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Grading, Assessment, Student Achievement

October 31, 2011

Reading Susan Brookhart’s new book, Grading and Learning: Practices that Support Student Achievement, has me thinking more deeply about assessment and grading.  I am enjoying her insights into the use of formative and summative assessment.  In addition, her book, How to Assess Higher Order Thinking Skills, is an excellent resource to help a teacher work through building effective assessments that measure development of critical-thinking, problem-solving, and creative-thinking skills.

In her current book, she delves deeper into the relationship between information for feedback and information for reporting, two types of assessment information.  I like the way she pulls together these ideas into her venn diagram on page 8 (Figure 1 is my summary of her venn diagram).  Her diagram is richer than my condensed version, but no doubt you get a good sense of the relationship between all the assessment data that a teacher collects on a student’s achievement.  It clearly illustrates that assessment is more than end-of-unit tests and quizzes.  There is a plethora of data that teachers can and should collect about their students.  Some of it impacts achievement directly (performance on tests) while other data (attitudes, talents, behaviors, and dreams) impacts achievement more indirectly.  All of the data is relevant to helping a student reach his or her full potential in school.

Figure 1

In the book, she asks the reader to reflect on his or her own experience with assessment and gading in school.  What influences do our personal history with assessment and grading have on our attitudes and our practices as teachers?  Have our experiences blinded us to the experiences and feelings that students have with classroom assessment?

Brookhart draws a very direct correlation early on.

For grading to support learning, grades should reflect student achievement of intended learning outcomes.

What a novel idea, grading that supports learning!  For most teachers, grading is the end result of a learning episode.  As teachers, do we think of our grading practices as supporting a student’s learning?  What if teachers used all the reporting information (Figure 1) as a lens into a student’s understanding of core concepts and then did something with the information that helped a student achieve mastery of the concepts?

Here is another wonderful statement in which Brookhart weaves a tight relationship between grading, learning outcomes, and student achievement.

Grading on achievement, with a cohoerent system of instruction and formative assessment deeply aligned with the criteria for achievement, can lead to students’ developing a deeper and more self-regulated sense of responsibility than the use of grades as external rewars and punishments for behaviors. (bold is my emphasis)

Figure 2 represents a way of weaving together Brookhart’s ideas on standards-based grading.  She points out that there must be tight alignment between a state’s standards, a teacher’s learning targets or outcomes within a discipline, and the assessments the teacher uses to establish a student’s grades.  The state’s standards or Common Core should be used as the centerpiece for curriculum planning, a guide for instruction, and a blueprint for classroom assessments.  Teachers in independent schools that do not follow the state’s standards or the Common Core, would still have to use a set of standards as a guidepost for developing curricular learning goals and assessments aligned to those goals.  In the end, standards-based grading implies that a system of grading is established that supports learning with all elements tightly aligned (Figure 2)

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Figure 2

Of course the implication in standards-based grading is that teachers clearly explain the learning outcomes to students and what they need to know and do to achieve success or mastery of the outcomes.  With regard to reporting, a teacher should be clear about how the learning outcomes map to the standards.  This is all part of a teacher being able to help a student understand what he or she is supposed to learn and be able to do.

Brookhart writes,

Only when standards, instruction, practice and formative assessments, and individual graded (summative) assessments are aligned can you being to consdier your grading system standards-based.

If we want students to be motivated to learn and confident in their ability to master the content we place before them, then I believe we should make them partners in the assessment process.  Standards-based grading is one method to achieve this end.  Formative assessment, assessment for learning, is a significant part of a standards-based grading model and requires the teacher to use assessment data to inform instruction and help the student understand where he or she is on the learning journey.  In addition, a standards-based grading model seems to call forth a more active roll for students.  Grades are not a punishment for having failed to learn, but more an indication of which standards have been learned and at what proficiency level.

Brookhart contends that standards-based grading supports a student’s internal motivation to learn.  I find this last quote from her work to be most powerful,

Internal motivation is all about the student’s beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and actions.  It is not about the teacher.  The teacher is responsible for grading, but it is the students who do the learning.  Grading practices and policies can either support students’ feelings of self-determination, self-regulation, and self-efficacy, or they can inhibit them.

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