How Grades can Actually Improve Student Achievement

Grades are a funny thing to me as an educator. For parents and students, they are the “end all be all” of what happened in my class and what I gave the student. From my perspective as the teacher, they were the “end all be all” of what the student did in my class. These are two very different views of grades, and yet I still feel that grades are an antiquated system that is in need of a much needed update. Traditionally students receive either a letter grade (A, B, C, D, or F) or a percentage grade out of 100%. When a student receives a grade of a ‘B’ or an 84% on an assignment, what does this really tell them about their understanding of a concept? The student may think they are above average or that they have the information mastered, or more likely, they think, thank God I passed. In my opinion traditional grades like these tell the student and parents little about their understanding!

These types of traditional grades only lets the students know their overall performance on an assignment or assessment. It does not let the student know what they have mastered, where they need improvement, and most importantly, how they can improve. Of course if you have a high achieving student who spends time in metacognition, then they will analyze their personal understandings and determine where they need to improve. And as educators, we know that all of our students do this (did I lay the sarcasm on thick enough?). So how can we as educators use grading in a different way that will help students to improve and also take ownership of their learning?

One way is to shift from traditional grades to standard based grades. Standard based grading allows students to see where they need improvement and with some added formative feedback, the students can see how to improve. Standards based grading is not new and you can even view a short video that gives a synopsis here: Basically teachers determine what is important for students to learn or understand, which in most cases come from state standards or the Common Core standards, and then develop assessments (projects, assignments, quizzes, tests, etc.) that would allow students to showcase their understanding. This should sound familiar to many of you if you have read anything from Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins as it is based on their Backwards Design plan.

Next, the educators develop a rubric for the objective that is being assessed. This sounds like a lot of work, and to be honest, it can be. But I feel that this is necessary to ensure that the students understand where they are going, where they are at now, and how to reach the next level. Let’s say that we are a 5th grade, reading teacher in Texas. Texas developed their own objectives known as the Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills (TEKS), so let’s pretend that we are working on TEKS 5.3A – Compare and contrast the themes or moral lessons of several works of fiction. This then would become the goal for all of our students that they would be able to compare and contrast themes from different fictional stories.

Looking at the objective, I would really want my students to be able to compare and contrast. But what does that really mean? Many times educators have objectives with these types of verbs and it is vital that the teachers understand what they mean so that students can work towards them. I would want to sit down with a team of teachers and define what it means to be able to compare and contrast. This is also a great activity to do with educators for all of the objectives they are responsible for, as it allows the teachers to feel more comfortable with the objectives and the expectations that they bring. For help with defining these verbs, I found a great resource that came from the International Baccalaureate program and that you can access here: Now that the teachers have determined the expectation for the students, this becomes the beginning of the rubric. I would set up my rubric in the following manner:

1-2 Points The student is able to identify the themes or moral lessons of several works of fiction.
3-4 Points The student is able to paraphrase the themes or moral lessons of several works of fiction.
5-6 Points The student is able to summarize the themes or moral lessons of several works of fiction.
7-8 Points The student is able to compare and contrast the themes or moral lessons of several works of fiction.

I would then work backwards to determine what each descending aspect would mean. This could be as simples as changing the verb. Look at my example above to see what I came up with. Remember, I do not believe this is perfect, but it would be a great place to start and by working with other educators, I am positive that we could create a working rubric that is of high quality.

The rubric is not enough for a student to receive a grade (now a 4 or 6 or whatever) and know how to improve. Yes, they know the ultimate goal and where they are performing, but it is up to the educator to provide formative feedback to help the student understand what to work on to move up to a higher score. For our example, let’s say a student received a 5 on their assessment covering themes. This lets the student know that they are able to summarize themes, but are not quite to the level of comparing and contrasting. If the student is given feedback that lets them know that they can determine the major points of a stories’ theme, but they need to be able to give an account of the similarities and differences between two (or more) themes, referring to both of them throughout. As a student, I now know that I need to relate the two themes and that I need to practice looking at both themes and determining how they are alike and how they are different. Of course, the student will also need support from the teacher to do this, but at least they are not in the dark about how to improve. Can we say the same thing if the student just got a ‘B’ or an 87% back? I think not! This is crucial to allowing students in on their education. There is no need for a student to have to guess at how to become better, it is up to the teacher to assist in this.

You may be now saying, “Yeah that is great and all, but I work in a school that gives traditional grades and these grades represent GPAs that are needed for students to be accepted to colleges.” I hear you and I couldn’t agree more. But that is the great thing about developing the rubrics; you can then also create a conversion chart to go back to the traditional grading system. One example of this would be the following:

  • 7-8 = A
  • 5-6 = B
  • 4 = C
  • 2-3 = D
  • 1 = F

Or you could format it any other way to meet your district’s grading system.

I will also say that by shifting to a more standards based grading system combined with formative feedback, your parent-teacher conferences and conversations will be much more helpful and worth while. The reason being is that the parents will already know where their student is struggling and how to help them improve. There is no more guesswork as to how to get to a higher grade. It is all in the rubric, along with the formative feedback. Now your conversations with parents can focus on actionable steps that the student could practice or resources to go over to help the student improve their understanding and performance. I also believe that this type of system will allow your students to take more ownership of their learning because there is now a roadmap for them to follow. And isn’t that what we truly want for our students anyways? I know that is a goal for me.

If you have any questions about this, please leave feedback and I will comment back. Also, if you have suggestions on how to improve this system, I would love to learn from you as well. It would be great to hear from an educator who attempts this and then lets me know how it went and what they would modify or change. We can all learn from each other, just as students can learn from our peers. We don’t have to go it alone in our classrooms!

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.


Everything I Know about Formative Assessment, I Learned in Kindergarten

For some reason I was thinking about one of my undergraduate classes today and a question that the professor asked us. He asked, “What would every teacher love to know about their students before school began?” It is an interesting question and I will admit that no one in our class was able to give the answer that the professor was looking for. Of course, all of us in the class had never taught a day in our lives, and were just beginning to learn the ins and outs of education. Yet when the professor gave his correct answer, I don’t believe I totally understood. You see, the professor said that every teacher would love to know what each student knows and understands so that the teacher wouldn’t have to waste time going over material that the student already comprehends. At that point in my life, I truly did not understand teaching and learning and did not appreciate what a teacher does every day. Today, I feel I still don’t totally understand teaching and learning, but I attempt to increase my knowledge daily, and I am beginning to appreciate that answer that he gave years ago.

Just imagine, everyday your students come into your classroom and hand you an index card that shows what each student knows and understands, or if we are using our imaginations, before every student goes to bed, they send you an email or a text listing all of the information they know and just for kicks they also include their misconceptions. Think about the power that would come from that knowledge of your students! You could base all of your lesson plans on your students’ prior knowledge and set up activities for each individual child to ensure that everyone is growing and learning. Of course, this only happens in our wildest fantasies (man, if this is my wildest fantasy, I am a nerdy teacher), and all of our students come with different levels of understanding, different amounts of prior knowledge, and of course distinct misinformation that have created misconceptions that are harder to get rid of than herpes (ok, not my best example, but I hope you get my point). So what are teachers supposed to do? You guessed it; attempt to determine what each student knows through formative assessment.

As easy as it sounds to use formative assessments, I truly believe that this is the area where most teachers are at a loss. When I talk about formative assessment, I am thinking of the following definition: “assessment(s) carried out during the instructional process for the purpose of improving teaching or learning” (Shepard, Hammerness, Darling-Hammond, & Rust, 2005, p. 275). In my experience most educators do not truly understand what formative assessments are or how to use them. I think that this issue for teachers has occurred for a couple different reasons. For one, teachers have to collect so many grades from their students so that they can fill out a report card to send home to parents. These grades usually come from assessments that students take to show what they know. So yes, teachers use assessments all the time, but these assessments are not truly formative assessments because the information that comes from these assessments are rarely used to direct, modify, or improve teaching or learning.

Another reason that I believe teachers do not utilize formative assessments as they should, is because once teachers hear the word assessment, they instantly think of a test or a quiz, usually and unfortunately a multiple-choice assessment. Why? My guess is that this has come about in the age of high stakes testing, where most of the assessments are multiple-choice. So teachers immediately think of multiple-choice tests when the work assessment is mentioned. This is most troubling to me, as there are so many ways to assess students’ understanding than just through tests, especially multiple-choice tests. Think about how much more information you could glean from a student just by talking to them. Weird, right? We are supposed to talk to our students? YES! Talk to your students and find out what they know by asking questions, listening to their responses, and then ask follow up questions to learn even more about your students. There are many different types of formative assessment strategies or models. If you want to learn about other types of formative assessments, David Wees put together a presentation that shows 56 different types. You can find his presentation here.

Even if teachers used the different types of assessments that were in the example, they still wouldn’t be formative assessments. The reason I say this is that it really isn’t the type of assessment that the teachers uses that makes it formative, it is what the educator does with the information learned from the assessment that makes them formative. The word formative is defined as: serving to form something, especially having a profound and lasting influence on a person’s development. So what should educators “form” with the information from the assessments? Their next lesson, their next small group presentation, their next whole-group presentation, the next reading assignment, the next problem they are going to model, etc. Teachers need to use the information from the assessments to improve their teaching, which should also improve the learning occurring for each student. Also, each student will have different needs. I know that you are shocked that all of your students know different things, but why are we not using this knowledge to help all students? There are many excuses for why we as teachers don’t do this for every student, but if we all share the vision of education as being one where all students learn, we should utilize information we know about each student to modify our teaching to enhance their learning.

The teachers who I have worked with that are the best at using formative assessments to enhance their teaching have been kindergarten teachers. Yes, I said KINDERGARTEN TEACHERS. Now I hope you understand that I am not now, nor have ever been a kindergarten teacher. But when I have observed kindergarten teachers, they are the master of formative assessment, as well as some other things (How can you get a bunch of 4-5 year olds to follow directions? It’s a mystery to me). These kindergarten teachers use formative assessment out of necessity, in my opinion. They are charged with getting all of there students to a certain level by the time the school year ends, and each and every student who walked into their classroom started at a different level. They are continuously assessing their students and then using that information to determine what they will be doing, not just the next day, but what activity they will be doing in the next five minutes. I was observing a kindergarten teacher working with a small group of students. The teacher was working with the students on numbers, specifically one-to-one correspondence with numbers and objects. The teacher asked one student how many toy bears were in front of the student and then listened and observed to what the student did and said. I asked the teacher why she was doing this and she said that depending on what the student said and did, determined her next question or the next activity. This, to me, is the picture of formative assessment. The teacher assessed the student’s understanding and then used the information to enhance or guide her instruction.

If you are reading this and not a kindergarten teacher, you are probably saying, well yeah that works for kindergarten teachers, but that will never work for my classroom because [insert reason your room/students are different]. I understand that your classroom and students are probably different, but I believe that we should focus on becoming better educators and focusing on things that we can control (see my previous post called: Why so negative?). I believe that all teachers could learn from kindergarten teachers. Think about the kids that come into kindergarten classrooms, they are 4 or 5 years old, most of them have never been in a school environment before, and some of them have limited communication skills, yet kindergarten teachers are able to utilize formative assessment strategies.

I believe that educational leaders may not be utilizing the knowledge and experiences that kindergarten teachers have to offer. Educational leaders should have kindergarten teachers lead professional development sessions on formative assessments. They can share their experiences using formative assessments to guide and enhance their teaching and their students learning and then have other grade level teachers discuss how they could utilize these strategies with their students. It could also send some shockwaves through your different teams because the kindergarten teachers may be hesitant to present to upper grade level teachers and the upper grade level teachers might be stand offish to learning from kindergarten teachers. These PD sessions would send the message that we as educators can learn from others, even those who teach a different subject or grade level. I think this could be the beginning of a larger professional learning community across grade levels. Learning from other educators is a must and creating teacher leaders is vital to a strong school culture. Learning from kindergarten teachers is a small step in this direction.

Shepard, L., K. Hammernes, L. Darling-Hammond, and F. Rust (2005), “Assessment”, in L. Darling-Hammond and J. Bransford (eds.), Preparing Teachers for a Changing World: What Teachers Should Learn and Be able to Do, Josse-Bass, San Francisco, CA, pp. 275-326.

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.