There has been a multitude of conversations regarding assessment and grading practices, focusing on shifting practice that makes more sense not only for the current time we live in but also moving forward.
In a recent survey where I asked about some of the big problems we are facing in education regarding this area, my friend Mike Kleba, a brilliant mind and classroom teacher, shared, “I think assessment is at the heart of the changes American schools will need to tackle in the 21st-century.”
I would agree.
My former principal and Deputy Superintendent, Kelly Wilkins, shared something with me as we were on this journey, which has always resonated. She had said, “How we assess drives our teaching, not the other way around.”
When people complain that teachers are simply “teaching to the test,” I often ask, “What are you sharing as your measurements of success with your community?” If schools are highlighted mainly by how well or poorly they do on tests, teachers will teach to the test.
But not everything that is valued in learning can be easily measured, but what is measured is often what is valued.
Early on in my career, we spent a lot of time rethinking assessment practices, and there were both negatives and positives from that process that I hope to share with you in this series where I wanted to tackle the idea of “Rethinking Grading and Assessment Practices” and share some of those insights. I am hoping to share some ideas, but ultimately, people in schools and districts are the ones that need to come up with the solutions.
This series will be split into four different parts over the upcoming weeks:
Part 1 — Why do we need to rethink how we assess and grade in schools today?
Part 2 — How do we bring communities together in the process of shifting our assessment and grading strategies?
Part 3 — How could moving away from traditional grading to competency-based assessments and a focus on feedback to improve deep learning and enhanced habits for growth and development?
Part 4 — Instead of report cards, what are alternative tools and measurements to better assess student learning and help students assess their own understanding of content knowledge and creation?
Will these four parts solve all problems in the area of grading and assessment? Not even close.
The hope of writing this series of posts is to begin a conversation, not end it. As we ask of our students, adults, and organizations need to grow and get better. I am no exception to that rule. Hopefully, I can add some value to the already ongoing conversations.
Let’s begin :)
Part 1 — Why do we need to rethink how we assess and grade in schools today?
Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to Seth Godin discuss his TEDx talk, “What is school for?” and one of the things he said that resonated with me is that we need to be able to articulate the purpose of school.
As I thought about what my answer would be to his question, the following statement is my driver of what I hope to instill in the groups that I work with:
To help every learner find a pathway to success that is meaningful to them.
What does this have to do with grading and assessment?
Well, if we go back to the Kelly Wilkins statement shared earlier that “how we assess drives our teaching, not the other way around,” it is imperative to understand what we are striving for when we are not only tweaking our practices but in some cases, creating a complete overhaul of what has been done in the past.
What I often say before I make the statement regarding helping every learner find a pathway to success that is meaningful to them, I usually add what I am not trying to achieve. I share that my goal is not to get every kid to college.
When I make those two statements together in both audiences full of educators and parents, I often hear cheering and applause. It doesn’t happen with every person in the room, but I would say the majority.
For some students and their parents, the goal is to get to college, and for some professions, college is the only path. I would never want to eliminate opportunities because of practices that are done in school. But if we are going to address the elephant in the room, for some parents the goal is for their kids to get to college whether they want to go or not.
And I understand that aspiration as a parent myself. I want my kid to have the best opportunities for their lives, and my goal is never to “prepare the road for my child, but my child for the road.” I also know there are so many more opportunities today outside of college than when I was a student.
When I read this article from NPR on “High-paying jobs that don’t need a college degree,” I was struck by this statement in particular:
“The challenge is that in many cases it’s become the fallback. People are going to college without a plan, without a career in mind, because the mindset in high school is just, ‘Go to college.’ “
This resonated on a personal level because, as an educator, it took me six years to get a four-year degree because I spent the first four “finding myself” and figuring out what I wanted to do. With soaring college tuition, there are better ways to figure out what career paths you would like to take than being lost in school.
When I Googled “College Tuitions Getting Out of Hand,” I saw these three results:
Notice the dates on the article?
2016, 2018, and 2022.
Do you think college will go on sale in the next few years? Probably not.
I am not saying that we should deter students from going to college, especially if their dreams need that requirement for the next phase of their lives. It is just recognizing that we should never limit our kids to yesterday’s possibilities but open them to today’s and tomorrow’s opportunities.
My daughter, at five years old, wanted to be a YouTuber. At six, she wants to be a dancer.
She could go to post-secondary for both career choices, or she might not and still pursue both disciplines.
So what does going to college or career choices do with changing our assessment strategies in education? In my experience, the number one argument for why we can’t change school grading practices is that we are hurting students’ chances to attend college.
And yes, there is some truth that grades matter to some college admissions. This will be addressed later in the series. Still, we also have to address colleges use the K-12 system as an excuse not to change their admission process, and K-12 systems use college admission requirements as the argument against moving away from traditional grading practices.
I would rather lead the change for the good of students and society than wait for someone else to do it.
Is this about lowered expectations?
That is the question that will be addressed throughout this series. Are we just trying to lower student expectations by not using traditional grades in reporting?
I would actually say that it is the opposite. The expectation for my kids is that they do better than I did at their age and in their life because they have access to more. I don’t want to limit those expectations to college.
But often, kids are in pursuit of the dreams of the adults.
In a quest for prestige and rankings, and to bolster real-estate values, high schools also like to emphasize the number of their graduates who go on to four-year colleges and universities.
I cringe reading that, especially if you go back to the original vision of what school is for:
Often the focus is on the adults first and the kids last.
But grades are part of the “real world” and a measure of “success.”
Here is something that I want you to consider. As a school-based administrator, I would hire staff to work with students.
Their interview mattered.
Their reference checks mattered.
Their resume mattered.
What they did online mattered.
Their grades, at any level, did not matter.
I know brilliant academics who can’t teach and teachers who did terribly as students and are some of the best teachers I have ever witnessed. The opposite can be true, but the point of the statement is that high grades do not always equate to success.
A little story about my first year of teaching.
Sandy (not her real name) was the valedictorian of my graduating class of educators and had by far received the highest grades of all new teachers. To be honest, it wasn’t even a competition. Sandy had the best scores of anyone in my graduating class by a mile.
I was excited and intimidated when I found out that I would be paired with her in my first internship. I knew I could learn much from her, but I also didn’t want to look bad.
Her lesson design was so intricate and well thought out that anything I had planned seemed too simplistic and likely to fail. Our advisor had asked us to observe each other in the classroom on the first day, and I was excited to see her lessons in action.
The problem was that I never saw them in action because she had a hard time getting and keeping the attention of the students in front of her. She could tell you every theory behind what successful classroom management could look like but couldn’t necessarily implement it. Any educator could tell you that you can have the most brilliant ideas and lesson plans, but it will all be for naught if you cannot connect with the students in front of you.
Yet, if you looked at her grades only, she would be a success. And if you looked at my grades, I would have been considered as close to a failure without failing as possible.
This is not limited to the field of education.
A brilliant doctor with no bedside manner could do worse than a doctor with sufficient knowledge but good patient rapport.
Knowing and doing are both critical in many practices, but without the “doing” the “knowing” becomes moot.
But grades accurately assess what a student knows, which is the predecessor to “doing.”
Not the way we have been doing them in the past.
As an elementary student, I was one of the top three math students every year from grade 1 to grade 8. I could, to this day, tell you about the other two students with whom I competed for that title yearly.
And then grade 9 math came along.
I went from a 95–97% average yearly to 50% in one year and almost failed the class. What happened?
No significant life incidents or outside reasons might affect my performance.
What had happened was a shift in what was graded in math.
From grades 1–8, numeracy was the main focus of what was taught and graded. But starting in grade 9, the content focused more on geometry and algebraic thinking. Things I struggled with from grades 1–8 were never correctly identified as an area of struggle.
Or it might have been.
But I wouldn’t know because I had a 95–97% every year, saying, “Why do you need to read the comments? Your mark says you are a genius!”
Often the feedback that is most needed to improve learning is ignored once we see a “grade,” good or bad. (More on this statement in Part 3)
As shared earlier, the raised expectation for our kids is that they do better than we did, and sometimes “grading” gets in the way of growth and improvement. I don’t think I am unique in this story.
These are just some of the considerations I have had in why we need to shift the way we look at feedback and assessment in pursuit of helping our students find a pathway to success that is meaningful to them.
The reality of this endeavor is that schools can’t do it alone, and my stories and ideas should, as I said earlier, be the start of more extensive conversations within our communities.
In the next part of the series, I will discuss ways to bring the community together to find shared solutions to move our schools forward to best help students. The worst thing we can do is change our assessment practices and making it a “surprise” to our community. We will spend more time fighting and arguing than solving problems.
The solutions have to be created together.
But between now and then, here are some questions to consider to lead the conversation.
Questions for Consideration
1. What is school “for” and how do our current assessment practices serve or stand in the way of our vision?
2. What are some instances in our “real world” where grades don’t equate to success? Or, where are some places where grades do matter?
3. If we shift away from a traditional grading practice, what obstacles does that present? What are some of the opportunities?