For a number of years, I lacked the courage to go all in on grading reform. I long knew of the problems with traditional grading practices, but my concern about pushback from students, parents, and even administrators tempered my enthusiasm for beginning a large-scale reform.
Further, I was concerned about the implications of grading in a drastically different way from other teachers in my learning team. With four teachers teaching the same course at my school site, I knew that if our grades had different meanings, there would be significant equity implications.
Finally, I was concerned about the effectiveness of my own implementation. I knew there would be many challenges to implement the reforms I had in mind, and I questioned if I had the time and resolve to see the reform work through successfully.
But eventually, I decided that enough was enough. My personal tipping point occurred last spring. There was no major event that set this off; rather, it came from an overwhelming disgust with too much talk about grading reform and not enough action. It was at this point that I decided I would go all in on grading reform, and this decision eventually led to the 14 grading practice and policy reforms that I now have in place.
My first step was to make sure I was adequately prepared. That preparation began the semester before implementation. Although I was already well-versed in grading research, I knew practical grading texts that emphasized classroom implementation would be of most use to me. So throughout the spring, I read and reread grading texts such as Thomas Guskey’s What We Know About Grading; Tom Schimmer, Garnet Hillman, and Mandy Stalets’ Standards-based Learning in Action; and perhaps most significantly, Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity.
It was after reading Feldman’s text that I began to envision the way in which I would implement my reforms. The book discusses grading reform through an equity lens––a topic very important to me––and the author presents a framework for creating equitable grades that he calls Three Pillars of Equitable Grading Practices. Feldman explains that teachers can create equitable grades by using practices that are accurate, bias-resistant, and motivational. He also describes multiple practices and policies that fall into each pillar.
I eventually selected 14 practices and policies based on this framework. This was a good fit for my purposes because the practices and policies within the framework are comprehensive (I knew this from my experience with grading research) and because of the emphasis on student equity.
After completing my first read of Grading for Equity, I knew I had to get my learning team involved in the conversation. I eventually led my team and several other teams in a book study of the text that spring (more on this in a future post), and this became a major step in moving forward in our team reforms this school year.
This past summer during our collaboration time, I informed my team about the details of my grading reform plans. At that point, I had most of the details ironed out. While we had many previous discussions about grading reform, (and they knew of my experience with grading research and reform in the classroom), we had few common grading practices and policies at that point. They had shown an interest in taking on more reforms, but like many teachers, they were extremely busy with the many responsibilities of teaching––not to mention with their lives outside of the classroom. Because I didn’t want anyone to become overwhelmed, I gave them an option to take on the same reforms as me, or to implement a scaled-down version of my reforms. They unanimously agreed to go all in as well. Needless to say, their commitment has been a major part of the initial successes of our grading reforms, and it has allowed student grades to have a very similar meaning across teachers in our learning team.
I realize the success of my team’s grading reforms in large part depends on how well other parties understand them, so we’re making a concerted effort to help students, parents, counselors, and administrators to understand our grading practices and policies. More on this in a future post, but here is a look at an overview of my plan to address this need.
The 14 Grading Practice and Policy Reforms
Below are the 14 grading practice and policy reforms that my team is implementing this year. I’ve only provided a one- or two-sentence description of each practice or policy for now for the sake of brevity, but more on each reform in future posts.
1) Avoid zeros
Because a zero grade implies zero learning, we avoid giving zeros and instead seek alternative evidence of learning when student work or assessments are missing.
2) Use a 4-point grading scale
We use a four-point scale (4=A, 3=B, 2=C, D=1) because it’s intuitive to students and it’s more accurate than the 100-point percentage scale. We define what each level means, and it directly aligns to our four-point rubrics.
3) Report most recent performance
We want grades to represent students’ most recent level of learning, so we replace old grades with new evidence of learning when possible. For the same reason, we don’t average.
4) Grade based on a student’s own performance––not a group’s and not anyone else’s
Because we want grades to represent students’ own learning, they receive no group grades, and as much as possible, they complete summative assessments in the presence of the teacher.
5) Omit extra credit
If students want to improve their grades, we tell them to meet with us for a conference, complete more practice when necessary, receive feedback, and eventually reassess. But extra credit undermines the importance of learning and inflates grades, so we don’t allow it.
6) Exclude behaviors, including timeliness
Our grades are about learning, not behaviors, so we don’t include grades for behaviors such as late work, tardies, or defiance. We do address the behaviors, but mostly through restorative practices.
7) Use alternative consequences for cheating/plagiarism
Like other behaviors, we address cheating and plagiarism through restorative practices. Students are allowed to retake the assessment (for full credit) because we still want to determine what they’ve learned.
8) Exclude participation and effort
Although participation and effort are correlated with learning, they don’t directly indicate learning. Further, determining student effort levels is extremely subjective and may allow for teacher implicit biases.
9) Rely only on summative assessment
Summative assessments are the best tools that we have to measure student learning, so this is all that we use to create student grades.
10) Allow retakes & redos
We understand that there is a lot of pressure to do well on summative assessments, that everyone can have a bad day, and that not everyone learns at the same rate. For these reasons, we allow students to retake or redo assessments as many times as they need to until the end of the marking period (although reflection and feedback have to occur first).
11) Use rubrics
We want learning expectations to be extremely clear to students, and we also want the grading process to be transparent. For these reasons, we use rubrics for all summative assessments.
12) Omit points from summative assessments
Points are often used as a type of classroom currency in which students accumulate enough points to earn a grade. Unfortunately this creates a disconnect between student learning and grades, so we don’t use any points in our classrooms.
13) Use standards-based grade books
Standards-based grading allows us to communicate student learning of each standard, as opposed to a cumulative summative assessment grade composed of multiple standards. Standards-based grading provides greater accuracy of student learning and helps to facilitate continued student learning in retakes.
14) Create a community of feedback
We realize that feedback––from peers and from the teacher––is essential to learning, so we strive to create a classroom culture that values learning from mistakes, communicating about the learning process, and employing a growth mindset.
Going all in on grading reform is something of a gamble. Despite my confidence in preparation, the strength of my team buy-in, and the efforts my team makes to communicate to all involved parties, there is a chance things could go wrong and I could be pressured to revert to traditional practices. But this is a gamble I’m willing to make because I know the odds are on my side and I’m doing it for the right reasons. Further, I’m confident that these 14 new grading practices and policies will result in more accurate and equitable student grades that better communicate student learning.
What are your experiences with grading reform? To what extent do teachers at your school or district employ common grading practices and policies? I’d like to hear from you.
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