by Ken Mattingly
Over the last few weeks a Twitter chat about standards based grading has really caused me to reflect on my grading practices. I once thought I was a pretty good teacher. I instructed my students, assigned homework, administered tests, and derived a grade for each student. This routine played out over unit after unit and became the cadence of my students’ educational experiences. It was the same way I experienced school during my formative years, and was really the only way I knew to run a classroom.
Yet somewhere in the back of my mind was this nagging idea that I was just playing some grading game with my students. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something just said this isn’t right. I’d end each unit with this dissatisfied feeling. I didn’t really know what went wrong or right in the unit. I didn’t know what my students knew and didn’t know. And to make matters worse, my kids didn’t know either.
Into this moment of cognitive dissonance came some familiar names, Rick Stiggins, Jan Chappuis, Ken O’Connor, and Shirley Clarke to list a few. They helped me formulate a set of core components to make my grades have meaning. It took me many years to arrive at my list and get them incorporated into my classroom practice, but it was so worth it. I can now finish a unit and pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of my teaching and my students learning. Best of all, my students can now identify what they did well and what they need to continue to work on.
My list seems so obvious to me now, almost to the point that I’m embarrassed it took me so long to come up with it. The list starts with clear learning targets and ends with grades directly linked to student understanding of those targets. As for the rest of the list, here it is:
1. Clear student-friendly targets
2. Assessments aligned to targets
3. Feedback on current performance
4. Redo/retest opportunities
5. Grades tied to student understanding of targets
This list forms the backbone of my grading and assessment practices now. And while the previously mentioned changes in the knowledge my students and I had of our successes and short-comings are wonderful, it’s the unintended consequences that have actually had the most meaning for us. Students can learn at different rates now without risk of penalty. With redo and retest options, students can continue the learning journey and not be penalized for taking longer. There is no longer a race to the learning finish line. All that matters is that you get to the learning finish line.
Students can make mistakes and learn from them without penalty. Mistakes just become opportunities to provide feedback on closing the gap to mastery. Practice is not for a grade in sports. It’s to prepare for the performance, which is usually the game. Practice (classwork or homework) is not for a grade in my class. It’s just to prepare for the performance, which in this case is the summative assessment. That preparation will often involve mistakes and require feedback for improvement, but that is the real essence of learning.
The final unintended consequence is that I no longer “give” grades. My students are in total control now. Their grades represent the students’ understandings of the targets. You say you’re not happy with your current grade? Well, continue to work on these three targets, and when you show me you’ve mastered them, your grade will improve. Clarity reigns supreme with my grades now, and I can have wonderfully specific conversations with parents about their child’s performance in my class.
My list of sound grading practices has completely altered my relationship with my students. I’m their partner in learning now, a confidante who provides guidance and opportunity for students to master the learning. As I continue to grow in my understanding and application of sound grading, I am able to incorporate more into my practice. This is a journey that began so many years ago and has many more to go.