grading reform

Reflections on First Semester Grading Reform: 3 Challenges

This post continues from the previous one in which I shared some initial reflections on my first semester grading reforms. I’m doing so for two main reasons: 

  1. To be thoughtful and deliberate, hopefully learning as much as possible from the experience to continuously improve my own practice.
  2. To help others who may be undertaking similar grading reform efforts.

In that previous post, I explained that of the 14 grading practice and reforms I’ve enacted this school year, I’ve found converting to a four-point scale, avoiding the use of zeros, and creating report card grades that come entirely from summative assessment to be among the most successful. But stopping the reflective process at successes would be addressing only the easy aspects of reflection. It would also be somewhat self-serving. Who wouldn’t want to share the successes they’ve had in reform efforts?

Thus, in this subsequent blog post, which is the second of a three-part reflective series, I’ll address the challenges of my first semester grading reforms. Further, I’ll try to do so in an authentic way that doesn’t hold back on self criticism. With this said, here are the three grading practices and/or policies that were most challenging for me to implement during the first semester:

  1. Grading on quality, not timing
  2. Creating a community of feedback
  3. Creating grades that are based entirely on summative assessment

1. Grading on Quality, Not Timing

By grading on quality, not timing, I’ve been able to remove behaviors related to late work and as a result keep the focus on student evidence of learning. This has been great because my grades have become more accurate and equitable. They’re more accurate because the purpose of my grades is to communicate student learning of priority standards in my classroom, and they no longer reflect the behavior of late work. Because of this separation, I’m able to address late work (through restorative practices) without misusing grades.

And that brings me to the challenge. Primarily, it’s been in developing the structure within my classroom to adequately address the unwanted behaviors. But it’s also been finding the time and energy to follow through with these developing structures. I use things like reflections for late papers with follow-up conversations, but thus far I’ve primarily focused on late papers (like literary analysis papers) as opposed to late homework. And because I still think it’s important for students to complete the practice on time (to enable their skills to steadily progress throughout a unit, not to mention to help me to adequately plan each lesson), I realize that I need to do a better job in addressing this behavior as it arises. So this is a big growth area for me. 

2. Creating a Community of Feedback

Creating a community of feedback has been a challenge for me mostly because it’s such a big undertaking. It’s a challenge to foster a growth mindset in students–especially when it comes to writing. As I strive to substitute a focus on grades for a focus on learning, I at times feel like I’m pushing up against an unmovable object. And it’s no wonder: With over 100 years of traditional grading practices in our country, a focus on grades is firmly set into our educational culture.

But at the same time, I know I can do more. While I use rubrics for learning (as opposed to only for assessment), peer and self assessment, reading and writing conferences, and discussion about growth mindset, my classroom is not yet the place I want it to be. It’s not yet the community of feedback that I envision. I still see students who worry about making mistakes in their writing and in their discussions. And I still see students whose cautiousness limits their growth. So this continues to be a work in progress.

3. Creating Grades that are Based Entirely on Summative Assessment

If you’ve read my previous blog post, you’ve seen that creating grades that are based entirely on summative assessment has been both a success and a challenge for me this year. It’s been a success because my grades are more meaningful than ever before in my previous 11 years of teaching.

But the challenge has been in getting students to complete all of what I consider to be essential practice to adequately hone their skills on the priority standards. I knew that when I stopped using grades as punishment and rewards in my classroom, it would be a challenge to motivate students to complete homework and classwork. To address this, I’ve been very intentional in developing practice––whether in class or out of class––that addresses each step in the learning process. I’ve also been intentional about explaining the purpose of each practice to my students and emphasizing the importance of practice in developing high-level skills that will allow them to be successful on summative assessments.

These strategies have worked for many students, but not for all. Some still make bad decisions, complete little practice, and as a result perform poorly on assessments. While students have the option to retake all assessments, that takes additional time and energy from both the student and me, and it’s usually much more challenging to reach a high level of learning during the reassessment process than the first time around (see my post on the strategic assessment process).

And another challenge in this reform has been in communicating student learning to both students and parents before a summative assessment event occurs.  My units are approximately four weeks long, and because I only grade students on their summative assessments, a month’s time can pass without any new grades. To address this issue, I do record at least one important independent practice each week into the gradebook as “complete” or “incomplete.” These practices get no grade, but they serve as a record of the practice each student is doing to improve his or her learning. Additionally, I provide feedback on learning and students provide peer feedback throughout each unit. Finally, I often ask students to self assess (both formally and informally) to help themselves understand and communicate their current level of learning in a unit.

But these strategies haven’t been enough yet, either. They’ve thus far fallen short of bringing my students to a point that I envision in which they can accurately articulate their current place in the learning progression for each priority standard at any point in a unit.

So the work continues.

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