Grades Should Reward Students At Their Best

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 >

Grading is hotly contested issue. Should we grade students? When should we grade students? How do we work through the culture of grading? What about students who only care about grades? There are no easy answers, even though there are many opinions, players, and deeply held beliefs. Personally, I would like to see education move completely away from grading, but I know this will take time and require deep reflection on our educational experiences and the educational experiences we want for our students.

So how can we move forward on this journey to a place where grading is a thing of the past? I think it really comes down to this tenet of learning: reward students at their best, and don’t punish them in the learning process.

Whether you call this standards-based grading, mastery-based grading, or even competency-based grading, it really doesn’t matter. It all comes down to a honoring the belief that our students can and will learn. The pacing may be different, the path may be different, and the role of the teacher may be different for each student. Through clear and transparent frameworks for grading (mastery-based, standards-based, etc.), our students know what excellence looks, sounds, and feels like. Our role as educators is to move our students to a place of educational achievement. Shouldn’t a grade reflect that? A grade is an indication of what a student learned, not how he/she tried and failed. We need to ensure that our grading systems reflect this. If we grade students when they try and fail, rather than when they succeed, our grading practices do not match our mission as educators to help our students succeed. The same is true for averaging grades. These send mixed messages to students. On the one hand, we say we believe in student achievement, but in practice the grade does not reward that.

When we started moving more toward this model at a school I was teaching, we had to have critical conversations about this, where all stakeholders were involved. Our continued message to all was this: “We will only reward students are their best, and not punish them at their worst.” Many found that hard to argue with. Who doesn’t want to be rewarded at their best? Who doesn’t want a chance to try again? Who doesn’t want to be rewarded for learning rather than punished for mistakes and failure in the learning process? We continued to document and monitor our students in all assessments, but grades were rewarded when students showed mastery. Here failure and mistakes were honored as steps in the learning process, not used as punishments to force students to do work through antiquated grading practices.

The journey of learning is full of failures. In my ASCD Arias publication Freedom to Fail, I write about how grading systems prevent failure from being a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow. Our students deserve the chance to solve problems, take risks, and, yes, sometimes fail—but always in safe ways. If we grade everything, we are not honoring this. In fact, we are doing the opposite. We are punishing students. We are not meeting the needs of the whole child. Grading can determine whether or not a student feels safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. We can also reduce students’ anxiety and make them healthier if we don’t grade everything. A grade should reflect what a student learned, so it should never be set in stone. Grades must be flexible to allow students to have the opportunity to learn again. Grading policies that reward students at their best create students who are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged!

4 Tips to Get More Out of Rubrics


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 I work with educators on their professional development needs, rubrics frequently come up as something that teachers want to understand better and be able to find quickly and easily from a variety of sources for immediate use in the classroom. Often, however, rubrics found on the Internet are not of good quality—they may not be grounded in learning targets or the language may be too vague and confusing for students. The good news is that there are many great resources and tips out there to build your own rubrics. Here are some ideas to start.

Use Common Rubrics. For some students, school is one of the few stable routines in their young lives. Let’s support this safe and supportive culture by using common rubrics across subject areas or grade levels. This will help to ensure that each teacher is looking at student work objectively and lets students know that the expectations are the same regardless of the classroom. These common rubrics might be based in content or even 21st century skills. Students will appreciate these common expectations and common language around learning.

Decide Between Checklists or Rubrics. I used to fall into the trap of having too many numbers in my rubrics. I listed different numbers of sources, sentences, and so on, under each level, from approaching to exceeding a standard. Numbers don’t indicate quality. Focus on quality indicators when creating rubrics. However, if students need to have a specific number of something as a nonnegotiable, then create a checklist for them. Ask yourself, is this better on a checklist or a rubric?

Use Them! Rubrics are useless unless you use them. Why do students often throw them away or lose them? Because they don’t see the value in them as a learning tool! It is critical to have students use a rubric for an entire curriculum unit, project, or even over the course of a year. Use rubrics to set goals, provide peer- and self-assessment, and reflect on learning. Through intentional and meaningful use, rubrics can become a tool that students see as invaluable.

Focus on Learning Targets. Unless you are truly assessing creativity, it may not be appropriate to list creativity on the rubric. Similarly, neatness may not be appropriate if it isn’t directly related to the content or core discipline you intend to assess. Make sure you focus on learning targets, which could be standards or specific criteria, when you create the rubric. Articulate what the learning will look like in terms of approaching, meeting, and exceeding standards.

My biggest recommendation is to collaborate with others to create rubrics that are specific to your school, district, and learning targets. Whether they are state, Common Core, or 21st century standards, some of the best rubrics can be developed in-house. Use these tips as well as books from ASCD to support your work in building the best rubrics.

Competencies Builds Better Assessment Practices


This post originally appeared on CompetencyWorks, a group designed to support the development of a community of people knowledgeable about competency education. View Original >


Competencies have the potential to truly shift assessment practices in the classroom. If you took a sampling of the current assessment practices, including grade-books, you would see a variety of system in place. From elaborate weights and point systems, to standards-based and rigorous, assessment practices rub the gambit. With a competency-based assessment system, we have the opportunity to create exemplary, equitable assessment practices for our students.

Objective Targets – Competencies are hinged on targets in the content area. When designed well, they are aligned to state, national, or common core standards, and explain clearly the evidence needed to master. The competency promotes evidence of learning, regardless of how the learning is shown. Because of this, students are allowed to show learning in a variety of ways, because the competency isn’t hinged on the product of learning, but rather what needs to be in that product. Teachers who use competency-based grading system must truly understand what evidence of that learning is. In other words, the target must be clear. When teachers are creating assessments, they aligned to objective targets, not subjective products. With this, we can be confident that the assessment is accurate and objective, regardless of product.

Embedded 21st Century Skills – Districts and schools across the nation, and internationally are quickly embracing 21st century skills as a critical learning parter to content standards. From critical thinking and problem solving, to communication and collaboration, these skills are transferable across content areas and learning environments. Competencies must articulated these skills, and, more importantly, thereby leverage them as crucial to the assessment process. When teachers create and plan assessments aligned to competencies they are targeting 21st century skills. They are assessing them, and including evidence of those skills as well as the content knowledge.

Freedom to Fail – Much of our current assessment practices are still anchored in antiquated grading of practice. Much of the work that occurs in the classroom is formative, intended to check progress of students, encourage differentiation, and give targeted feedback to students. Why is it often graded? I know where this comes from. As teachers, we need leverage to encourage student work, but this is the wrong way to go about. What happens if a student does mediocre, but then performs well on the summative assessment? When the formative is counted in the grading, then the summative, which is supposed to show mastery of competencies, is negatively impact. This is bad assessment practice. It does not reward students at their best. When we embrace Competency Based Assessment, we reward students at their best, and allow them the freedom to make mistakes and improve along the way.

As schools and districts continue to adopt competency based assessment systems, they will be forced to wrestle with old, and often inequitable assessment practices. This work has the potential to be a catalyst for assessment reform that serves all students, rewards them for rigorous work, and honors them at their best.

Tame the Beast: Tips for Designing and Using Rubrics


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 >


Rubrics are a beast. Grrrrrrr! They are time-consuming to construct, challenging to write and sometimes hard to use effectively. They are everywhere. There are rubrics all over the web, plus tools to create them, and as educators, it can overwhelm us. Rubrics are driven by reforms, from standards-based grading to assessment for learning. With so many competing purposes, it only makes sense that rubrics remain a beast to create and to use. Here are some (only some) tips for designing and using effective rubrics. Regardless of the reforms and structures you have in place, these can be used by all educators.

1) Use Parallel Language
Make sure that the language from column to column is similar, that syntax and wording correspond. Of course, the words will change for each section or assignment, as will the expectations. But in terms of readability, you need to make sure that the rubric can be easily read from left to right or vice versa. In addition, if you have an indicator described in one category, then it needs to be described in the next category, whether it is about “having” or “not having” something. This is all about clarity and transparency to students

2) Use Student Friendly Language!
Tip #1 hints at a larger issue. If the students can’t understand the rubric, then how do you expect it to guide instruction, reflection and assessment? If you want students to engage in using the rubric, they have to understand it. Make sure the language is learning-level appropriate. If you use academic language or concepts, then you’ll need time to teach students those meanings and concepts.

3) Use the Rubric with Your Students… Please!!!
You have to use the rubric with the students. It means nothing to them if you don’t. We’ve all had that time when we gave students the rubric and they threw it away, or the papers lay across the room like snow at the end of class. In order for students to keep a rubric, and more importantly to find it useful in terms of their learning, they must see a reason for using it. Students should understand that the rubric is there to help them reflect, self-assess, unpack, critique and more. Use it as a conversation piece during student-led conferences and parent-teacher conferences. If students and stakeholders use a rubric, they will understand the expectations and their relevancy to learning.

4) Don’t Use Too Many Columns

This has to do with organization in general. You want the rubric to be comprehensible and organized. We’ve all been in the situation where we feel like it’s a stretch to move a criterion in a rubric across many columns. Perhaps there are just too many columns? Pick the right amount so that the criteria flow logically and naturally across levels.

5) Common Rubrics and Templates are Awesome
Avoid rubric fatigue, as in creating rubrics to the point where you just can’t do it any more. This can be done with common rubrics that students see across multiple classroom activities, and through creating templates that you can alter slightly as needed. Design those templates for learning targets or similar performance tasks in your classroom. It’s easy to change these types of rubrics later. In terms of common rubrics, students need routines, and what better way to create that routine than with a common rubric for a department or grade level? Students feel more confident when they go into different classrooms with the knowledge that expectations are the same. The easiest rubrics I have seen are used commonly for practices that all teachers work on, such as reading, writing and 21st century skills. Figure out your common practices and create a single rubric your team can use.

6) Rely on Descriptive Language

The most effective descriptions you can use are specific descriptions. That means avoiding words like “good” and “excellent.” At the same time, don’t rely on numbers, such as number of resources, as your crutch. Instead of saying “find excellent sources” or “use three sources,” focus your rubric language on the quality use of whatever sources students find, and on the best possible way of aligning that data to the work. It isn’t about the number of sources, and “excellent” is too vague for students. Be specific and descriptive.

These are some useful tips for rubrics, and I’m sure you have many yourselves that come from your experience as educators. One of my favorite books for rubrics is Creating and Recognizing Quality Rubrics. It has helped me refine my rubrics and work with teachers to refine their own. It has great examples and non-examples, as well as a rubric for rubrics! Funny, huh? There are many books and resources out there to help you create rubrics, and many rubrics that are great. However, I encourage you all to not only create your own in order to practice and improve your abilities as educators, but also to avoid adopting a rubric instantly. Consider whether is has to be customized to fit your needs and, more importantly, the needs of your students. Be critical of the rubrics out there, but at the same time use the resources that are already available. Please share your best practices with the community!

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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