School supplies are back in stock at the stores, fall flavors are being advertised, and teachers are posting their classroom decor on social media. All signs point to back to school season, and if my nightmares of being late on the first day are any indication, we are in full swing.
As teachers gear up for a new school year, many are considering the move to a proficiency or standards-based grading system. Entire school districts are moving in that direction, and some teachers are actively making the choice to blaze the trail and bravely take it on in their own classrooms. Last year, I made the decision to try out this type of system in my class. It wasn’t mandated by my district (yet), but some other teachers had done it with great success. The philosophy behind it made sense to me, I had done my research, and I made the decision to use a proficiency-based scale, align all my assessments to standards, and go 100% summative in my gradebook. On top of all that, I had to find a way to make this work within a traditional, letter-and-percent system.
It was an undertaking, to say the least. The task itself was daunting, especially in the last few weeks of summer as I tried to work out all the major pieces and minor details before school started. I spent a lot of time messing around with the scale, the assessments themselves, and trying to figure out how I would communicate this new, different system to families. Through the process, I had a lot of support and help from other teachers, my Twitter PLN, and my administrators. I’m super thankful for all of it, because without their support and advice, I would’ve struggled so much more than I did. And even with that, making this shift was still difficult and stressful. There were times when I felt like I had no clue what I was doing, and to be honest, there sometimes still are.
But because of my experience, I wanted to share some of the most important things I learned in my first year. I recently had a conversation (via Twitter) with someone just starting out, very much in the same position I was in one year ago. Through that, I decided that I would put together a quick guide to adopting a new assessment system, drawing from my own experiences last school year.
1. Start with your why.
This goes for so many things in education, but it’s especially important when you make big, systemic changes in your classroom—like with assessment and grading. Many students and their parents are familiar with the traditional system and it’s comfortable for them, so you’re going to have to communicate this process very well. I found that when I started by explaining why I was making the change and why I thought it would accomplish a better learning environment, it gave us some common ground from the get-go. My goal in going proficiency-based was to give more specific feedback on where students were in their learning process, and to ensure that the grade being reported reflected their academic ability on a given standard. When I explained why this system was better suited to give accurate feedback, many families and students were able to see the value in it. I also had to explain the 100% summative piece, aka why I would no longer be grading homework or ‘practice’. Here again, I started with why I would do such a thing and why it would be more beneficial for student learning. By the time I got to explaining how it would be done and what it would look like, we had some even footing and many were already on board with the change.
2. Get to know the research.
If you’re familiar with this type of assessment, it’s highly likely that you’ve read and considered the research that is out there supporting it. It’s so important to be well-informed when you’re going into this type of change, simply because you will be better equipped to implement it effectively. It can also help you wrap your brain around how it might look, and help you more clearly see the philosophical reasoning for it. If you’re in need of a mindset shift, say your district is mandating this change, or if you just need some places to start, I highly recommend reading some of the resources below to help you see the value in this movement.
- [Book] What We Know About Grading: What Works, What Doesn’t, and What’s Next, Guskey, 2019
- [Book] Grading from the Inside Out, Schimmer, 2016
- A Century of Grading Research: Meaning and Value in the Most Common Educational Measure, Brookhart et al., 2016
- The Association Between Standards-Based Grading and Standardized Test Scores as an Element of a High School Reform Model, Pollio & Hochbein, 2015
- The Benefits of Standards-Based Grading: A Critical Evaluation of Modern Grading Practices, Iamarino, 2014
- Grades as Valid Measures of Academic Achievement of Classroom Learning, Allen, 2005
3. If you’re working within a traditional letter-and-percent system, know how you will scale it.
Just as it’s important to know why you’re making this change, you’ve definitely got to know how you’re going to it. Personally, I chose to report each standard or learning target as its own separate “grade” in my gradebook. Each grade was worth 10 points, and I used a proficiency scale that looked like this:
- Proficient (you met the goal) = 10/10
- Approaching (you’ve almost got it, but are missing something) = 8.5/10
- Need Support (you’ve got the basics, but not the depth) = 7.5/10
- Beginning (you don’t know how to do this yet) = 6.5/10
- No evidence (you haven’t submitted anything) = 0 or incomplete
There are so many different ways to do this. I decided to go with 4 proficiency levels, but I’ve seen it done with 3 and 5, too. It truly depends on the way you feel is most appropriate based on your research and philosophy. The major piece that needs to be acknowledged though, is that you want students to have more ability to succeed rather than fail. I’ve caught some criticism for not having a failing (F) grade in my scale, but realistically, I don’t know what failing a kid accomplishes other than discouraging them. I don’t believe that aligning the beginning mark to an F will help my students. If they don’t have it yet but are putting in the work to learn it, they’re demonstrating persistence and willingness to learn. Which is exactly what I want them to do. If they are consistently at that beginning mark, it’s time to explore intervention options and ways to support them.
4. Create rubrics.
This is another one that can be done in so many ways. Single point rubrics are fabulous, and I am a fan of this method, but it’s not the only method. Personally, I like to involve the students in the creation of my rubrics.
Right before summative assessments are due, or before we get into working on them, I will work with my whole class on creating our rubric. I will read the learning goal(s) or standards to them as a class, and we will discuss what it means, in their words. As they share, I type out their definition. After we’ve determined what it is, I’ll ask students, “What does it look like to meet this goal? How will you show you are proficient?” And as they tell me, I populate the rubric. This not only creates specific ‘look fors’ in each level of mastery that you can use, but it also creates buy in with the kids, and clarifies their current level of understanding before it is assessed.
5. Have a plan for formatives.
While I don’t report a grade on homework or formative assessments, I still give feedback. The first, and best, thing I did was to ensure all the formatives were aligned to a standard or learning target, and that those ultimately led to a summative assessment on the same goal(s). I did this, no joke, by typing the I can statement in the header of the documents. That way both the students and I were able to see the goal for that assignment or task, and I was able to offer specific feedback on that particular target. I would write things like, “You’re approaching this goal right now; you need to offer an explanation on how the text evidence supports your claim to meet it.” It streamlined the process, and allowed students to reflect on their progress between formatives, leading all the way up to the summative. The coolest part of it was actually watching them learn and grow because I could see the difference between their formatives, and many of them noticed it too!
6. Get ready to communicate.
The system is new. Unfamiliar. Different.
All things that are scary for students, families, and you. Be ready to answer questions and provide information. I sent out a letter at the start of the school year and explained the system at our back to school night. And remember, start with the why.
7. Allow redo’s.
This type of system lends itself to redoing work. The goal is for students to learn and make progress. If they haven’t met the goal by the summative assessment and they want to revise, let them. Chances are, they took the feedback you provided and are going to apply it. Which is the goal after all, right?
8. Ask students for feedback.
One of my favorite things I did was ask students for feedback on the new system, after they had gotten more comfortable with it. If you’ve read any of my previous work, you know that Google forms are my friend, and I ask my kids to give me feedback at the end of every unit. This was no different, and I wanted to know how they, the most valuable stakeholder, felt about the new system.
What I received from them was absolutely amazing. They were brutally honest, no holds barred in their commentary. And I totally appreciated it. The information they provided allowed me to make some changes to the way I gave feedback, the way I reported it, and the system itself. For example, I was originally reporting the I can statements in our online gradebook by just typing it in straight from the rubric. This made sense to me, but my kids shared that they couldn’t ever remember which essay or project went with which standard. I hadn’t even considered that before doing it, and I never would have if I hadn’t asked them! I also never would’ve gotten to read amazing comments like these…
- [A grade’s purpose is] To tell you that you are either really smart or you failed horribly. The grades don’t help you learn anything. They just tell you what you did and and don’t give you any improvement suggestions.
- We are all still young and our minds will progress but we are all still trying to learn and figure out these standards. Just because we weren’t born with insanely smart brains doesn’t mean we won’t have a smart brain in the future. If you are giving someone a bad grade because they don’t understand something is just going to make want to try less. [Responding to “What should a grade tell you?”]
- I feel giving a grade is like shaming certain people and praising others. I feel like the grading system should tell you what to do to succeed instead of just telling you that you didn’t succeed.
- It should tell you how exactly what you did well on, you need to improve on, and be able to make you want to improve.
- How well you’ve done on a project and assignment. Not just percentages, but the grades should also give you some feedback so you can get better at a lesson or skill.
- To be honest I don’t know. The teacher should be giving you feedback and if you have a couple errors, it shouldn’t be like 10 points taken off. Grades should be suggestions and things to work on and not just a letter that makes you frustrated.
And my personal favorite…
- The purpose of a grade is to do certain stuff to get a letter.
There are many aspects of this shift to consider. It is a big, systemic change that will not only affect the way you assess, but the culture of learning in your classroom, too. It will be a lot of work and it will be frustrating at times. You will face adversity, and will likely feel some negativity. It will be hard. If you have the ability to work with a team or partner, do it. If you don’t have one in your district, please reach out. My Twitter handle is @Mrs_Giordano, you can DM me there or email me at email@example.com, and I’ll happily chat with you any time. I would love to help!
The most important thing to remember is this—what this shift will do for your kids and their learning is so incredibly worth it. The time and effort and stress will absolutely pay off, and you will see growth in your students so clearly. It’s hard, but you got it.