing salaries with a total stranger in the grocery line?  You probably haven’t, because those that do rarely live to tell the tale. If the conversation even makes it past the initial awkwardness, these topics are intensely personal and emotionally charged, and it can be hard to come to an agreement that fits everyone. Bringing up grading philosophies in a group of teachers tends to generate a similar response.  We all have deeply held beliefs about what grades should communicate and, dare I say, we are all deeply convinced that our way of grading is the best.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t do it that way.

However, to students and families, grades are the primary source of communication about how a student is performing academically.  Grades are viewed as a measure of students’ progress, work ethic, and even ability all rolled into one little number. If my grades as a teacher are meant to communicate all of that, I’d better find a way to ensure that number is accurate!  Therefore, as a professional, I need to find a way to examine my own grading philosophies to determine if my practices live up to my beliefs. This probably entails some awkward and convicting moments and a good hard look at what current best practices are in the field of grading.

At our middle school, we set out to do exactly that: openly communicate about our deeply held grading beliefs and compare them to research in order to develop school-wide grading procedures.  (Did you feel your blood pressure go up just a little? I know I did!) It was an enormous undertaking with mountains of research to sift through along with many personal conversations that needed delicate handling.  However, our staff believed in doing what is best for kids above preserving teacher ego. And what’s best for kids is consistency, structure, and clear communication about expectations and their progress as a student.  While our school has not made the jump to standards-based report cards, we have gotten much closer on ensuring that our numerical grades represent standards mastery. And nothing else.  

Here are some specifics of the process that worked well for us:

  1. Honestly establish the current grading situation.  In order to know where you’re going, you must first have a sense of where you are.  Within just a few months of the new school year, our principal sought to establish our current grading situation. He started with a grades analysis where each teacher tallied the percentages of As, Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs for each class period’s first quarter grades.  Based on this information, teachers then answered questions like, “how is your gradebook currently set up (total points, weighted categories, etc.),” “how do you handle late work?” and “when do you put a zero in for a grade?”  Teachers completed the reflection and then met with the principal and instructional coach in five-minute increments to discuss the reflection and any realizations the teachers came to. Ultimately, these meetings revealed our current situation: teachers were all across the board in terms of grading practices, and this lead to tremendous confusion for students with eight different teachers and expectations throughout the day.  Therefore, there was a need for us to better align our practices.
  2. Keep conversations safe and reflective.  A school-wide grades analysis can either be a “gotcha” moment or a powerful professional learning experience.  It all depends on how follow-up conversations are handled. In the five minute meetings, our principal created a low-stakes environment for teachers that focused on what they learned as a result of the grades analysis. Teachers were in a safe environment to open up about personal revelations, the origin of their grading beliefs, and areas of grading that they were unsure about.  When teachers were not afraid of being “right” or “wrong” in their practice, they were able to be open-minded and vulnerable: the perfect environment for growth!
  3. Adopt a growth mindset.  All professionals want to be the experts in their field and teachers, as experts in their own classrooms, are no different.  Therefore, it can be hard to discover we still have much to learn, even if we’ve been in the classroom for decades. But just as we encourage our students to learn from mistakes and grow, we need to forgive ourselves for mistakes made along the course of our careers and use them as growth opportunities.
  4. Give it time.  No impactful, lasting change happens overnight.  Sweeping, top-down mandates will produce compliance, at best, and outright rebellion at worst.  The key to lasting change and buy-in from stakeholders is to take small steps over a long time period.  Some small steps we took on the path to creating school-wide grading changes were: initial grades analysis and conversations, assessment analysis to determine if our assessments measured anything other than standards mastery, professional development on current research in grading, and open invitations to all staff members to be a part of the procedure writing team.  These countless conversations allowed teachers to evaluate their own beliefs and have their voices heard in the new grading procedures. It took a full school year to reflect on our practice and officially write the procedures. It wasn’t always easy, but it was absolutely worth it.

While it may seem like our work is done now that we have consistent grading procedures throughout our school, the implementation is still a growing and reflective process.  As situations arise, our teachers and administrators talk through these unique scenarios to continually refine our practice. But as teachers, we commit to being lifelong learners: we are in the business of change and growth.  And thanks to this process, we are now also in the business of awkward conversations!

Alicia Melton is the Academic Specialist at Pelham Park Middle School in Pelham, AL. She loves getting to work alongside teachers to provide students with the amazing instruction they deserve!

The Magic of Feedback

As an elementary school principal with a dozen-plus years of K – 12 experience in school
counseling, I have spent much of my time researching and discussing with colleagues how to most effectively provide instruction and assessment that truly impacts student learning. Much of this learning stems from my National Board Certification and the pivotal point in my professional career when I learned to always put students’ learning first. I hope that I can provide some practical thoughts into how we can move forward in our understanding and application of best practices in relation to grading and assessment. Specifically, what can educators do to effectively provide instruction and assessment that truly impacts student learning?

It is my belief that we have underestimated the importance of providing feedback to students (and teachers too). I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Matherson’s point on this blog last month (Matherson, L., Dr. 2019, March 19. What is more valuable to students: A Grade or Feedback?) that “students were more concerned about the grade they would or did receive rather than what knowledge they would gain from the assignment”. There are many reasons why this has occurred. I won’t discuss those reasons in this post because I think we need to go beyond simply discussing the issue and instead move our thoughts and intentions to how we can correct the problems.

Students and parents often care only about As and are prone to the belief that an A defines the measurement of success. I, myself, have been caught in this belief with my two sons. As my younger son enters high school next year, I am curious to discover if he is truly prepared for high school and Advanced Placement courses. How do we know that he is truly prepared? And honestly, if he struggles in some of his classes, is it his fault? He has received all As on every quarterly report card for K – 8 with two exceptions where he made high Bs. By the measures of his grades, he should be well-prepared for high school. Yet because I have grown in my understanding of what truly defines successful learning, I sometimes question his true readiness. Do straight As provide an indication of future success or are there more reliable measures?

Another question with which I constantly grapple is how we effectively turn our focus from making good grades to the importance of students actually learning and applying their learning to new situations? How does my son know, without a shadow of a doubt, that he is equipped with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to master the concepts required? How does any student know this? The answer is simple. We give all of our students’ frequent formative assessments and feedback. In addition, we need to have the collective efficacy to understand that students’ work throughout a school year is the key to success. A smattering of scores on various (and often meaningless) tests do not define student success. According to researcher John Hattie, teachers’ estimates of achievement have been proven to be much more indicative of student success rather
than various testing scores and measures. In addition, Hattie found that feedback for students is another effective way to improve student learning.

This will be hard work and we will make mistakes. However, I believe that it is better to try something new and fail at it than it is to knowingly make poor decisions that do not assist our students in becoming more successful learners. Notice that I said learners, not achievers. We must get away from being solely concerned with grades, especially the school report card grades. This is insanity and makes no sense for our students. We are the experts and we must fight for the success of our kids. They deserve it. We must teach our students the importance of learning. We say it to them, but how often do we follow through on this?

One professional book, in particular, has guided me in solidifying my understanding of how to move forward with best practices in relation to feedback. Rick Wormeli says on page nine of his book, Fair Isn’t Always Equal (2018), “What students learn is the greatest testimony for our work as teachers.” The next sentence states that educators should “rally our assessment and grading energy around that.” Wormeli promotes the idea of coordinating our efforts in relation to differentiation, assessment, grading and our practices in the classroom and devotes an entire chapter to descriptive feedback. There is a plethora of evidence from various education researchers that advocates for the efficacy of providing ongoing and specific feedback to students so that they understand their own progress. After all, isn’t it most important for students to understand how they’re doing and whether they are on target for attaining their learning goals?

Wormeli goes on to discuss the importance of how our actions reflect our principles. I think that most educators would agree that our grading and assessment practices need improvement. If we believe this to be true, then we must first understand that a key tenet is feedback. It is our responsibility to provide better feedback for students, especially when there is a large body of research that supports this.

In addition to Wormeli’s research, another body of work – around Visible Learning – has influenced my application of feedback for students. I encourage all educators to
become thoroughly familiar with the work of John Hattie, Douglas Fisher, Nancy
Frey, and others in this area.

Every day I observe teachers who provide formative assessments and even utilize the results of FA in future instruction. However, I think the missing link is that we don’t provide specific and ongoing feedback to students. We are always so busy teaching, assessing and grading that we don’t make the time to provide real feedback to students. Yes, students know that if they receive an A or an F that they did really well or poorly but students don’t know why they received an A or an F. What if we made a commitment to having two conferences per week with every single student in our class?  What if our focus shifted from simply grading student work and assessments to actually having
conversations with our students on how they performed? What would happen to student learning?

One of my favorite exercise fitness trainers is @AnjaGarcia, and one of her favorite challenges is “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable!” It is time for us to do what is best for students and their learning. While some of this work on redefining what success entails may cause us to feel uncomfortable with our current practices, it is worthwhile work that must be accomplished. My hope is that educators will band together and establish new expectations for what student learning encompasses. There are no boundaries to what our students can learn!

Valerie Johnson is an elementary school principal in the Mobile area and has K – 12 experience as a school counselor. She achieved National Board certification in 2011. She is passionate about improving instruction and works with teachers and parents to empower students to be successful learners. She is an avid reader who loves to travel, exercise and shop. You can follow her on Twitter at @JohnsonValAL.

A Search For Honesty and Truth…

It’s easy to confuse the words truth and honesty. Often times we use them interchangeably. However, the two terms are not synonymous. Webster defines truth as something that is real or factual; while honesty is defined as straightforwardness and sincerity. In other words, one can be honest and not necessarily be truthful. Honesty depends upon one’s intent, while truth is often a permanent fixture. What does this have to do with grading? I’m so glad you asked.

Several years ago, I attended a CLAS Conference in Orange Beach, AL. During a breakout session, I enjoyed an enlightening, passionate, and profound group discussion after viewing several Rick Wormeli videos on standards-based grading (Rick Wormeli-SBG). I was blown away! I felt like I had been bamboozled all these years. I could not wait to get back to my school and share my newfound knowledge. I just knew that everyone would be as astonished as I had been upon gaining this new-found knowledge. Although everyone didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of the information, most of us “got it”! The next step was to determine what to do with it.

As leader, I immersed myself in this new way of thinking. In addition to watching the videos over and over, I also began reading books by Rick Wormeli, Ken O’Connor, and others. As the year ended, I began to make plans for our summer retreat. Back in those days, we didn’t get our hands on our spring data until the summer. Traditionally, we would spend the majority of the time celebrating our AYP status instead of taking a deeper dive into the demographics, standards, and sub-groups. That year, after our customary celebration, we began to disaggregate the data. We looked at students by grade who scored within each category (Ready, Close, and In Need of Support). Indeed, we were not pleased. Too many of our students were Close or In Need of Support, and not enough scored in the Ready category. But at the end of the day we made AYP, so we were good right? Not so fast…

Prior to the retreat, I ran a grade report from STI that listed the number of letter grades A-F by grade level for Reading and Math. I wanted the teachers to see what it would look like if we were to compare our gradebook to the ACT levels. Together we decided that A/B’s would equate to Ready. C’s would equate to Close. D/F’s would equate to In Need of Support. Afterwards, we compared the two lists. Needless to say, there was no “real” comparison. Our so-called “honor roll” list was more than twice as long as the “Ready” list. What could this mean? Typically, during those types of moments, I was the silence breaker. That day I remained quiet, as did the rest of the room for what seemed like an eternity. After a couple of minutes, someone spoke up. “Mr. Girtman, are you saying that…” and before that person could finish someone else said, “Yes, that’s what he’s saying.” I chimed in only to mention that our data was speaking, not me. Shortly thereafter the great debate began. We began to have the classic conversations after high stakes results are reported. “We are still getting used to the standards.” “The test was harder than we thought.” “I didn’t have a chance to cover the standards because of the pacing guide.” Sound familiar? There are times when certain concessions need to made, and then there are times when the brutal truth needs to be laid bare.

After some of our rock star teachers debunked those arguments, the silence returned. An uneasiness filled the room. Reality began to sink in. We realized what we had done. We had told ALL of those children, their parents, their upcoming teachers, and the community that they were “Ready” to go to the next grade level. But according to accountability assessment, that was not the case. We absolutely understood that a single measure was not always indicative of the whole, but this glaring contradiction was still right here in front of us. In all honesty, we didn’t need ACT, ARMT, or NAEP to tell us some of the kids weren’t ready. We already knew it. We knew the kids. We knew who did and didn’t know their math facts, and who could and couldn’t read on grade level. But, they had a B/C/D average on their report card so we did what we had always done.

How could this happen? We had earnestly followed the rules. However, as painful as it was for us to admit, our grading system was not reliable. Powerful conversations and quality questioning around our gradebook ensued as a result of the meeting. What was in it? How many grades do you give in your class? What do you count for a major/minor grade? Is that assignment worthy of a grade? These were all questions that needed to be asked. But the BEST part was that I didn’t have to ask them. The teachers asked each other!

Grades are communication, not compensation. They must be accurate reports of quality evidence of student performance towards standards. Our grades were misleading. They communicated a message that was not totally accurate. They included items that were not related to our standards. We were, of course, not deliberately attempting to deceive stakeholders, but true responsibility and accountability are not based on intent. We knew we had to do better. We had to change. We had to own it.

As a result, we began to fundamentally change the way we viewed assessment, curriculum, and instruction. No longer was it acceptable to hide behind the gradebook or current grading policy. After continued research and deliberate conversation we began to challenge the status quo. Answers to our many questions began to take shape. Common assessments, grade requirements, standards-based grading (SBG), peer observations, quarterly benchmarks, school wide intervention, and many other quality practices became the norm.

The overall experience pricked our hearts. We realized that our kids deserved grades that were both honest and true, not one or the other. For years we chased scores and external outcomes. As a result, we learned that if we committed to the process of rich, teacher-involved inquiry, it would not only yield improved test scores, but it would produce long-lasting, intangible habits of scholarship for student and adult learning.

As today’s educators, we need to be bold and courageous enough to start conversations about our grading practices and learn more about SBG in order to give our students what they truly deserve. There is an obvious “knowing-doing” gap as it relates to much of our current grading woes. President of the Learning Policy Institute, Dr. Linda Hammond, recently affirmed, “Much of what we know about human potential, learning, and assessments is at odds with what we are doing in education policy.” Why?

Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” We have everything that we need in order to make better choices and implement better practices. We now know better. Let us do better; because our kids deserve better.

Reeivice L. Girtman
Elementary Curriculum and Instruction Director
Phenix City Schools
#honestandtrue, #bebetter, #acgal, #gradesmatter, #sbg