Grades as Communication

By Ken MattinglyKen Mattingly

Grades have served many purposes for many people over the years. The general intent, I’ve always believed, has been to represent how students are doing in school. However, there’s often disagreement on the specifics of the grade and exactly “how” it represents student performance. Some feel a grade should reflect the amount of work done by a student. Others view a grade as a representation of when a student learned the material. I would argue that each of these camps are missing out on a key aspect of a grade.

While a grade can tell teachers, administrators, and parents about a student’s performance, if it doesn’t inform the student, then a key player in the learning environment is being left out. If grades are to serve as communication, then they have to address the person that makes the most learning decisions in the classroom — the student. Grades must tell students where they are in the learning process and what they have to improve on.

How can grades communicate this to students? First they must reflect performance on specific learning targets or goals. If students aren’t sure of what they’re supposed to learn, many have little chance of learning it. Yet in my pre-assessment literacy years, I always assumed my students knew what they were supposed to learn. After all, they were there, and I taught it! But time and time again, I was frustrated because my students didn’t perform as I expected. It was because I left it up to those students to determine what the learning intention was instead of making it clear to them. When given the task of trying to guess the learning intention many, if not most, students chose poorly.

The second way that grades can serve as communication is they must report on a scale that students understand and can react to. As I’ve heard Ken O’Connor say many times, there is no way teachers can accurately report on 101 levels of student performance. We have to provide students a scale that contains a manageable number of levels, anywhere from two to seven, that indicate the characteristics of work at each level. When a grade or score is awarded on a learning target, the level it is assigned can tell students how they’ve done and, more importantly, what they need to do to reach the next performance level.

And there you have it! Clear, student-friendly learning targets and a manageable number of assessment levels form the basis of a grading structure that provide actionable information to students. When students know the destination, as well as where they are in the journey, they have the information they need to make decisions on their next steps. We can take our most important players, the students, and get them off the bench and into the game.


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