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Grading, Assessment, Student Achievement: Revisited

November 1, 2011

Two days after my last post entitled, Grading, Assessment, Student Achievement, I received my copy of ASCD’s Educational Leadership for November 2011.  The title is, Effective Grading Practices.  What a fabulous document to show up on my desk, especially since the lead article was from Susan Brookhart.  Reflections on Susan Brookhart’s new book, Grading and Learning: Practices that Support Student Achievement, was the focus of my last post.

In her introductory article, she lays out a process by which a school or district might go about addressing the question, “should we change how we grade and assess students?”  The point she hammers home in the article is this:

The first task in grading reform is to reach consensus on purpose and foundational issues. (p. 13)

As she points out, we have to have discussions about the messages we want our grades to convey and who we want to receive the messages.

Are grades about what students earn or are they about what students learn?

Strikes me she has hit the nail on the head.

In addition, she cautions schools to not get sidetracked on issues such as;

  • what kind of grades, letter or number?
  • what will we do with late assignments?
  • should we give zeros or not?
  • should we do away with a D-grade?
  • how should we report behavior?

In the end, these are important questions to resolve but not in the beginning.  First and foremost, what is the purpose of grades, what message do we want them to communicate, and who is our audience?  In asking these questions, schools may be challenging their faculty to confront their deep-seated beliefs about grades.

When I think back on my own grading experiences, grades were something “the teacher did to me.”  They were what I “earned” for my work and behavior.  They were not necessarily representative of what I learned.  I received a B+ in 11th grade chemistry at Pio Nono High School in Milwaukee, WI.  Not a bad grade I suppose, but it certainly did not reflect my knowledge and understanding of chemistry.  I got good grades in biochemistry, quantitative analysis, and other courses in college.  However, I did not really understand chemistry until I had to teach it to 10th graders at Trinity School in New York City.  Teaching it to others and researching how to teach it well helped me learn the concepts more deeply.

There is a Japanese proverb;

To learn is to teach

Couldn’t it also be to teach is to learn?

The rest of the magazine is filled with great articles about grading practices.  One of the expert voices on grading over the past five or so years has been Thomas Guskey, the author of the book, Developing Grading and Reporting Systems for Student Learning.  He writes an article in this edition of Educational Leadership entitled, Five Obstacles to Grading Reform.  The five obstacles to reform are:

  1. Grades should provide the basis for differentiating students.
  2. Grade distributions should resemble a normal bell-shaped curve.
  3. Grades should be based on students’ standing among classmates.
  4. Poor grades prompt students to try harder.
  5. Students should receive one grade for each subject or course.

When I reflect on my own grading practices as a science teacher for 20+ years, my grading practices followed all five statements that Guskey sees as obstacles.  Should I be surprised if most of my students were turned off to biology and chemistry, especially those who did not get A-letter grades.

I don’t mean for this post to be a review of all the excellent articles in this edition, but I do want to point out that if you are interested in this topic, start with Educational Leadership’s November 2011 edition, Effective Grading Practices.

Here are some other articles in the magazine:

  • Redos and Retakes Done Right, by Rick Womeli
  • The Case Against Grades, by Alfie Kohn
  • Grades That Show What Students Know, by Robert Marzano and Tammy Heflebower
  • No Penalities for Practice, by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Ian Pumpian

There are other gems in the magazine as well.  If this topic is relevant to your school, I would strongly suggest sitting down and working your way through these articles.

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