Rethinking Grading – During the Assessment for Learning Cycle

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Much of my summer reading had me analyzing what it means to be a leader as I work towards being the most effective transformational, instructional, lead learner leader that I can be.  This reflection has resulted in an increased level of self-awareness and the realization that I am about constant and relentless learning, growth and improvement – in all aspects of my life (ask my husband about home renovations!).  Let me be honest – change for the sake of change is not what I am about.  Finding what works to maximize impact and efficiency is what I am all about. I am not sure what came first in my journey – was I always this way or was it the luxury of having the role of School Effectiveness Leader that made me this way? I need to talk more to my family!

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Regardless, there are many areas that this pursuit of continual growth has taken us as a board to.  This summer, reading Rethinking Grading: Meaningful Assessment for Standards-Based Learning on my way to Neys Provincial Park, I made many connections that reinforce the learning that has been happening in SGDSB.  My excitement was reflected in the many Twitter posts from my phone – posts that began a conversation with many of our valued colleagues!

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As a district we know that our goals are to improve student motivation, engagement and belonging.  One area that we have explored deeply is around enhancing our Assessment for and as Learning strategies as these strategies have been proven to positively impact learning by increasing student empowerment over learning. This truly is adaptive work  that we learn as we practice and analyse the impact. It is difficult work.  Some of us are stuck on how to relinquish control in the learning environment (I look at myself and know that I always have a personal agenda!) in order to co-construct learning goals and success criteria, some of us are only using certain parts of the Assessment Framework and are thus not seeing its impact on student learning yet. Others struggle as they are focused on providing feedback, however they have yet to co-construct success criteria and thus, are not using the language of the success criteria to give that precise feedback that allows learners to set new goals. Others have indicated that without a backward planned unit, they simply don’t fully know the learning outcomes will be and what the indicators of success are as sometimes, the outcomes are happenstance.  Whatever the specific challenge that has yet to be overcome, reading Rethinking Grading has me wondering if we might be able to increasingly grow in some of these areas if we dig deeper into our understanding of the Assessment of Learning phase – where educators are determining a grade.  Are we struggling with the Assessment for and as Learning strategies because we are using out of date grading practices where students expect to receive a grade for every task that they do?

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We are well on our way as we have already recognized the need to rethink many aspects of the teaching-learning process (suggested by Vatterott) as we shift from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning. The disconnect for us comes in the fact that we are required to use traditional grades to report to parents and that most learners have been raised in a culture where they require a grade for every task that they hand in to us. Let me be clear – a grade at the end of the unit of instruction is important as it signifies what learners know and can do.  How we arrive at that grade is the key for us – are we using grades that we have collected on homework and practice tasks to determine that final unit evaluation?

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The Use of Grades in the Assessment for Learning Stage of the Teaching-Learning Cycle

  1.  Vatterott argues that “grades reward compliance and punish non-compliance” in an environment where the educator is at the center of learning, and that we need to be shifting to a culture where learning is “driven by student empowerment and mastery of learning” (pg. 26), a shift which is exemplified by our work in moving towards a student centered learning environment.

blog 62.   Further, Vatterott argues that traditional grading does not emphasize learning as the goal, but the attainment of a grade as the goal.  When learning is the focus, cheating becomes a non-issue.

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  1. If we want to instill a growth mindset, grading practices need to reflect the fact that it is okay to make a mistake; ensuring that our actions and practices align with what we are saying to the students.  When we penalize students by grading homework and using late penalties, we are communicating a message that we cannot make mistakes during learning (we are grading them on practice) and thus, it isn’t safe to take risks.
  1. She argues that “learning is defined by the standards – not by what students know, but by what they can do with what they know” (pg 27); thus, we are moving to the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

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(Rethinking Grading, Vatterott)

Compliance with the Provincial Report Card will always exist, however I wonder if we focused less on the attainment of grades during the teaching-learning cycle if students would actually pay more attention to the comment section of the report card. I know that the research states that when we provide both a grade and feedback that learners only look at the grade, but perhaps we can change this over time. What if we wrote individualized report card comments that deeply reflected student learning and growth from their summative rich tasks in the form of precise feedback to help them set personal goals? I know that we have many people who are working towards this! Perhaps we can work within the reporting parameters to reculture our environments (which will take time) so that learning and continual improvement is the focus, not grades. This better future motivates me.

Until next week…Where are you at in your journey to “Rethink Grading?”

7 responses

  1. I appreciate the first definition of leadership! I find for myself that I want what is best for the kids. This means we need to be open to change. I watched “think it up” last night. Although an American initiative it makes me that much more driven to be re-thinking how we do “school”! What I liked about Vatterott’s book is that it aligns with our work/planning with backwards design and rich tasks. We had this discussion on the first pd about grades and feed-back. It is my hope that through honing our feedback skills we will be able to support student learning so a mark is less significant for the learner. It becomes more about the process of learning. I liked the last point 4. “It is about what they can do with what they know” It pushes us as we are looking at developing long range plans and rich tasks. We want that critical thinking happening! We are starting the shift!


  2. Great post! I believe that digging deeper into understanding ‘Assessment FOR Learning is the key in this process, I truly think that as we shift from that focus of teaching to a focus on learning, we will create learners who are thinkers and not just doing for the sake of getting it done.

    The whole notion of grades undermining the learning process makes me really think about the ways grades are often calculated…and what if a student missed handing in an assignment – the effect that 0 might have on an overall mark, can sometimes be quite detrimental, and the student may have shown with all the other work that was handed in, that they are truly capable of meeting the required expectations, but for whatever reason just didn’t hand that 1 assignment in…grades should be reflective of achievement levels, and zeros for missing work shouldn’t over penalize students.

    There’s a neat little chart on the History of grading practices in a 1994 Educational Leadership magazine tilted: Making the Grade: What Benefits Students?

    And what gets me is that it looks like they were on to the whole notion of the impact of feedback way back in 1958…. I know from reading School Culture Rewired, that changing a culture takes time… but man, this is one culture that seems to be taking a long time to shift…


    1. Thanks for your post Kath! The article that you cite is a great read – and yes, the timelines in this piece certainly do instill a need for urgency. I worry that we will struggle to achieve our Board Learning Plan goal if we don’t dig deeply into the notion of grades and grading – as this has a tremendous impact on our “then” – engagement, belonging, motivation and perseverance. This quote resonated “At the same time, no studies support the use of low grades as punishments. Instead of prompting greater effort, low grades usually cause students to withdraw from learning. To protect their self-image, many students regard the low grade as irrelevant and meaningless. Other students may blame themselves for the low mark, but feel helpless to improve (Selby and Murphy 1992).”. Seems that our culture will struggle to shift to one of greater belonging, motivation, engagement and perseverance if grades continue to be the focus throughout the teaching and learning/assessment for learning cycle. This is the part that makes me think about planning – how essential it is that we plan instructional carefully (backward planning) at the start – to ensure that both the educator and the students know what they are “practicing/inquiring about/exploring/connecting/thinking” and then when it is time to actually “show what you know and can do” with what you know. Heidi mentioned that piece in her post as well. I think when we work with students to distinguish these phases of learning (from assessment for to assessment of), the game changes totally around grading.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This has been a question of mine for some time…how do we get more attention paid to the learning skills – as I was reading I had this thought…What if we used the old paradigm to shift the focus? Could we “grade” the learning skills through the assignments; especially the practice ones? Maybe that could be where we start. Your math homework complete and on time gets you “marks” towards your learning skills but the feedback helps to develop your actual math skills??? Just thinking out loud. Definitely something that I want to work with this year as I teach grade 5/6 math and language.


    1. You made me think about how we provide “praise” for effort to encourage a growth mindset, and feedback for the thinking!


  4. I had a transition meeting this past week with a grade 8 student who has a determination to achieve high grades and has a very particular pathway for a career. Interestingly, our conversation was less about the grades itself and more about the learning skills that they needed to work on. The parents were very supportive and could see that the student needs much support in these skills as he has had a fixed mindset. We had a great conversation about how the learning skills were the life skills that will allow them success in any career path, especially if they are 12 years old and quite possibly could change their minds several times. I wonder how many of our “academic” kids are concentrating on learning skills?


  5. Justin Tarte’s blog post “10 signs there’s a grading problem in your classroom” is timely to your blog as well:…%29

    He also recommends some people to follow on twitter and some other resources to read on this topic 🙂


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