How is Grading Working and Not Working in Our Schools?

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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At the Tri-Association Conference this week, I facilitated a five-hour workshop on standards-based grading and reporting.

Just like personalized learning, most agree that traditional grades and marks need to become more transparent, but how to do it and how to maintain the courage to stay the course is incredibly daunting.

  • Many students play the game of school, doing karaoke of recycled thoughts to move on to the next assignment. It is just easier that way.
  • Many parents want to get clear information on how their child is doing, but in ways that are recognizable to their own school experience. It is just easier that way.
  • Many teachers want the individual freedom to determine grading policies and practices without consult of their colleagues. It is just easier that way.

The Five Tensions

But reporting out on what is easy and what is credible are two very different things.

A report card is designed to be a record of student achievement, progress, and development as a learner. As we consider the role of a standards-based report card, we need to balance five tensions.

Tension #1: Honest AND Fair.

For all stakeholders, we deserve candid reporting on current achievement against the standards AND contextual information on progress and the design of the assessment. That is why grading and reporting experts (e.g., Tom Guskey, Ken O’Connor, Rick Wormelli, Grant Wiggins, and Bob Marzano) make the case that there should be separate grades to indicate achievement, progress, process, and habits/behaviors.

Tension #2: Objective AND Subjective.

If we are measuring with an answer key, it is easy to be objective. But when we design tasks that require examination, investigation, and creation — performances that often are judged by evaluative criteria — there is a level of subjectivity in its design.

This is why we need to enlist our colleagues in the design and development of scoring tools that measure what matters. This includes anchoring student work and collaborative scoring to establish inter-rater reliability. And why we need students to understand different levels of quality through conferencing, identifying goals, and self/peer review of work.

Tension #3: Succinct AND Detailed.

Because parents want to understand how their children are doing, sometimes more information isn’t better. Information that goes on for pages or uses short-hand language that is not exactly parent-friendly makes parents long for the recognizable symbol or mark. That is why regular check-ins with a diversity of parents to seek clarity on its helpfulness is needed.

Tension #4: Useful AND General.

What is the purpose? Who are the audiences? How then does form follow function? Purpose of report cards typically are to inform and/or take supportive actions. Audiences could be parents, students, receiving teachers, receiving institutions. Therefore the form should be alignment with desired purpose and audience. A narrative set of comments is different from a transcript of accomplishments with an accompanying portfolio.

Tension #5: Credible AND Feasible.

Ideally we report on trustworthy information based on achievement measured against standards that are transparent. Students know what quality looks like and have opportunities to continue to improve based on those standards.

But the standards also need to be manageable for teachers so that they can regularly report out on information both informally and formally.

Reimagining a report card requires co-creation amongst educators, students, and families to clarify:

  • If standards-based report cards are the “answer,” what was the problem we are trying to fix?
  • How do we create a feedback cycle that continues to elicit responses from all stakeholders to make the report card better?
  • What other problems / ripple effects might reveal themselves as we design and implement those report cards?
  • How do we engage in conversations all along the way with our stakeholders? Clarifying the “why” for standards based grading and orienting folks that are new to the district.
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