Do No Harm: Flexible and Smart Grading Practices

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >

My Edutopia post When Grading Harms Student Learning generated a lot of buzz. Grading is an emotional subject, with strong-held opinions and ideas. I was really excited to see discussion on all sides of the issue. The best feedback for me was that, while many readers agreed with parts of the premise, I hadn’t been specific on support strategies. Thank you for that feedback — it was specific, actionable, and created the need and excitement for a follow-up post. While there are many tools out there that help address concerns around redoes, zeroes, not grading homework, and more, here are some of my favorites:

Address Behavioral Issues Affecting Academic Achievement
Points off for late work may not motivate students. I know that when I took points off for late work, some students just accepted their losses. It didn’t address the behavioral issue of late work. Similarly, it didn’t address the problem of incomplete work. I needed to figure out a way to motivate students without using points as a method. I had a form, similar to Myron Dueck’s late or incomplete assignment form (click the link and scroll down to Figure 1.3), which tried to address what was getting in the way of turning in work on time. Here, students identify those issues, from heavy course load to procrastination, and then set a new goal for completion. They also identify the support structure they might need. These forms are great behavioral issues assessments that are responsive and not punitive. It’s an approach that truly helps students to be ready for a future when it’s much more detrimental to turn in work late.

Request to Retest
This is a great way to put the student in the driver’s seat of what they’ll redo and how they’ll redo it. It puts the onus on them to be self-advocates for their learning and helps them set goals for improvement. In a request to retest form (PDF), students reflect on their score and the concepts or skills that they failed. They also identify next steps on how to improve their test. While this is specific to a more traditional test, it could also be used for other major assessments that have many components or concepts.

Redo Parts of an Assessment
Some assessments that we give students have very clear categories. For example, a history exam might assess multiple concepts or ideas, or an essay might assess thesis and organization. Here the data is easily disaggregated. If this is the case, you might have a student redo only the parts that he or she needs, leaving the rest as is. That also means that you have to re-grade or reassess much less. It saves you time as an educator and helps you really target your assessments. Again, this may not be a useful strategy for assessments that synthesize concepts or skills, but rather for assessments that can be easily disaggregated.

Reflect on Assessments
One strategy that I’ve seen many educators use is ongoing reflection throughout the assessment process, whether we’re talking about a small quiz or a major exam. For example, after students complete an assessment, they reflect and discuss questions such as:

Were you prepared for this test? How did you prepare?
How long did you study the material outside of class?
Did you feel more confident about some parts or sections than others?

These questions allow students to recognize their strengths and weakness in what they need to learn, and how they can better prepare to learn the material. What I also enjoy about this strategy is how it connects to behavioral issues that get in the way of academic achievement, addressing them directly in a non-punitive way. It also helps students and teachers plan for redoes that may not be full redoes, saving teachers and students time and stress.

Pick Your Battles
You know your curriculum. You know that some assessments and assignments are crucial in showing evidence of learning. Other assessments, mostly formative, are simply check-ins and don’t affect the grade much or at all. These smaller assessments may not be worthy of redoes or late/incomplete assignment forms. On the other hand, bigger, more comprehensive assessments may present better opportunities for offering redoes and addressing behavioral issues. As a master educator, you can pick your battles and focus on what matters most in terms of assessment. Use your best judgment!

Again, It’s About Hope
I hope that you find these tools useful in your classrooms. We need to be realistic and recognize that, no matter what we try, we may not get all students to do the work that we want in class. But we do have an opportunity to rethink how we assess students and create systems that allow for hope of achievement rather than relying on antiquated systems that haven’t met the needs of all students.

Valuing All Kinds Of Data For The Whole Child

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >

When thinking about data, I use the “3 U Acronym”—Useless Unless Used. We must take action from data. We have so much of it, and, frankly, it can be overwhelming. Often, we immediately associate the word data with test scores, but test scores are only one—very limited—type of data we can analyze. In fact, there are much more powerful and relevant data we can collect and examine to support the whole child and make sure each is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.

Data for Safe and Supported
How do you know if your students truly feel safe and supported at school? It’s critical that we uncover data related to students’ sense of safety and support so we can ensure that high-quality learning occurs. To do so, we can use action research tools from How to Create a Culture of Achievement in Your School and Classroom, by Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Ian Pumpian. One such tool is a student focus group, where select students from all walks of life share answers to questions such as “Are there times you don’t feel welcome?” or “What are some things teachers do to make you feel like you are an important part of the classroom?” Or, we can get similar data by administering surveys—to both students and parents—about perceptions of safety, bullying, and excitement for school.

Data for Engaged and Challenged
One of the best pieces of data educators can collect is on-the-spot formative assessments. These can be formal, like a draft of practice presentation, or they can be informal, like observations and questions. From formative assessments, we can immediately decide what kind of differentiation is needed to keep students appropriately engaged and challenged. When we know our students and what they have or have not learned, we can provide them with just-in-time instruction. Another interesting piece of data I have collected was a survey on my students’ sense of time. Student who are engaged tend to lose a sense of exactly how much time has passed. We’ve all heard students say things like “Wow, it’s been 20 minutes? I thought we were only working for about 10.” This is one indication that students are engaged and challenged.

Data for Healthy
This one may seem obvious, but how much do we know about the overall health of our students? Schools and classrooms can survey students about foods they eat and use that data to inform health curricula. We can also look at absences related to illness and look for patterns and trends. Also, mental health is equally important. We can collect data about student anxiety, for example, by giving students surveys through which they can rank their feelings using a scale. It’s important that we know about the health of our students and find ways to create structures and supports in school to make them healthier.

These three categories of data, based on ASCD’s Whole Child tenets, include a select number of examples. Even so, you might feel overwhelmed. I suggest working in teams to uncover this data. For example, one team can create essential questions related to the safe and supported tenets, while another might investigate the healthy tenet. Data-driven instruction and support is a team effort, and we should leverage each other’s passions and expertise to make data useful.

Homework When Students Are Ready For It!


This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


We all struggle with homework and how to use it. In fact, many have said no to homework for good reason. It’s often just busywork, boring, or not clearly connected to the learning. Many times, students come home and can’t even articulate why they have a homework assignment. This is a problem of relevance. Worse yet, students receive hours of homework each night. They are required to read and take notes on material, produce papers, or more. This is what you might call “Do-It-Yourself School.” If you are assigning work where students are learning a large amount of completely new material on their own, then you are actually doing a disservice to your students.

Students should not be required to be their own teachers outside of class (the keyword here is “required”). Instead, homework needs to be designed for intentional purposes that support student learning. Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, in their book Better Learning Through Structured Teaching, articulate many of the points that I try to make here. When we focus on some of these examples and principles below, we can actually make homework a useful tool for learning, where students see the relevance and engage in it.

When Students Are Ready
We often assign homework when students are not ready for it. We’ve all been in a situation when we run out of time in a lesson, and mistakenly assign the rest of the work as homework. This is the wrong way, as it becomes DIY School. Instead, teachers need to know, through formative assessment, whether or not their students are ready for the homework. This could mean that not all of your students will get homework that night. Some students may not be ready, while others will be. While every student will get to that homework, they won’t all get there at the same time. For those not ready, the assignment would be an unproductive struggle. When students are ready, meaning that they have the skills and background knowledge, that homework will be successful. Practice doesn’t make perfect — it makes permanent! If students do not have requisite skills or knowledge to complete the homework assignment, then they will make permanent errors that are harder to unlearn. Focus on assigning homework when students are ready.

In addition to assigning homework when students are ready, you could let students pick the assignment they want to do. Allowing voice and choice in homework assignments can increase engagement. Through reflection, students can self-identify content or skills they want to build or work on, and then choose the appropriate homework assignment. When they own the process of learning, then even homework can feel meaningful to them.

Limited Time
This is key! Students should not be assigned hours upon hours of homework. Homework time should be limited. Many argue over exact time, from ten minutes to an hour. This all depends on the age and grade level of the student. Although older students may be able to handle hours of homework, it doesn’t mean they should do hours of homework. Teachers also need to have collaborative conversations about the shared workload for students and limit that workload appropriately. We have students that are actively involved in extracurricular activities, family duties, and the like. We need to be responsive to this, which means that time devoted to homework will be different everywhere.

Spiral Review
Learning and standards often spiral themselves in the learning and instructional year. Something that was learned earlier in the year or unit can be reviewed through homework to remind students of what they should have learned or help teachers identify what may have been lost. Just make sure the homework is based on something already learned, and that you know the student already learned it from you.

If students are ready to apply their learning in an appropriate new context, then homework can be used for that as well. Again, the teacher needs to know that students understand the content and have the skills to apply themselves to the material. When this is done appropriately, students are stretching their thinking and feeling success in the learning process.

Fluency Building
There are some skills that students should practice to build their fluency. Homework assignments to build this fluency can help reinforce skills that students have already learned. Again, practice makes permanent, so fluency-building homework should be assigned only when teachers know that students have the needed skills.

We all have students who are ready for assignments that will allow them to be creative or take the learning to a new level. Extension assignments are also a great way to differentiate. Teachers need to know where their students are through assessment, and allow the students ready for an extension assignment to give it a try.

Homework as Formative Assessment
Remember that homework itself can and should serve as a formative assessment of learning. It can be a useful check for understanding, which means that it doesn’t need to be graded. This view of homework can help tell the story of the student’s learning and also inform you how to adjust instruction to ensure success for all students.

You can of course choose not to assign homework, but you can also have homework as a meaningful and useful part of your instruction. And you don’t have to assign it all the time. If homework isn’t working for you, reexamine and reflect upon your implementation. Do you assign it too early in the instructional cycle? Does it not focus on spiral review, fluency, and the like? Do students have choice in their homework? These are just some reflective questions to consider. Remember, homework shouldn’t be assigned when you want it, but rather when students are ready for it.

Teacher as Learning Designer


This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post, an internet news and commentary website. The Education section features updated on college, teachers, and education reform, where I regularly contribute. View Original >


The term “teaching” holds cultural images and schema that many us quickly tap into. I encourage anyone to google “teaching” or “teacher” and see the majority of images that pop up. You will most like see an individual at the front of the room, pointing to something on a board while talking to students. We know it isn’t like that all the time, and we also know this doesn’t work for our students. Many teachers have been pushed into a role where they are not being utilized for their expertise and skills. Through highly standardized curricula and pacing guides, teachers are told exactly how to teach, rather than being empowered to differentiate instruction and create engaging learning environments to meet the needs of their students. How do we not only clarify what teachers can and should do in the classroom and re-frame this conversation on the role and expertise of a teacher?

We use many terms to describe the work of teachers. From curriculum designer to facilitator of classroom work, there are many roles that teachers take on in the class. I believe there is one term that encapsulates and re-frames the work teachers do in the classroom:

Learning Designer. You might notice the clear parallel to the role of game designer. Just as game designers have a unique skills set and aptitude for designing games, teachers have specific skills and knowledge for designing learning. This term also reframes the role and expertise of teachers.

Teachers must intentionally think about the “big picture.” The objectives of the instructional unit are set and teachers must guide students to those objectives with creative, research-based strategies. Good teachers constantly reflect on their practice and use formative assessment to inform instruction. Through this, they use their creative skills and their instructional tool belt to try and innovate in the classroom, all with the focus of engagement and student achievement. Teachers use their knowledge of best practices and of their students to create instructional environments and assessments that meet their needs. Great teachers are allowing for voice and choice in performance assessments and projects, as well as games and technology. Teachers view the classroom, whether virtual or physical, as a place for possibilities to engage all students.

If you are teacher and you are trying to explain what you do, say, “I am a learning designer!” Teachers need to be empowered with a variety of instructional designers to meet the needs of all students. They need to be honored for their expertise to create creative and engaging learning environments. We can re-frame the concept of “teaching” to truly encapsulate all that teachers can and should do!

Courageous Conversation: Formative Assessment and Grading


This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


With all the education action around Standards-Based Instruction, Understanding By Design, Assessment for Learning, Grading for Learning, Project-Based Learning, Competency-Based Instruction and more, we need to have a frank conversation about formative assessment and grading. This may be a difficult conversation to have.

Educators may end up mourning the loss of past practices and frameworks. It is a paradigm shift, and consequently, we need to have empathy for all stakeholders as transitions occur.

Grades for Everything?
Let me start off by making a clear distinction between two ideas, assessment and grading. They are not the same; they are related. We grade assessments, and assessments reflect learning that has occurred. However, the concept of grading and assessment is complicated, and has further been complicated by the many ways that education reform has manifested itself in the classroom.

Secondly, I want to be honest with all of you about my journey with this concept. When I first started teaching, I utilized both what I learned from my experience in the classroom as a student and from my student teaching. Everything was graded — and I mean everything. Why did I do this? Well for one, that was my leverage to make students do the work I know they needed to do in order to be successful. The intention was good. In addition, this practice was normal for students, and they understood the routine. We know that routines provide stability, so I thought I was doing them a service by continuing to grade everything. I developed an elaborate system of weights to create what I thought was a clear system for parents, students and other stakeholders. Parents understood it, because it was the same system most them had experienced.

So what was the problem? Where do I start? I had no time. I was grading everything. I had so much paperwork because I was trying to give great feedback on everything in addition to grading and inputting the grades. Perhaps even worse, I wasn’t focused on the larger problem. My students cared more about the points than they did about the class. They weren’t engaged, and whose fault was that? It was mine. I was “cattle-prodding” them into doing work. It was punitive. “Don’t do the work and your grade will suffer.” I should have been focusing on my instruction and creating engagement lessons and projects for students to do.

Instead, I was clouding the issue of instruction with grading. I was putting the blame on students rather than on myself. That is a key reflective moment that every teacher should engage in when students are doing the work: What did I instructionally do, or not do, to engage all learners? Not, how can I make them do the work?

Changing the Conversation
What has changed? I don’t grade formative assessments. Yes, you read that correctly. What do I do with them? I document them in the grade book, because I need evidence of progress for students, parents and myself. I give specific, focused feedback on the assignments I collect. I have students reflect on their formative assessments and set goals. I have conversations with students after completing a summative assessment; we reflect on the grade of the summative and how the formative relates to the grade they received on the summative. I facilitate moments where students and I connect a seemingly irrelevant assignment, like a comma worksheet, to a more authentic, relevant and engaging summative assessment. These are all things you need to be doing instead of grading.

Why don’t I grade formative assessment? For one, a grade is supposed to answer the question: “Did the student learn and achieve the learning targets or standards?” If this is the case, then the summative assessment primarily represents achievement. Formative assessment is practice. It is part of the journey. I would feel evil if I punished a kid during practice and then, literally and figuratively, brought that punishment to his or her “A-Game” in the final match (summative assessment). We’ve all seen that happen. A student achieves on the summative assessment, but because of a mediocre performance on the formative assessments, they get a lower grade. Ethically, that is just plain wrong. If a student ended up achieving in the end, he or she should be rewarded for that achievement, not penalized for a failure during practice.

The Payoff
A couple of important notes: I do use formative assessment in two ways. If students don’t do well or complete the summative, I use the formative to create a “progress” grade to input. It is good evidence, and can be used this way. In addition, if I am assessing the 21st century skill of Work Ethic, formative assessment can be utilized as part of that grade. If one of the quality indicators, for example, is “turning in work on time,” then I can leverage formative assessment as part of that grade. You will notice, however, that the intent is different. The learning target is different.

I’m not saying this is an easy transition; it is a paradigm shift for everyone. Parents need to be educated, stakeholders need to be educated, students need to be educated, and teachers need to be educated — and provided the space to wrestle with these ideas. I took a while to get to this place. However, the payoff feels better, both from an instructional and ethics standpoint, and also from a student achievement standpoint. My students often asked, “Wait, so you are only going to reward us at our best, not necessarily when we tried and failed?!?” Then they’d say, “Hmmm, I guess that makes sense” as the idea sunk in.

Is it time your grading practices made a little more sense? Formative assessment is about ensuring equity for all students. Thank you readers for being open to this conversation. Cognitive dissonance is healthy. As I like to joke in my workshops, “If I have made you a little uncomfortable, I’ve done my job.”

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