One of many attempts to “fix” the flaws of traditional grading practices, has been the implementation of grading floors. In this video, I provide alternative ways to balance the flaws of the 100 point scale, and traditional grading practices.
This video focuses on practical ways to plan and implement effective formative assessment.
Over the past several years, our school has been working to improve our grading and assessment practices. This included identifying flaws in traditional grading practices, and identifying more effective approaches. As a result of this work, we reached a point where marking periods became an obstacle to implementing our practices. More background about the origins of our story can be accessed here and here. Ultimately, we decided to remove marking periods entirely, and transition to a year-long grading period.
Two years ago, after meeting with and getting permission from our Superintendent, our school piloted a “continual grading period” in sixth grade. We gathered a lot of data in our first year, and solicited feedback from students, parents and teachers on multiple occasions. In addition, my assistant principal @Murphysmusings5 and I were lucky enough to get some guidance from grading guru’s Myron Dueck and Doug Reeves. This definitely helped with communication, planning and implementation.
After making some adjustments, last year we implemented our continual grading period into both sixth and seventh grades. Our second year of implementation went a little smoother, and the overall feedback we gathered was increasingly positive.
A Sign of Success
Last year, thanks to the amazing efforts of our teachers, we ended the year with no retentions, and not one student who qualified for summer school. I’ve always disliked summer school, feeling it was a poor approach and ineffective. A few years ago, my former assistant principal @mr_tbloom came up with the idea to “put summer school out of business.” We thought that if we implemented remediation and support programs throughout the year, addressing deficiencies and low grades before they grew too large to overcome, we could eliminate the need for summer school. Last year, that vision came to reality. It wasn’t the elimination of marking periods that led to this success, but rather the hard work and effective grading/assessment practices of our teachers which ultimately helped us reach our goal. However, removing marking periods removed a barrier to those practices, allowing them to be more successful.
The Death of Marking Periods
This year, we are implementing our year-long marking period into all grades in our school (sixth through eighth). We are putting to rest an outdated practice which creates arbitrary timelines for learning, and is an obstacle to effective grading and assessment practices. I am proud of the way our teachers have embraced this change, and excited about the success it has yielded. Our staff showed a willingness to take a risk, and so far, it has paid off. Trying to change traditional, entrenched practices such as grading, is often seen as a daunting, if not dangerous task. However, as leaders and educators we have to be willing to challenge the status quo, take a risk, and embrace change. It won’t always be successful, but when it is, it’s pretty cool.
Do marking periods still serve a purpose in your school? Are they an obstacle to effective grading and assessment practices? What are your thoughts?
Last April, I published a post The End of Marking Periods, in which I challenged the relevance and need for marking periods. I shared several reasons why I felt the use of marking periods were one of the many, traditional, outdated practices in education. Then, instead of just talking about it, our school began to take action.
Over the past four years, our school has been taking steps to improve our grading and assessment practices. We have tried to move away from a culture of grading, which exists in many schools, and instead, promote a culture of learning. We’ve explored many flaws of traditional grading, and identified steps we could take to make improvements. Some of which, I discuss in my post Traditional Grading Flaws and Fixes.
To enhance our improved grading practices, we proposed the idea of piloting an new approach to grading periods. Instead of the traditional, four marking periods, we would pilot a year-long, grading period. Our Continual Grading Period would allow teachers more flexibility with their pacing, lesson design and assessment practices. It would also allow us to enhance our assessment practices, which have incorporated re-takes and re-dos. But ultimately, and most importantly, it would provide more opportunities for students to learn, and demonstrate their learning. We discussed and reviewed the idea with our sixth grade teachers, evaluated the possible benefits and shortfalls, the decided to move forward with our proposal.
Late last spring, my assistant principal and I met with our central administration, made a short presentation to our school board, and with their support, moved forward with our pilot.
Throughout the implementation this year, we continued to have conversations and meetings with students, parents and teachers to gain feedback. We informally collected feedback from students, and formally collected feedback from parents and teachers via surveys. Our student and teacher feedback was overwhelmingly positive. All of our sixth grade core teachers supported the continuation of our Continual Grading Period.
Our parent survey responses were a mix of positive and constructive feedback. The positive feedback included some pleasant surprises, and the critical feedback we allowed us to reflect and make improvements to our communication and implementation. We shared an overview summary of our parent survey, which included our planned improvements (which you can view here).
This month (May 2016), we evaluated all of the feedback and decided to not only continue our grading period in sixth grade, but also expand into seventh grade. With the support from our district, we plan to continue implementation during the 2016-17 school year. I am confident we will learn more in our second year of implementation, and continue to make improvements.
What are your thoughts on the relevance of traditional marking periods?
Traditional grades are at best, arbitrary, and at worst, destructive to student learning. For those of us stuck in a traditional grading system, there are flaws we need to be aware of, and practical fixes we can implement, to at least improve the system in which we are stuck.
Purpose and Beliefs
Flaws: Most teachers and schools have not established a specific or consistent purpose for, or beliefs about grading. In most schools, the teachers within a building establish their own individual policies, practices and calculations of grades. Due to a lack of quality focus on grading in undergraduate programs, these policies and procedures are usually based on their own educational experiences, personal opinions, and other non-research based factors. This inconsistency creates poor communication and understanding of grades for students and parents.
Fixes: School leaders should work collaboratively with faculty to develop a set of beliefs and/or guidelines about grading. For example, Justin Tarte (@justintarte) shared a “Student’s Bill of Assessment Rights” created at his school. If you are a teacher and cannot push for school wide change, create your own set of beliefs and guidelines and clearly communicate them to students and parents.
In our school, we’ve been using the belief statement: “A grade should accurately communicate what a student knows, understands and is able to do, as related to course learning objectives.” We use this statement to guide guide our work related to our grading practices. In our school, we do not have standards based grading, but we have been working to ensure our grades accurately represent a student’s level of mastery of course learning objectives (which we’ve created for each course, based on state standards).
What Gets Graded?
Flaws: Tradition, and lack of understanding related to student motivation have caused most teachers to create a “kitchen sink stew” of items to make up a student grade. Teachers add a little testing, a touch of homework, a pinch of participation, a sprinkle of attendance, and a handful of “secret ingredients” to create their own, individual grading recipes. Apart from the confusion and inconsistency this creates for students, it also creates an inaccurate reporting of student learning. This links back to the need for a belief statement. If we believe grades should accurately reflect student learning, then adding things like attendance, behavior and work completion make the reporting of actual learning, inaccurate.
Fixes: When discussing or evaluating WHAT we grade, there are a few topics that always seem to come up in discussion. First is the grading of formative assessments (ex: homework; classwork; some quizzes). Since formative assessments are used to provide feedback, drive instruction, and guide student learning, their purpose is not to be included in a grade. Teachers should only be including summative assessments in their grade calculation. Rick Wormeli has stated that a teacher has the power to ultimately decide when an assessment becomes summative. This means that teachers have the power to allow redo’s and retests in order to provide additional opportunities, after an intervention, to reassess. The student’s grade should then reflect the new, and hopefully improved, assessment score. Averaging the first and second scores, or deducting points for attempts, would then fail to meet our previous criteria of reflecting an accurate grade.
The other topic that inevitably comes up is the inclusion of behaviors into a grade. Things such as attendance, participation, work ethic, or taking points off for late work, would lead to an inaccurate reporting of the academic grade. However, these behaviors could certainly be reported elsewhere on a grade report, as they provide important feedback to students and parents.
Tom Petty once sang: “The wai-ai-aiting is the hardest part.” Well, when it comes to traditional grading, I find that the “weighting” of assessments is the hardest part.
Flaws: How many teachers participated in education courses or professional development on the practice of weighting assessment items or assessments in general? The answer here is “very few.” So, in a traditional grading system, how do teachers determine the appropriate weight, or “number of points”, to assign to each question, task, or assessment? At best, the answer is “arbitrarily.” Often times, teachers assign a certain number of points based on the type of question or task. Test? 100 points; Quiz? 50 Points; Homework? 2 Points; Multiple Choice question 3 points each. Essay question? 30 points.
When I created assessment as a teacher, I would assign a number of points based on how difficult the question. The assignment of points ignored the amount of course content, or number of objectives I was assessing with a question, task, project or test. On a test, I would sometimes assess a lower level skill, but through the use of an essay question. I would assign it 20-30 points. My essay prompt asking students to compare and contrast the Virginia and New Jersey Plans was really only assessing my students’ ability to recall the similarities and differences of the plans. This was a low level task void of evaluation or analysis. At the time, it seemed good to me. It was an essay question afterall. I imagine other well intentioned teachers have made similar mistakes.
Fixes: This is a challenge! However, teachers in our building have been working to assign a weight, or number of points, to an assessment based on the amount of learning objectives it assesses. For example, if their course has 100 learning objectives for the year, they would assign up to four points for each objective. This allows them to grade the assessment of the objective using a 4 point scale. Therefore, the score of the assessment would be based on the student’s performance on each learning objective assessed. Focus on learning over product. One student may be able to demonstrate mastery through a conversation, another may do best offering a presentation of the content, while a third most accurately demonstrates learning on test. If the points are based on demonstration of mastery, the method in which students demonstrate learning, is not as imperative.
Our teachers have also been discussing the fact that not all our objectives are the same level or rigor. We have been working to evaluate objectives and agree upon a 1.0 or 2.0 weight, based on the level or rigor.
Flaws: In a previous post (found here) I called for an end to marking periods. I explained that in my situation, a student’s final grade was calculated by averaging the grades from each marking period. Aside from averaging being a bad practice itself, giving each marking period an equal value/weight was misrepresenting the grade report. The final grade certainly did not meet the criteria for being a mathematically “accurate reflection.” Due to weather, standardized testing, field trips and award ceremonies, not all marking periods were created equal.
Fixes: If marking periods are a problem, why not get rid of them? This year we are piloting a “Continual Grading Period” with our sixth grade students. In this model, the entire year serves as one long marking period. This allows teachers to implement best practice in reteaching and retesting without the frustration of arbitrary deadlines. The continual grading period also eliminates the unfair weighting of clearly unequal marking periods. How did we make this magic happen? The steps, process, and reflection on this endeavor will be shared in a later post.
Setting a purpose and beliefs about grading, deciding what gets grading, developing weighting methods, and establishing a fair way to report student learning are key first steps for those of us stuck in the traditional grading system.
What are some other practices or strategies we can use to improve grading practices in a traditional model?
Grading practices can have a major impact on student learning. However, grading is often an overlooked aspect of classroom culture. We must remember that everything we do impacts our relationships with students. Sometimes our grading practices create a culture of grading, rather than learning. We need to make sure our grading practices promote trust, reflection and growth, not a “gotcha” culture of rewards and punishment. The purpose of grading is to accurately communicate learning. They should be used as a communication and reflection tool to promote student growth and learning. Grades should not be for rewarding, punishing, ranking or sorting students.
Creating a Culture of Learning, Not Grading
Most teachers would agree they would like their classroom to be a supportive learning environment. However, many times, their approach to grading sends a different message. For example, when teachers do not accept late work, they are putting the grade in front of the learning. They send the message that the learning demonstrated is not as important as the grade that must be enforced due to the behavior of turning in the work late. When teachers put the importance of behavior in such a high position that the learning no longer matters, they are destroying a culture of learning. Grades should not be used as punishments for student behavior. Too often, teachers hit students with the “grading paddle” as punishment for not following directions on an assignment or failing to follow protocol for submitting work. These behaviors rarely have to do with the learning that is aligned with standards, but instead fall in the category of miscellaneous things teachers choose to grade based on personal preference.
Another example is when teachers assign zeros for students who don’t complete assignments and just move on. Many teachers will argue this practice is done to “teach” responsibility. However, punishing a student with a bad grade for a behavior doesn’t “teach” anything. If this was a successful teaching method, we’d have much more responsible students. No student would ever get a second zero because they were “taught” responsibility. This is just not the case. The reality is that the student who receives the first zero usually follows up with several more zeros because the teacher didn’t hold them accountable to the right thing, which is the learning.
How Re-Testing / Allowing Re-Do’s Improves Learning
If a student fails to demonstrate the knowledge and/or skills on an assessment, and the teacher moves on to the next unit with no additional follow-up, the learning becomes secondary to pacing and grading. Learning must come first. There must be a level of reteaching and reassessing to show the importance of learning the content or skills to students. When teachers just move ahead and plow into the next unit, they send the message that the learning not attained during the previous unit, really wasn’t that important.
How else do grading practices communicate a culture of learning, or grading? Share either view.
Looking to implement effective grading practices, I recommend:
Our school’s journey toward improving formative assessment begun two years ago with our faculty reviewing and discussing a list of Fundamental Instructional Practices (FIP’s). As a group, we chose formative assessment as the practice we felt was the most high-leverage and worth focusing our attention and professional development. Over the course of the next two years, our School Instructional Leadership Team (SILT) made up of 14 teachers and 2 administrators (@MurphyMusings5 and I) began to study, plan, implement, monitor and revise formative assessment definitions, frameworks and planning documents.
After our faculty chose formative assessment, we first had to build our common vocabulary on the topic of assessment. At a faculty meeting we compared summative and formative assessments, including definitions, characteristics, examples and non-examples. We eventually created a summary document we titled a Formative Assessment Overview. As a group, our common initial understanding of formative assessment was that it was something we did (check for understanding), rather than an ongoing process. Checking for understanding would become just one step in this process.
Over the next few months we also began to create a Formative Assessment Framework, including a working Theory of Action. This document is still in revision, but the goal is to create a framework to help guide us in the systematic evaluation of implementation. The framework would not be used to evaluate individual teachers, but instead, as part of the Instructional Rounds process which takes a systemic look at school-wide implementation of a specific practice.
Identifying a Process
After initially creating our formative assessment framework, it became evident to our SILT that although we kept referring to formative assessment as a “process”, we actually lacked the identification or formalization of this process.
So now we needed a process. However, instead of attempting to develop this from scratch, we began reviewing books and literature on the topic and we found exactly what we were looking for in the book “The Formative Assessment Action Plan” by Nancy Frey and Doug Fisher. In their book, Frey and Fisher outline a practical four-step process for formative assessment. We immediately ordered copies of their book for our entire SILT and began our work to adapt their process to make it our own. We tweaked the names of the steps a bit, but ultimately stuck with the process. In addition, we worked with our faculty to create and revise a practical planning document that could be used to assist in their thought and planning process when designing formative assessment.
The process to create these documents and develop our understanding of formative assessments involved monthly meetings with our SILT, as well as the devotion of faculty meeting and professional development time. Many of these meetings were led by teachers who were part of our SILT. This was work we believed in and our teacher-leaders invested a lot of time and effort to ensure the high quality results that could be transferred into the classroom.
Back to Basics
After implementing the formative assessment process into classrooms throughout our building, through observations it became apparent that we could not accomplish steps 2-4 to a high degree of quality before we first were able to appropriately set the purpose for learning. Our course curricula lacked clear, specific, student-friendly learning objectives. If we were going to engage students in the formative assessment process, they first had to be able to understand the learning objectives. After modeling and sharing examples of student-friendly learning objectives, including the use of “I Can” statements, we allocated numerous hours of time during faculty meetings and professional development for teachers to write objectives for their courses. This involved reviewing curriculum, pacing guides, unit and lesson plans. Teachers worked together to create “I Can” statements for each unit in their curriculum and began to communicate them to students on a daily basis in their classrooms.
Modeling the Practice
As teachers began to implement the use of student-friendly learning objectives into their classrooms, building administrators modeled steps 3 and 4 of our formative assessment process by giving ongoing, specific feedback to individual teachers so they could continue to improve their practice.
Our next steps as a school include revising our Formative Assessment Framework to better reflect the four-step process we developed. In addition, our faculty survey feedback and observational data show that we need to spend professional learning time on methods and strategies related to Step 3: Feedback and Step 4: Follow-Up.
During this two-year journey we have learned so much TOGETHER. I think this is the best outcome from this process and journey. A group of teachers (SILT) took a leadership role in improving instruction, engaged the faculty, and devoted an appropriate amount of time for the work. During this time, our school did not focus solely on formative assessment, but also on Questioning, Grading Practices and other topics. However, our formative assessment work is where we really invested ourselves and has helped us create a culture focused on improving instruction.
How does your school create a culture that focuses on improving instruction?
In many schools, including the one in which I work, teachers have adopted great practices such as ongoing formative assessment, re-teaching, re-testing and allowing students to re-do assignments. However, even with the implementation of these successful grading and instructional practices, the old “learning clock” still counts down to the end of the marking period. It’s like trying to beat the sand timer in a board game. All learning must be complete before all the sand gets to the bottom on the hour glass, or it’s too late. So, why?
Why do we have a system that encourages teachers to race against the clock to jam in one last project or test before the end of the marking period. I would argue, we no longer need these arbitrary time limits for learning in our current system.
With instructional approaches such as standards-based grading, grading for mastery, objective-aligned assessments, re-takes, and re-do’s; Do marking periods create arbitrary time constraints on opportunities for learning? When marking periods are removed, we promote a growth mindset approach to learning, students can continue to strive toward mastery, being exposed to multiple ways of learning, as well as multiple attempts/methods to demonstrate their learning.
With the ability for parents to check grades online, at any time, the need to periodically update parents via report cards no longer exists. I know some will argue that not all parents have access grades online. However, for the sake of this blogpost, I am focusing on the majority. After all, more people own a cell phone than a toothbrush. Another argument against the removal of marking periods is that a new marking period gives students a fresh-start, or a clean slate. However, by implementing some of the practices I mentioned above (re-testing and re-do’s), students are constantly and continually given a fresh-start, and new chance at learning.
Another flaw in traditional marking periods is their equal weight. In our system, each of the four, 46 day marking periods, ends in a grade that is weighted equally. But any teacher will tell you that not all marking periods are created equally. When ten days in the third marking period (22%) are taken up by standardized-tests, how can teachers and students accomplish the same amount of learning as in the second marking period. However, our current system weights all marking periods the same when calculating a student’s final grade.
There is much more to consider when it comes to evaluating grading and assessment practices, however, the removal of marking periods is something worth more consideration.
What thoughts or ideas do you have about traditional grading practices that should be re-evaluated?
Update: Our school is currently (2015-16 school year) piloting a continual, year-long grading period for all our sixth grade courses. We have removed the traditional four marking periods and have one ongoing grading period. So far, so good! More updates to come in future posts.
Perfect grading practices don’t exist!
Through our school’s efforts to improve our grading practices, I have come to a few conclusions. First, there is NO perfect grading system. If you are looking for a grading approach that you cannot poke holes in, stop now. Whether it be a 100 point scale, or a 4.0 scale, there will always be a level of subjectivity. Secondly, it is frustrating that we have not yet come up with a way to consistently improve grading outside of the traditional 100 point scale. Standards-based grading has promises, but still some of the same flaws and subjectivity of the 100 point scale. Third, traditional grading may be the biggest farce in all of education. Grades are like hieroglyphics with no translation guide. From one classroom to the next, they have a different meaning. Our district follows the same grading scale to determine a student’s letter grade (ex:94-100 = A), however, they allow a teacher almost complete autonomy in how they determine what criteria get a student to that grade. The sad part is, this is common in most districts. In our school, we will continue working on improving our grading practices (we just uncovered the flaws in the ‘total points’ method), but I wish all schools would have figured out a better way by now. After all, these flaws aren’t new.
My beliefs on grading have been shaped largely by the likes of Rick Wormeli, Doug Reeves and other well-known educational gurus. My goals for grading are for them to communicate learning in a practical and accurate manner. In our world of Student Management/Online grading systems, this doesn’t always come easy. Lately I’ve been working with teachers on trying to fit a standards/objective-based grading approach into our 100 point scale district grading system This has not been easy. We have toyed with ways to convert a 4.0 scale to the 100 point scale, and vice-versa. We have discussed weighting different objectives based on level of skill required. We’ve debated the number of questions to ask in order to adequately assess a student on an objective. We have evaluated marking period timelines and how they limit an objective-based grading approach. We have evaluated a lot!
In the absence of the option to get rid of grades entirely, here are a few of my beliefs about grading which shape my work with teachers to improve our grading practices.
A student’s grade should accurately communicate what a student knows, understands and is able to do, in alignment with standards, anchors and/or objectives.
Summative Grades v. Formative Grades
Summative – grades in which a student has no additional opportunity to show learning.
- Traditional Examples: Tests, Quizzes, Essays, Labs, etc…
- A summative test, quiz or essay can always be made formative with the allowance of a re-take or re-do. If a retake/re-do, the student would then receive the new summative score they earn on the re-take or re-do, and the first score would be dropped. That score now accurately reflects what a student knows, understands and is able to do.
Formative – grades in which a student has additional opportunity to show learning.
- Traditional Examples: Classwork, Homework, etc…
- If we grade knowledge and skills formatively (classwork, homework), then again summatively, are we creating “duplicate grading?” Does the grade now accurately reflect what a student knows, understands and is able to do? If they performed the same on both, YES, if not, NO.
- “Duplicate Grading” – grading the same knowledge or skills more than once. This could be through one or multiple methods. If I want to know if a student can demonstrate an understanding of the first amendment and I quiz them on it and they get it wrong. Then I allow them to do a skit that now shows evidence of their knowledge on the first amendment. I give them the grade from the skit and drop the grade from the quiz. You wouldn’t GRADE both, since that would communicate conflicting information on what that student understands about the first amendment. Multiple methods of, and opportunities for, assessment are good practice. However, the grade should reflect a student’s performance on only one.
- How much should formative grades weigh on final grade?
- I personally believe that a report card should reflect ONLY summative grades. However, I appreciate the need for flexibility, and would be okay with all formative assessments (combination of CW, HW, etc.) being worth one point less than a whole letter grade (ex: 8 points).
- Remember, if a student does NO classwork or homework, but exhibits knowledge of all information and skills on a summative assessment (test), when classwork and homework grades are factored, does the final grade now accurately reflect what a student knows, understands and is able to do? OR, does it now represent something else?
- If we grade knowledge and skills formatively (classwork, homework), then again summatively, are we creating “duplicate grading?” Does the grade now accurately reflect what a student knows, understands and is able to do? If they performed the same on both, YES, if not, NO.
Grading Behavior or Effort
- Grading student behavior or effort is a tricky and an inappropriate practice. To grade things such as work ethic, effort, participation or behavior, when these things are not part of a curriculum, and usually not explicitly taught, is inappropriate. Teachers often to not present clear criteria for meeting expectations in these areas, which makes grading them very subjective.
- There are better ways to motivate and encourage work ethic, effort, participation and behavior. Grades are not necessary for these things.
What successes, struggles or challenges have you faced while working to improve grading practices in your classroom or school?