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Grading That Reflects Your Values

Education World is committed to bringing educators the practical tools they need to make good decisions, engage in effective leadership and implement strategies that work. The following excerpt from So What Do They Really Know? Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning  looks at grading practices that reflect real-life learning and the beliefs that guide Cris Tovani’s philosophy.

Beliefs that Drive Grading Practices

Grading fairly at the secondary level is difficult. I’ve been accused of being “too easy.” Some mistakenly infer that my low student failure rate is because I have low standards. Other critics complain that letting students have a second chance to rework papers or projects is unfair. To justify my practice, I have to be able to articulate what I believe. These questions help guide my grading practices:

  • Should I give students points for engaging in the process of learning?
  • How am I using feedback? Is it so students can redo something, or am I just adding comments to defend the grade?
  • Am I trying to measure practice, growth, or mastery?
  • How do I decide when not to grade something?

To answer these difficult questions, I must make sure that my grading practices are tied to my beliefs about the purpose of education. Four core beliefs guide the way I grade:

Belief #1: Critical thinking matters more than factual recall.
Student thinking matters most. A rigorous curriculum asks students to think every day. A rigorous teacher asks students to leave evidence of their thinking every day so growth can be measured over time.

Belief #2: Risk, struggle, practice, and success are essential to learning.
If I want students to take risks, struggle through difficulty, and practice skills, the work needs to be worth their time. Students need reinforcement along the way, in the form of individual attention, feedback, and points, to nudge them toward success.

Belief #3: Smart is something you become.
Grades should not be used as a fixed label—Johnny cannot be a C student in everything at all times. Grades should reflect a student’s current understanding. Because I’m most concerned about students getting smarter and more skillful each day, I don’t want a poor grade earned at the beginning of the quarter to penalize a student for the entire semester.

Belief #4: The world is an interesting place.
The more my classroom mirrors the world, the more engaged students will be.

I plan what I want students to be able to do at the end of the unit to ensure that each day my students and I are working toward that goal. By helping them create rich, authentic products and projects, they will have an impetus to work hard.

Points for Attempt and Completion

Students need a chance to practice without someone telling them they are doing it wrong. Unfortunately, it can be quite difficult to get middle and high school learners to do something when points aren’t attached. It’s even harder to get struggling learners to take a risk when they’ve been academic failures for years. Many would rather look lazy than stupid.

Because few people improve without practice, I start my year grading for attempt and completion. There are times when I just want students to read or write. To get better at reading and writing, learners need to do it a lot. Without attaching points to the practice time, students may find something else in need of their attention.

By giving points for attempt and completion, I can encourage risk taking while students get the much-needed practice it takes to master necessary skills.

Example of grading for attempt and completion: Annotate five pieces of thinking on a piece of text. Each piece of thinking is worth three points up to a total of fifteen points.

How this links to what I value: This informs instruction immediately. The teacher can see which students are practicing, what they get, and where their learning needs to be supported.

Points for Growth and Improvement

Practice is important, but I also want students to improve. Students earn points for showing how their thinking is changing and expanding over time—how they are getting smarter, working smarter, and making more meaning. Rubrics, learning targets, and feedback become useful tools that guide students toward exemplary work. On assignments that require multiple drafts, students can earn points for turning in each draft as they continue to refine their work and show growth. Usually I assign twenty-five points for this first attempt. I want to encourage students to start their drafts well before the final deadline. Once students turn in their drafts, I can give them feedback that will guide their second drafts. If students rework the draft using the feedback they’ve received, they can improve their grades. Students have rubrics and learning targets to guide how their final product will be graded. They can turn in as many drafts as they wish until the final day. Using feedback and learning targets to guide their work improves the quality and cuts down on my final grading at the end.

Example of grading for growth and improvement: Students use feedback from me and from their peers to improve their assignments over time: this could include annotations, reflections, essay drafts, and so on. Students have the learning targets up front and therefore use them to self-assess over time. For this type of grading, students have the opportunity to go back and revise and improve their work.

How this links to what I value: Students and teachers work together to improve performance. Teachers can see where differentiation of instruction needs to occur, and students can see their strengths and improve on areas of weakness.

Points for Mastery and Understanding

It is also important to grade for mastery. Both students and I need to know at a particular point what skills, strategies, and understandings they have mastered. However, in many secondary classrooms, learners are graded only on whether or not they “get it.” Giving tests and quizzes, and assigning essays and projects, is appropriate as long as students have had an opportunity to practice their learning and get feedback before they are graded for mastery.

Example of grading for mastery: Often these are common assessments, chapter tests, essays, and final projects.

How this links to what I value: These assessments communicate “final” achievement of students on a topic or unit. They help teachers work together to see what instruction was successful—but it does not help current students get smarter if the teacher has moved on to a new topic. This traditional form of grading can inform instruction for the next time the unit is taught.

Be sure to read two more excerpts from this book: Annotating as an Assessment Tool and Minimize Lecture, Maximize Learning: The Workshop Model.


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