Ten Tools for Changing the Grading Conversation

While I have tried to move away from giving grades over the last seven years, I have been a failure at it.  Those pesky numbers or letters keep popping up in our classroom, whether I want them to or not.  That seems to be what happens when you work within a public school system that has made the grading decision for you.  For the past seven years, I have written about how to move away from grades, but what if that is not an option?  What if grades are a part of your duties and you have to give them no matter what?  And let’s face it; assessing students through grades is easy; put a number/letter on it and it tells the whole story for you, or so we think.  Put a number/letter on it and surely a child, or a parent, will know exactly what we are communicating and how they are doing.  And yet, that is not what happens within most traditional grading; kids don’t know why they get what they get, they feel they have no control, and parents aren’t aware of the full story.

I have to come realize that while I can pine for a gradeless system, where we do not place children into such boxes, in the meantime I can work within the confinement currently presented and change the conversation itself.  So rather than focus on trying to remove grades completely, I can make sure that the ones I am in charge of giving are actually meaningful, as well as controlled by the students, providing us with another tool for giving the learning back to the students.

We start by breaking down our learning targets whenever possible, and while this sounds incredibly formal, it is more of a pointed conversation.  What are we learning and why are we learning it are questions that students should be able to answer, even if the answer to why is to be better human beings.  Students have a hard time taking ownership over their learning process if they have no clue where they are headed.

We then discuss ways to get there.  As often as possible, students need have to different pathways to reach their learning goals.  While full personalization of product would be lovely, I am not able to provide that for my students at all times.  We then look to the five tenets of choice as ways to incorporate more personalization.

Students must know themselves.  We have two central questions we pursue as an English class all year; who am I as a reader and who am I as a writer?  Both of these lead to the self-reflection and discovery that students undertake.  After all, I need each child to know themselves well enough to know how they actually need to grow and also to find the motivation to become better.  That will not happen if I make the same goal for each child. It is also telling that many of my most resistant learners do not know who they are as learners.  How can we expect them to grow if they don’t even know who they are?

We know what the end assessment will be.  We have to discuss with students and help them understand what our grade level work reads like or presents itself as, otherwise we are asking students to shoot their learning into the dark and hope it sticks somewhere.  So actual student examples, modeling, and shared conversations have to be present during our learning as guides to the students.  Make it accessible without your direction so they can access it at any time.

We change our language.  Two years ago I adopted the “Best draft” terminology from Kelly Gallagher and have not looked back.  Often students will hand in their “best draft” rather than their final product.  Final product means exactly that; final, no need to revise, revisit, or rethink.  But “best draft” means that it is unfinished, that there is still work to be done, that even if the assessment is attached to it, it is preliminary at best and can be molded by their own efforts to change their learning product.

Students assess themselves first.  For big projects, (and I need to do it more) I will not assess it unless a child has first.  Otherwise, my voice is what they will conform to rather than their own reflection on where they are on the learning journey.  I need them to do the hard thinking work of breaking down their own skills and then seeing what their strengths are and how they need to grow further.  They, therefore, need to understand the rubric, the terminology used, as well as how they CAN grow.

They come up with a next step.  While I focus my feedback on the one next step, they also need to focus on what they are working on next and how else they will grow.  It is not enough for them to place themselves into an assessment category and then do nothing about it.  Every child needs to set the next step goal for themselves and then come up with a tangible plan to pursue it.  This will be a major focus for me next year as I am still trying to figure out how to do this best with teaching 130+ students.

They direct their learning.  Part of our learning journey is figuring out how they learn best within the confinements of our time, our environment, and the curriculum we do need to explore.  So who do they work best and where in the room do they work best are parts of their self-assessments, not just a number or a letter grade.

They take ownership over their assessment.  While the number (we are standards based) is not the description of them as a learner, it becomes part of our conversation.  We must go beyond handing out numbers or letters so that students can understand what it means to create work that is at a “2” or a “3” and then move beyond that even.  Making the number or letter something that is in control of the students changes their own classification.  No child is a “2” in our classroom, the specific work may be at a “2” level; there is a big difference there.

They want more.  My students know that their score, which is often selected by themselves, is just a part of their assessment because they are consistently provided with feedback either through a rubric, written out, or a conversation.  Very rarely, except for on our spelling packets, are they just given a score with no further explanation.  That means that they know that the number is merely a symbol of something larger and not the only designator.  They know that there is more to the story.  In fact, they get so used to this that if feedback or reflection opportunity is not provided that they ask for further clarification.  This is an indicator, in my eyes, that they see how little the actual number/letter symbolizes and need more information.

The thing is with grades, they are a tool like any other.  It is when we let them dominate our conversation when they become the only thing we discuss that we lose kids in the process.  Grades were not meant to be easy, they are meant to be a conversation starter and so it is up to us to start having those conversations if we want students to truly have ownership over their own learning journey.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

6 thoughts on “Ten Tools for Changing the Grading Conversation

  1. Pernille, yes these grades frustrate us all.

    Like how you believe in giving students ownership of their personal assessments and supporting them in directing their learning.

    Displaying 3 huge posters in our classroom: : WHAT; WHY; HOW support teaching and learning in our room. We constantly refer to them. In fact, students are now independently referring to these questions and constantly questioning our learning….this makes me question it too and certainly keeps me on my toes.

    For personal improvement, we call it ‘raising the bar’.
    To help students think more about where they are currently ‘at in their learning’ and where they would like to move to, we use a ‘learning bar’.
    We physically have a long bar that we hold at eye level (this represents
    where a students feels they ‘are at’ in their learning. They raise the bar a bit higher to just above their heads. They then pair share ( or individually conference with their teacher) what they might need to do to raise their learning bar and how they might need to go about this. They write down these reflections and goals which are instantly and seamlessly created. Fascinates me how every Year 4 student wants to raise their own learning bar and they actually enjoy thinking about this.

    Sometimes they ask me if I think they are raising their bar? I respond by saying “What do you think? Please explain what; why and how….

    I was absent from school last week. The teacher covering my class was surprised and quite taken aback when one of my students raised her hand and questioned “WHY are we learning this?” 🙂

  2. Pernille, I’m invested in what you’ve written – I’ve been there, and am doing that. 😉 I’ve found that the language can totally be changed to revolve around learning when ALL the feedback is narrative in form (even if it’s feedback such as a screencast of their writing). I work in a system that requires grades (7th grade ELA / public school). So I provide comments in those online grade book boxes instead of numbers or marks. I make sure parents know what it will look like and, more importantly, the reasons WHY. During our last week of the quarter, the students and I come up with one (albeit still arbitrary) letter to represent their reading and writing at that point. I know you are working on so very much right now, but if you’d like to get to fewer or no grades (until our district moves to standards-based grading, I’m going to stay “gradeless”), I’ve blogged about it prolifically under this tag: http://geniushour.blogspot.com/search/label/Grading Enjoy your summer!!

  3. It would add another thing in the day to complete, but when students self-assess, I wonder if anyone asks Ss to rate the overall project for the next year’s Ss. “I’d do this again” or “I’d recommend this” and why. Just thinking. Great article- I think finding an easy-to-use and easy-to-read learning continuum grading system will be game-changing for ed to get away from letter & number grades.

  4. Pingback: Diigo Links (weekly) | Mr. Gonzalez's Classroom

  5. Wo, Pernille! I am reading Hacking Assessment and many of your ideas are meshing so well with what I am learning. I feel that I have let my students down with the letter and number grades in my first 5 years of teaching. But I guess it has to be a gradual shift and I am gung ho to do as much as possible to get kids self assessing and understanding better the why of the grades they are getting. Thanks so much and keep on writing about your journey 🙂

  6. I agree with everything said here about what is important to include in the learning and assessment process. I feel I was doing that with letter grades and I’m doing it now with our standards based grading system. To me, we should be pushing for THESE changes, because apparently many teachers do not do these things. We have to have an evaluation system; there is no getting around this. So, I say we keep letter grades, and work on getting educators, students, and parents to understand the importance of these added elements. What difference does it make if we switch to numbers (everyone equates them to a letter grade even when told not to- because that is what they know) or to a symbol system, as my district has? We label things as LP=limited progress, SP=steady progress, and MG=mastered goal. First, these are even more subjective than letter grades. Second, the report card has so many objectives worded in ways many parents don’t understand that most parents have given up even looking at the report cards online, which is the only way they see them. Most students never look at their report card online. (We can check who has viewed it.) So, I think our letter grade system was much better and more clear than this. As a mom of a 21 and 17 year old, I can also say as parent who has seen how colleges look at GPA and applications for scholarship depend on GPA, I’m concerned by doing away with letter grades, unless the college systems are going to do away with them too. How can kids be expected to never have letter grades until college? Is that making them college ready? I guess I just don’t feel the problem is in the letter grade. I feel numbers and symbols carry the same problems, AND then high schools are translating those back to letter grades for GPAs anyway. Am I the only one who sees how goofy that is? Why not just keep letter grades and get everyone on board with using them more appropriately, as Pernille so eloquently describes?

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