grading reform

Purposeful Grading Reform: Beginning with a Purpose Statement

For those looking to either begin grading reform or continue some initial work they’ve begun, an important early step is to create a grading purpose statement. Such a statement allows students and parents to better understand your grades. It also helps you to make consistent and focused grading-related decisions.

But Why Is This Necessary?

A grading purpose statement is needed because grades have no intrinsic meaning. And while teachers may assume that other educators, students, and parents all have the same understanding about their grades, this is rarely the case.

It’s true that most agree that learning should be a part of grades, but contention often arises over the types of evidence of learning that should be included. For example, should homework count? If so, for completion or correctness? What about quizzes? And of course some form of summative assessment should be in the grade, but how much weight should it have? Then there are factors like effort, behavior, and participation, which each bring various views and disagreements. The list of questions goes on, but a big question remains: If we can’t even agree on what should go into a grade, why should we assume that we all have a common purpose for grading?

Because of the lack of clarity around purpose, conflict often arises. And because grades have such important implications for students, these conflicts can become very contentious––as many teachers know all too well.

Take a minute to reflect on the grading-related conflicts that you’ve encountered over the past year. For some, the first that comes to mind is at the individual student level, such as the student who argued about their grade on a test or the parent who was adamant that their child deserved an A. For others, it’s at the class level, like when the principal asked to talk about the number of Fs you assigned on a recent report card or the department chair who was concerned about student chatter regarding the ease of getting an A in your class.

Besides being unpleasant, such conflicts indicate that the meaning of your grades is not being communicated effectively. But conflict doesn’t have to be the norm when it comes to grading. I once encountered my fair share of grading conflicts each school year, including some version of each of the examples above. But I now rarely face grading-related conflicts, and this is primarily because I’m very intentional and clear about what I intend my grades to mean and do.

So by being intentional in my grading decisions and clear about the purpose of my grades, I’m able to avoid most conflicts. This doesn’t mean grading has become an easy or enjoyable process–evaluation, by definition, can never be that. But it does mean that this essential teacher practice has become much more manageable. Moreover, I’m better able focus on making my grades do what I really want them to do: communicate student learning. This ultimately leads to me being better able to reach my goal in the classroom, which is to guide my students to reach proficiency on the priority standards.

This clarity and intentionality in the grading process largely begins with the creation of a grading purpose statement. Below are some steps and resources to create one of your own.

Creating a Grading Purpose Statement: 3 Guiding Questions

To begin the creation of your own classroom grading purpose statement, try to answer these three guiding questions:

  1. What action are your grades meant to perform? (choose a strong verb)
  2. What academic or non-academic factors receives this action? (choose an object that the verb acts upon)
  3. Who is the intended audience? (choose a specific group)

When you’ve determined your answers, try putting them into the template.

The purpose of my grades is to _____(1)_____ _____(2)_____ to _____(3)_____.

Once you’ve created a draft of your statement, consider the example below.

What Does a Grading Purpose Statement Look Like?

When creating a grading purpose statement, it’s a good idea to consider with the advice of grading experts such as Susan Brookhart, Thomas Guskey, and Matt Townsley. They largely recommend something like this:

The primary purpose of grades is to communicate student academic achievement of priority standards to students and parents.

But the complexity of this statement warrants a closer look. Here’s a breakdown, piece-by-piece:

  1. “The primary purpose of grades is to communicate…”

While the beginning of this statement appears clear enough, what it doesn’t say is just as important as what it does say. If grades are only meant to communicate, then they are not meant to punish, motivate, or even teach. Consider, for a moment, the implications:

  • If grades aren’t meant to punish, then students shouldn’t receive grade deductions for late work or plagiarism (other non-grade consequences and/or teaching need to be used, such as restorative practices).
  • If grades aren’t meant to motivate, then students shouldn’t be given lower or higher grades to motivate them to try harder next time (regardless of good intentions).
  • If grades aren’t meant to teach, then students shouldn’t be given a lower grade to “teach them a lesson” (this is usually used another form of using grades as punishments).

2. “…student academic achievement of priority standards…”

This means grades should only be created from evidence collected on students’ performance on the standards or targets that you’ve determined are the most important (more on prioritizing standards here). Because summative assessments are the best tools we have to collect this evidence, ideally, grades are comprised entirely of these grades. But if you aren’t yet ready to create grades 100% from summative assessment, then you can increase this weight to as high of a level as you’re comfortable with (a good starting point is 70% summative, 30% formative).

Again, what’s not said is just as important. If grades only communicate academic achievement, they don’t communicate non-academic factors like effort, behavior, or participation. And if grades are only linked to priority standards, then they don’t communicate things like achievement of last year’s or next year’s standards or life skills (like working collaboratively in a group).

3. “…to students and parents.”

An effective argument is made for a specific audience, and the same is true for an effective grading purpose statement. By making students and parents the target audience, you’re committing to making grading decisions with only these groups in mind. It also means that although other groups such as administrators, counselors, other teachers, and college admittance officers may be using the grades, they won’t be considered in any grading decisions.

Final Steps

After considering the example purpose statement and piece-by-piece breakdown above, there are several ways to move forward. One is that you can use the example to further revise or fine-tune your own statement. Another is that you can simply adopt the recommendations of experts as your own.

When I created my own grading purpose statement several years ago (shown below), I chose a slightly different way. I began with the recommendations of the experts, shown in items one and four below. I then added two additional statements about summative assessment and retakes, shown in items two and three below, that I felt were crucial to understanding my classroom grading policy.

Once you’ve completed your grading purpose statement, be intentional with its use. Share it with anyone who sees your grades so they can better understand what the letters are meant to represent–especially students and parents. And let it guide your grading decision-making process.

Doing so should help you better achieve your own teaching goals in the classroom.

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