Rethinking Grading: Meaningful Assessment for Standards-Based Learning
By Cathy Vatterott
(ASCD, 2015 – Learn more)
Reviewed by Michael DiClemente
If you are a teacher, it’s inevitable that you have been involved in conversations about grading practices. Just recently I attended a department meeting where we were talking about assessment of student work, using rubrics, and how to grade writing assignments.
The conversation with my fellow teachers took an unexpected turn when we began to talk about a student’s behavior and effort in relation to assessing their work. As a newer teacher I did not really voice my opinion, but I couldn’t help but look at the rubric and think there is no section for a good kid who tried hard.
Cathy Vatterott uses the first chapter of her book to look at current grading practices. She discusses the history of grading and the notorious bell curve. One of the ideas that really left an impression on me, especially because after much contemplation I realized it is true, is that the current use of grades “has led to a school culture that often places more value on compliance and working than learning.”
In the traditional grading paradigm, when teachers grade everything, the grade means nothing. When teachers combine so many things into one rating, many nonacademic factors cloud the grade – the picture becomes muddy and not reflective of learning.”
As the book continues, Vatterott shares reasons why we need a new grading system. This is a difficult pill to swallow, mostly because she’s calling for drastic change in a practice that is deeply embedded in the traditional education system. But it’s hard to ignore her arguments.
What is the purpose of grading?
One of the first things Vatterott has us ask ourselves is “what is the purpose of grading?” It seems obvious as we discuss this that it is a measure of student learning. However, when we look at actual grading practices, we notice a fairly common trend; much of our grading is based on behavior, student effort, and, let’s be honest, sometimes whether we like the student. This of course should not be the case.
Teachers have choices. We can stop grading everything students do. Learning tasks can be graded, monitored, or given feedback without grades. Grades are not necessary for learning, but feedback is. In fact, feedback has been shown to be one of the most effective strategies to improve learning. Student progress and mastery are driven by nonpunitive feedback.”
So, what does standards-based grading look like? Not everything should be graded and grades should not be affected by behavior. Our measures of student progress should be based on a series of non-punitive formative assessments that allow students to try and fail.
When the student is ready, a summative assessment is done to show learning. Deficiencies in learning can be made up with a clear plan of action agreed upon by student and teacher. It is the summative assessment that is the grade.
A fundamental shift in grading
As you can see, this system changes school is some very fundamental ways. Convincing students, teachers, administrators, parents to buy in will be very difficult. In the current system, for example, students can be penalized (down-graded) for not doing homework even if they perform very well on assessments. On the other hand, in this new grading system we will have to instill in students the value of completing assignments that aren’t “graded,” but are essential for moving forward in our learning.
It is critical that students see the relationship between feedback, formative assessment, and summative assessments as progressive.”
The fourth chapter of the book, “What, How, and When to Grade,” is the real heart of the theory. If you read just this chapter, you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed by the whole process. The information in this chapter addresses the real crux of the issue: the need to change perceptions around grading so that students (and parents) realize that every assignment before the summative assessment has value because it is preparing the student with the skills necessary to meet the standards being put forth in the final assessment.
Homework and retakes
I will not discuss what is said about homework because you can go to Vatterott’s previous work on the subject. However, I will briefly mention what is stated about “retakes” because the analogy used is one of my favorites in the book. Vatterott writes: “Drivers are not restricted by how many times they took the driver’s test and their scores are not averaged together. A lawyer’s license to practice law does not indicate how many times he or she took the bar exam.”
The same analogy works for teachers’ exams as well. I know we all work with some great teachers who did not pass the exams their first time around. Imagine if that great teacher was denied the opportunity to work with children because “retakes” were not allowed.
Upgrading our grading practices will be very challenging
The final chapter leaves the reader with an idea of what standards-based grading will look like and how to integrate it into their practice. Vatterott gives both success stories and some cautionary tales. She gives no false hopes of a system that is perfectly executed by all. What the reader is left with is the notion that education is a dynamic and fluid field that must use the available research to better serve our students.
A revolution in education is happening. Teachers and administrators are reexamining grading practices and thinking outside the box like never before.”
With that said I must say that this system requires immense support by teachers, administrators, and support staff in order for it to work in a school. I can not fully envision how standards-based grading is implemented on a day-by-day basis, and would love the opportunity to spend some time in a district as an observer to see what this looks like in practice.
As an educator who strives to use research-based strategies to effectively teach all my students and have them succeed, I recommend reading this book. Rethinking Grading has us do something we all need to do: think and reflect about our practice.
Michael DiClemente is a sixth grade Social Studies teacher at the Andrews Middle School in Medford, Massachusetts. Michael has a master’s degree in history and is involved in the local historical community. Michael has become increasingly involved in the National Council for the Social Studies and the Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies, and is currently coordinating efforts to restart the Merrimack Valley Council for the Social Studies. Check MiddleWeb for Michael’s other reviews.
Those of us then serving on the HSD 1J Board of Directors, i.e., the school board, were somewhat stunned to learn recently — via letters of protest and/or appearances at school board meetings from/by students, teachers, parents, a USAF officer, two professional journalists (who are alums of the Glencoe journalism program), and other Glencoe graduates — that although the District had been able to backfill some of our cuts, including some athletic programs that had been consigned to fund-raising, high school student newspaper advisor stipends (and thus the newspapers) remained on the cut list.
The high school community, the current Board and former Board members, and I suspect the entire District community, would like to know why…
John Peterson, a local trial attorney and fellow Board member emeritus (we both declined to run again after two four-year terms ending June 30th) frames the issue well in his letter of July 28, 2011 to the current Board…
From: John Peterson
Sent: Thursday, July 28, 2011 2:17 PM
Subject: Plea for Journalism
July 26, 2011
To: Hillsboro School Board
Re: Cancellation of Journalism Advisor Stipends at High Schools
Dear Board Members:
It is with some considerable disappointment I address you on this subject once again. After receipt of grateful news the State of Oregon would be providing slightly more funding than originally projected, we had a discussion of where to “backfill” budget cuts already planned. I then made the statement such decision-making should be pursuant to a prioritization of deserving programs. I urged programs supporting our academic curriculum should be of the highest priority. My failure was in not insisting we have a debate then and there about what we believed as a board should be funded once again with these unexpected revenues.
I apparently placed too much faith in the belief that anyone with an educational background would recognize that the school district is first and foremost an academic institution. It was with great dismay the next word I received was that our district administrators had decided non-academic athletic stipends were apparently to trump the stipend for academic faculty support and supervision of journalism. The budget document does not require administration to spend allocated money as it might appear in the document. The funding of stipends is entirely a decision of administration unless the board specifically directs a reversal of a decision made. It is just such a reversal I urge upon you.
No one enjoys high school athletics more than I. However, that is not the issue. We should be ashamed of ourselves in the decision to fund any non-academic activity before we assure that those traditional and excellent activities directly supporting and complimenting our academic curriculum are first served. Are we or are we not an academic institution above all else?
As the sports editor of my high school newspaper I can attest it was one of the most enriching educational activities of my life. Concise writing, persuasive writing, deductive reasoning, appreciation of access to a broad working vocabulary were but a few of the skills acquired from my experience. Organization of thought and words to state a point succinctly and accurately is a skill honed well in the pursuit of a journalism experience. Writing under time deadline and pressure is yet another. Confidence to interview others and speak for and against and defend positions is likewise fostered by an experience with journalism. I was certainly impressed by the young lady from Glencoe who eloquently explained to us the disappointment over loss by her and many others of the ability to continue to develop their journalistic skills. I found her arguments extremely persuasive when she shared how much of the funding for the newspapers is raised by the student’s own efforts and the large number of students directly involved in the production and publication of a newspaper.
Far more students are involved in this activity than are involved in many of the athletic programs we offer our students. If you want to count heads you would find far more students are served by the journalism advisor than are served by coaching stipends for small team sports. I hate to make this a contest over numbers as I would hope we could fund all stipends to maximize what we offer to all students. But, I feel compelled by our Strategic Plan Mission Statement to make the point that sports coaching stipends should never trump the funding of stipends for traditional academic support of activities such as journalism. The classroom in which journalism is taught and will continue is but a fraction of the learning associated with journalism. The journalism laboratory, where the nitty-gritty real world lessons are learned is in actually assembling and publishing a newspaper.
Why would this school district choose to abandon decades of journalism excellence exhibited by those of our schools that still have a student newspaper? Alas, I suspect principals are not excited with the prospect of conflict possibly arising over issues of censorship which has afflicted some schools in this country. But, this is another compelling reason why we should embrace and encourage student newspapers. It is the very reason we have faculty advisors to instill a sense of responsibility in our students and accuracy in the written word. In my opinion this decision to abandon student newspapers is a “cop-out” on the part of district administrators and high school principals of this district. It should not be permitted to stand.
I can only now speak to you as a concerned patron of the district. I beg this board to reconsider the defunding of the journalism faculty stipend and support the publication of student newspapers. Our mission as stated in our current Strategic Plan is to “Engage and challenge all learners to ensure academic excellence.” Glencoe’s newspaper is a model of academic excellence. With the many student members of newspaper staffs we were engaging and challenging them as our mission statement would charge us to do. Now, we have chosen in this instance to ignore our own mission by elevating funding of non-academic pursuits over those of direct support of curriculum and the classroom. Shame on us! It is not too late to reverse the course and decisions of principals. Abandonment of student newspapers is not chiseled in stone. I remind everyone, demanding accountability and adherence to our mission statement is a board responsibility. In fact, as this board learned from the last two years of involvement in the Lighthouse Project, it is school boards who demand accountability and adherence to their mission who govern the most successful schools in this country. Please direct a reversal of this wrong-headed decision. Do the right thing! Following the spirit and intent of our mission statement is always the correct path to take.