Ah, grading. It’s the monkey wrench in every teacher’s schedule; a practice that consumes an inordinate amount of our time, contributing to a great deal of stress along the way. Yet, paradoxically, the freedom to cultivate our own grading systems can serve as a powerful symbol of our autonomy. For all of the headaches it causes, grading also exemplifies our professional competence and expertise. It is both a cage and an oasis. 

The Trouble With Grading

In theory, grading communicates student growth and achievement in a consistent, fair, and meaningful way. Or, so we tell ourselves. But what if the reality is different? What if an individual teacher’s grading practices are inconsistent from assessment-to-assessment? What if grading philosophies vary from teacher-to-teacher with no discernible pattern? When a student’s growth and achievement is not actually captured in the final grade, what message are we sending about learning? If the “value” of an “A” or a “C” is so subjective that receiving such a mark confuses rather than clarifies a student’s level of proficiency, what does that “grade” even mean?

Of course, these questions are far from hypothetical, and I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said before. (1) What I do have to offer, however, is my perspective from my own journey. In 2017 I began teaching at the Mount Vernon School during our school’s transition from traditional grading to an entirely different philosophy, known as Competency Based Education (CBE). As  my own grading practices change during this transition, here are some of my own reflections that  I discovered  along the way

Light Bulb Moment #1: “Points for Effort are Pointless?”

I encountered my first clue that something was “off” in my grading system when a colleague asked about a particular assessment that my students were working on in a history class. The assignment itself was nothing out of the ordinary, as students were tasked with reading various historical sources and evaluating their reliability for the purpose of constructing an argument. The problem was that, in addition to awarding points based on the quality of a student’s analysis and thesis, I also conferred points for simply completing portions of this assignment. I was caught off-guard when my colleague asked something to the effect of, “Why do you award points for effort? Doesn’t that inflate the grade? Won’t awarding points for effort complicate how they receive the qualitative evaluation at the end? I think you are defeating the purpose of this assessment.”  I had never even considered these questions and, as I pondered them, I realized she was right.

While I believed my method gave students an incentive to confront academic challenges, in reality, awarding points for effort confused the feedback process by de-emphasizing a student’s actual performance. As our team moved towards a full adoption of Competency Based Education, it was important for our grades not to be misleading, but reflective of their progress towards the mastery of essential skills. Students must understand what mastery looks like and where their skill level stands in relation to a standard. As such, it is imperative to separate achievement from behavior in an assessment system. When I stopped mixing the evaluation of skills with my notion of effort in my assessment practices, students learned more because the grade they received actually reflected their level of mastery. They appreciated the honesty of the new system, and I never looked back.

Light Bulb Moment #2: “Is Proficiency Realistic?”

As Mount Vernon transitioned to CBE, we adopted a new assessment scale designed to communicate a student’s level of progress towards mastery. For each assessment, the teacher would designate the student’s work as “novice,” “emerging,” “proficient,” or “advanced.” The most recent assessments were weighted the heaviest, as they showcased a student’s most recent level of mastery. As the weeks went by, I began noticing something peculiar: everyone in the class seemed to be making progress in their learning. Students actually WERE responding to qualitative, performance-based feedback and discovering how to move towards mastery of skills in the process.

For example, one student (we will call him “Tom”) struggled early in the semester. He consistently received marks of “novice” and “emerging,” for the first couple of months. However, by the end of the class, he had completely caught up with the performance of students who began demonstrating “proficiency” earlier in the course. How did this happen? The answer is simple: he mastered the required skills through a combination of continuous feedback and repeated practice. As Thomas Guskey has pointed out, 100-point grading scales are notoriously inaccurate and biased towards failure. In such a system, the metrics cannot account for the true level of progress a student has attained. In traditional models, students typically get one chance to show their learning and then move on to the next concept with their final grade, an average of these individual moments. With CBE, students have multiple opportunities to show their learning, receive feedback and actually improve, truly learning the material.

During our transition to a “standards” scale under CBE principles, I understood what assessment can look like in a just system. Tom was, in fact, a proficient student because he exceeded expectations of mastery, despite his early struggles.

Light Bulb Moment #3: “Do We All Agree?”

I experienced a third moment of clarity when our team met for the purpose of “norming” our grading practices. Essentially, “norming” occurs when a group of educators view the same assessment, evaluate the same skills, and then discuss how they arrived at their designated grade. In the early days of implementing our NEPAD grading scale (Novice, Emerging, Proficient, Advanced), we understood the importance of consistency and, as such, met as a team to norm student essays. In a Competency Based Education system, it is crucial for teachers to agree upon what exactly it means to “master” or to be “proficient” in a skill. Students deserve a fair, just, and equitable system. If grades vary widely from teacher-to-teacher, the scale becomes meaningless and students see the system for what it is: a fraud. We needed to get this right. 

To my surprise, the norming session revealed that, even early in the school year, our team mostly agreed on what proficiency (as well as the various levels approaching and exceeding proficiency) looked like in student work. Our team leaders had done such an excellent job of designing and writing our learning outcomes that agreement was the rule rather than the exception. Of course there were minor differences of opinion here and there, but our team overwhelmingly agreed on what it meant for a student to “master” a skill and achieve proficiency. What a confidence booster! Other experiences with norming yielded similar results. Even the moments of disagreement proved helpful, as we further sharpened our assessment practices and ensured the consistency of our scale.

Throughout this process, I learned that grading in an isolated environment can be detrimental to the fairness of assessment. Teachers need to practice grading together to ensure they are evaluating the same skills based on the same definitions. Fairness necessarily entails a process of consistent evaluation, and we are better-equipped to help our students if we do so with one voice.

The Challenge

Grading is a touchy subject because it overlaps with larger moral issues of fairness and justice. As teachers, we may worry that if our assessment practices are flawed then we are bad teachers. I was certainly offended and off-put when I began to confront my own areas where I needed to improve. But, once I began to view my shortcomings as opportunities for growth, everything changed. It has not been easy, but the struggle has certainly been worth it.

Can you identify an area of your own assessment practice that needs closer examination? Think about it. Take a sweeping inventory. If so, what is the purpose of this practice? Does it truly accomplish the objective you have in mind? How do you know? Do your colleagues agree? Ask them. Do you agree with one another about what constitutes proficiency for a given skill? 

These questions, though not always pleasant, can mark the beginning of a whole new chapter in your journey as an educator.

Further your own learning with these suggested resources:

Further your own learning with these suggested resources:

Understanding Competency Based Education

New to Competency-Based Learning? Here’re Five Ways to Assess It

Grading for Equity Prologue and First Chapter

1 For an in-depth treatment of these questions, see Joe Feldman, Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms (Thousand Oaks: Corwin, 2019). 

Blog Post by Ben Potter, MV Ventures Senior Consultant and Curriculum Designer


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