Making the Grade: How Best to Assess Student Progress

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Henley Middle School math teachers Laura Emery and Karen Spencer are trying out several new grading practices to better assess student performance. Photo: Lisa Martin.

What does it mean when a student’s work in a yearlong class is summed up by a grade of, say, 89? Does it mean the student mastered 89% of the material, or is there more (or less) to a grade than meets the eye? A growing contingent of Albemarle County teachers are contemplating changes in how they do one of the least satisfying and most important parts of their job.

“Grading is one thing teachers never talk about,” said Lynn Define, a language arts teacher at Western Albemarle High School, “so there’s a sense of relief to be discussing these issues and realizing that we all struggle with how to assign meaningful grades.” Define was one of about 60 teachers who attended a two-day professional development seminar over the summer led by education consultant Ken O’Connor that offered a fresh perspective on the thorny topic. 

Western Albemarle High School language arts teacher Lynn Define attended a seminar on alternative grading practices over the summer and is putting them to the test in her classes. Photo: Lisa Martin.

An expert in assessments, O’Connor challenged attendees to consider the accuracy and consistency of their grading practices by presenting 15 ‘fixes’ to address unfair or inequitable practices, giving anecdotes and real-world examples for each. O’Connor pointed to traditional grading customs such as giving a zero for work not turned in, using an average to lump all forms of assessment into one grade, and assigning grades for homework as practices that produce grades that are not supportive of student learning.

“It was interesting to see the revelations move through the room like a wave as [O’Connor] went through the different ideas,” said Natalie Farrell, lead coach for math instruction in county schools. “The teachers were very open to thinking about how to really communicate mastery consistently and fairly.” Farrell said that teachers surveyed two years ago described a degree of misalignment between their grading practices and their beliefs, as well as inconsistency in grading between even teachers of the same subject at the same grade level, which led Superintendent Matt Haas to emphasize grading practices as one of the division’s top priorities.

“If you think about it, we’ve created a sort of token economy that gives points for certain types of behaviors or evidence, and so everything becomes ‘is this graded’ and ‘how much is this worth,’” said Jenn Sublette, Director of Professional Learning for the school division. “But if we really want kids to be motivated by learning, then we should put an interesting task in front of them and encourage them to master it throughout the year without all of the tokens.”

Trial and Error

A sense of fairness and properly-inspired motivation drives many of O’Connor’s suggestions. For instance, he says, the practice of calculating an unweighted average across all school work over the course of the year punishes mistakes made early in the learning process by lumping them in with later progress and eventual mastery of the material. Similarly, he urges teachers to provide coaching and feedback rather than numerical grades on homework or in-class exercises, as those represent important forms of practice along the road to knowledge, and mistakes should not be a source of stress or humiliation.

Henley Middle School math teachers Laura Emery and Karen Spencer, who also attended the summer seminar, say that for them the new practices just make sense. “As a parent and a teacher, I’m excited about having kids work toward mastery and to have multiple chances to prove it,” said Spencer, referring to another O’Connor tenet of allowing more than one try on a “summative” assessment such as a test or paper. “The feeling of having one chance and it’s over and done is de-motivating for students. There’s also the satisfaction of knowing that this [assessment] isn’t going away, so there’s no enticement not to do it.”

Over at WAHS, Define used to take off ten points each day an assigned paper was late, but found that students who waited out the deadline had no further motivation to even try. Now she assesses no penalty for late work, and says the process is clear. “If a student doesn’t turn in a paper, they are assigned to a student support service called CARE at lunchtime and we talk about the work’s progress, and they attend CARE until the paper is turned in,” said Define. “So they stay motivated.”

Into the Mix

Each of these grading changes requires lots of forethought and subsequent evaluation by the teachers. “We’re wrestling with what do we let them retry, and the logistics of letting them reschedule while still moving forward with content,” said Spencer, “but we can already see a difference in their motivation, knowing it’s not over with just one assessment. It’s about what’s best for the kids instead of what’s easier for you.”

Two of the practices—not grading homework and reassessing students who don’t do well on initial tests—have been implemented school-wide at Henley, along with a change in the grading scale which eliminates a score of ‘zero’ for late or missing work. While some parents may balk at the idea of giving a student any points at all for missed work, O’Connor stresses the unfairness of a zero on a 100-point scale. 

The logic is as follows: Given the 10-point scale of 90 to 100 for an A, 80 to 90 for a B, and so on, the cliff that drops off from an F (below 60) to a zero for late work does not accurately reflect a student’s achievement and makes it harder for his or her grade to recover. O’Connor suggests that a fairer system would be a simple four-point scale where an A is 4, B is 3, C is 2, D is 1, and F is zero, which also removes the awkwardness of a student’s receiving some points for doing no work.  

Some county teachers are also separating grading for mastery of the subject matter from assessments of student behavior such as punctuality, attitude, and conduct. In a 2017 professional paper, O’Connor argues that “[w]hen grades are used to punish poor behavior, the true meaning of the grade becomes unclear because it is now an uncertain mix of achievement and behavior.” 

Henley’s Emery has noticed this conflict in her own grading, even when she was trying to be more balanced in her assessments. “Last year I graded homework based on whether it was turned in and whether the student corrected it, rather than whether they got it right,” said Emery, “but that’s not grading them on mastery, that’s grading them on behavior. Those behaviors should be recorded, yes, but shouldn’t be simply averaged into the mastery grade.” Instead, some teachers advocate for a report card that spells out the patterns, including separate grades for academics and behavior and an explicit “take one, take two, take three” reporting of the progress a student makes toward mastery.

In his remarks at the beginning of the school year, Superintendent Haas stressed “taking the mystery out of grading,” and teachers acknowledge that long-used practices such as the frivolous use of extra credit can undermine student confidence in what a grade really means. “If you give a student an extra credit ‘100’ for things like bringing in a box of Kleenex or getting a form signed, that’s not related to any learning objective,” said Define. “Then your A becomes different from another teacher’s A.”

Lesson Learned

A second cohort of County teachers participated in a similar grading practices seminar in September, and Mr. O’Connor returns in early October for a third summit with teachers. The staff who have attended come back to their home schools and present a summary to fellow staff to spread the ideas and discuss implementation in their own classrooms. “One of the things teachers appreciate most is [O’Connor’s] encouragement for us to use our professional judgement in our grading practices, not to just stick with a pre-defined rubric that may not lead to meaningful grades,” said Define.

Jenn Sublette, ACPS Director of Professional Learning. Submitted photo.

Though some grading practices may be refashioned in the short term, no one at the division is suggesting eliminating letter grades entirely, and all are acknowledging a long and iterative process ahead. “This is not a quick fix,” said Sublette, “but more like a process of collecting evidence about what we’ve learned and how kids respond. We don’t know what it’s going to look like and it may take ten years to fully evolve.”

For the teachers in the trenches, the potential benefits are worth the effort. “We’ve all had our grading practices in place for many years, and this in-between phase is messy, not clear cut and not black and white,” said Spencer. “So, it’s sort of uncomfortable, but we’re willing to be uncomfortable to try and figure it out, because we absolutely believe it will be better for the students.” 

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