Starting 2020, we are highlighting L+D’s core value of bias towards action. In the past, we have written articles that highlight issues, challenges, or opportunities, and we often write about those issues at a high level, and I love this, but this month, I am getting into the nitty gritty, and I am hoping that many of you reading this article will forward it directly to teacher or two. This month, I want to take action and share an actual teaching strategy for assessing growth. Why? We travel all over the U.S. to some of the most innovative schools, and one message rings clear. Teachers are not satisfied with traditional grading, and a common phrase we hear is, “We need to get rid of grades.”
Now, I am in agreement with the high level sentiment behind much of this discontent. Grades are often inaccurate, biased, inflated, manipulative, and when this happens, they don’t add much value to the learning process while consuming large bandwidth in the conversation. Having said that, the statement, “We should just get rid of grades” is often used as a way to not act. We, as teachers, know that our school is not ready to get rid of grades, at least not as a first step, so we say this to release the pressure without having to take action to address (grade inflation, inaccuracy, manipulation, motivation, etc…) challenges.
So, it is February 4, 2020, and it is time to act. You are unsatisfied with grades, but you exist in a system where you feel you must give them. Here is a strategy that allows teachers to completely transform the function of grading, differentiate your assessment and you don’t have to change anything with the overall system to do it. Sound too good to be true? You be the judge.
The basis of this strategy is that you evolve classroom assessment to assess growth instead of a static moment in time based on an arbitrary or universal metric or standard.
Step One: Take baseline data. If you teach math, this means give a pre-test. If you teach english, have students produce a writing sample or have them pre-test. Good teachers are already doing this.
Step Two: Show students how a rubric works. Use the pre-test, writing sample, etc...you have given to show them how to assess their baseline skills. Show them how to create and write a dynamic X and Y axis on a rubric. Keep your rubrics simple. One skill assessed with four possible outcomes to start. Because we have programmed students for so long, you would be surprised that many high school students still do not really understand how a rubric even works, let alone how to break down a skill into component parts:
Example of pre-test rubric:
Step Three: Once students understand how a pre-test rubric works, they can both grade themselves as well as write their own in the future. The above example rubric is an example used for a pre-test. For sake of example, let’s say that a student scores 70% on the pre-test (Developing on rubric above). This information sets the stage for step four. It should be noted that this rubric is formative, and not entered into the grade book, but the student and teacher are using it to understand current(static point) skill ability.
Step Four: Writing the growth goal rubric. Collaboratively, students and teachers now write a growth goal that will be graded within the traditional grading system (A through F).
Example of Growth Goal Rubric:
You get the point. The power of this is that the growth rubric doesn’t need to be the same for every student. Some students can grow more and quicker than others, and you can adjust this and work with students to evolve and grow in their ability to set appropriate growth goals. For some struggling students, being able to achieve an A grade for the smallest growth is what helps them turn a corner. Juxtaposed, the student that scores 88% on the pre-test cannot grow 20+ points. “Hey, that’s not fair” - more on this later.
Step Five: Students can now grade themselves or they can collaborate on more complex skills that are not as objective as accuracy on a math test. For example, consider the following example:
In this example, if the student pre-tested in the (Developing Category), imagine the conversation and thinking required to write the growth goal rubric. What does it look like to grow in this area? Is it just about the quantity of details? If yes, you can see students writing growth goals that challenge themselves to add quantity of details.
Think about the thinking needed to even write growth goals. This process provides so much formative feedback for teachers to see how their students understand their own learning. It provokes conversations about how to measure growth, learning and requires reflection. It also aligns the grades that students are given with specific learning targets which is what teachers want. Every part of the above example is adjustable. Instead of an F for the above category, you could consider (no growth) a C or a D or whatever you deem appropriate. Instead of 4 details, it could be 7 or it might not have anything to do with quantity. The point is that now instead of numbers that are arbitrary, you are discussing how those numbers relate to the types of skills you are hoping students can demonstrate.
Ways to Extend this Strategy
As you build a culture of growth in your assessments, you can vary and riff off this structure. You can give a 100 point writing assignment where 50% of the grade is your assessment of writing using a standard like the 6 Plus 1 traits of writing and 50% of the grade is the student growing in areas they identify as important to their writing based on past samples. What isn’t up for negotiation is that if students want to grow, they have to capture data about what the baseline is, and what growth looks like, and they need practice, language and examples of how to do this.
My goal as a teacher using this strategy was to get to 100% of a child’s grade being focused on growth, and that when I looked at the growth goals students wrote, I was satisfied that they were identifying skills and markers that they needed to develop, and that they were pushing themselves hard to grow.
Not surprisingly, when students are grading their own growth, they defaulted to being too hard on themselves, and they set goals that were not realistic. They were more likely to set too high of a goal and give themselves a C as opposed to setting a low goal and then getting the easy A. By putting this thinking in their hands, it changed the narrative. Instead of me giving them an A or an F, it changed to how they could grow enough to earn a grade.
We didn’t get rid of grades, we got rid of the narrative that they are given by an outside, arbitrary, disconnected adult passing judgment and replaced that narrative with a system that rewarded growth from any starting point equally. The low student who improved got the same A as the high achieving student that maintained and pushed the upper limit. For this high performing student, it provoked the conversation about how can growth be measured once you reach the top of the rubric? One of my best students decided to set a growth goal in writing that pushed them to have their writing read by strangers, and they measured their grade based on being able to respond to feedback by actual readers.
Is this unfair: Yes. If you define fairness as objectively measuring the ability of students in your classroom using the same measuring stick for all students, then yes, this system is unfair. But, look at your current grading system, and I would imagine you would find that it is both unfair and lacks transparency. Fairness in grading is not the goal. Learning and growth is the goal.
How should you start? Don’t overhaul your entire classroom grading at the end of the first semester. I tried this in 2004, and unsurprisingly, my Principal and my students’ parents were confused, unclear and many provided feedback that changing the entire system in the middle of the year was unfair. Whoops, they were right. Instead, start with one part of a larger assessment. Have students write one growth goal, and have it be 10% of their grade or 20% of their grade or have them do one small assessment and give them a chance to have their growth define 100% of that small assignment. Keep in mind you are still measuring a moment in time, but you are no longer grading them on the result compared to an impersonal or universal marker. Instead this levels the playing field and focuses on what Carol Dweck describes as a “Growth Mindset”. Most importantly, start small and get to work instead of waxing poetic about “getting rid of grades.”
L+D Staff and Friends
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