Grading Practices: My Biggest Challenge

Recently I presented on how and why I have implemented Reflective Standards-Based grading in a secondary high school classroom. This is now my fourth semester of trying it (if I include my summer school courses) and I have people coming in today to observe what it's like but I am hesitant for the conversations we will have because the work is hard. Like, really, really, really hard. I don't want to paint it all to be rainbows and butterflies because while the work feels essential and the grading I do has become more fulfilling there are a number of real challenges that I am not sure how to really fully address.

Challenge 1: Planning

You have to backward map each unit and already know what evidence of learning you would accept from each student. I've given up a lot of the old busy work I used to assign and had to create new lessons that are relevant to the standards I am measuring. It's my fourth semester of doing this and I still don't have it exactly right. Part of this is because I did it on my own and part of it is I am an overachiever. This planning would be more effective, less time-consuming and far less draining if I did it with a group. If I had a PLC group ready to take this journey with me I would have saved myself a lot of time and a lot of heartaches. Having even just another set of eyes on everything would help me ensure the first time that the work I ask the students to do truly aligns with the objective I am asking them to reach.

Challenge 2: The Culture of Grades

Everyone told me the hardest group would be my traditional D and F students, I was told they would abuse the system and not do their work and I'd see no change. While there are still a few whose habits and work ethic are unchanged by these grading practices, they were not my most reluctant or most challenging group. It is my honors and AP students who hate the system the most. I am generalizing here because some have said they find it better than traditional grades because it measures what you've learned and are capable of above anything else but my AP and Honors students have grown up in a system that has given them points for everything: you finish every page of this packet? 100 points. You wrote an extra sentence on the essay? 25 points + 5 points extra credit! You brought in tissue boxes for the class? 50 points!

Now before you become offended - I've done all those examples I listed above and more. I have been just as guilty of the game of points as everyone else. When I look back at when I taught middle school, I am fairly certain I was the worst offender.

My AP and Honors students have created a culture of completion rich with homework groups (where everyone does one page and then shares a picture of their completed work with the group to copy) and a black market of homework completion (where students get paid to complete each other's homework.) They do it in class too, the minute they are assigned something they see only as a point value they are dividing up the workload, finding the answers online, or any other trick they can come up with to be more efficient at earning those points.

Reflective Grading then asks the students to go back and explain what they learned, how did they learn it, and make choices about which assignments best display what they have learned. They have to explain how the work in class relates to the objective. Often the complaint I get is "I did all this work and you aren't going to grade it!" and as much as I coach them and remind them, they refuse to see value in the fact that I view all their work, give feedback and praise, and then absolutely love to see what they pick to show me as their evidence of learning.

So far, I have been able to get students to trust me (through good old-fashioned building relationships) and trust the process (though some complained to the very bitter end about how hard it is and how much thinking they have to do.) But what makes this process even more challenging is when other teachers publicly criticize my practices in front of students. 

I am a huge fan of skepticism. I value opinions and ideas that are not aligned with my own. I appreciate when my thinking is challenged. One of the things I was not ready for was a culture where teachers devalued the work I was trying in front of my students. Oof. Let me tell you the one sentence honors and AP students to lack faith in you: "Well in my 10 years of teaching I would NEVER have done what Mrs. Byars is doing."

That's fine. You don't have to try it. We are all different and different is great. And it is fine if you want to question my practices, your questions will make me a better teacher in the long run so bring it on. But everyone please just stop questioning what your colleagues are doing in front of the kids, that is not showing true concern for the students. If you are really concerned for the student then you go talk to that teacher about their practices, you don't put them on blast in front of the students and make the students lack faith in their teacher. That only hurts the students. By questioning or speaking negatively about a practice a colleague is doing in their class you are creating a culture of mistrust. Stop it. This work is hard enough. 

Challenge 3: Am I asking too much of my students? 

Am I asking too much of myself?

My students are so used to the culture of points and many of them have become incredibly good at it. They value a certain grade and the points it takes to get there. This takes their goals away from learning and makes their only focus "how many points do I need to...". When I feel like my grading practices aren't working it is typically because I feel like it is too much for the students. Maybe they aren't really ready for this massive shift? The culture I have to break through, the mindset I have to change are all incredibly hard work, fulfilling yes, but really hard. I try and tell myself that this process is better designed to prepare them for college and career - they need to apply the learning and explain their reasoning each and every time. They have to back their reasoning with evidence, each and every time.

But is it worth it? Are there ways I can add these elements to my class without fighting against the norms of grading practices as they have always been done? Can I shift their mindset and develop these skills without having to tear down an entire system of grading?

As I was hitting my head against the wall and wondering if I had made a huge mistake, I decided to ask the one group I can get honest feedback from each and every day: my students.

What My Students Say:

"I like the reflection process, and I like that this class is different than other classes. This class actually proves that we understand and have learned the information, not just remembered facts for tests. I like how we can revise, giving us another chance to learn the information."

"I do not like how all the work we complete during class does not influence our grade and our grade is only determined by our reflections. The work is a lot and I feel like it should influence our grade more"

"I like how we are able to learn what we need to know without feeling the pressure of everything being graded in a harsh way. The reflections are also a good way to go back and revise what we have already learned."

"I do not like how the reflections are the only things that graded because I finished my other assignments on google classroom and they dont get graded."

"I like how it's not based on individual assignments but still relies on them. I like how we receive an objective and we need to explain how we know the information in the objective and provide evidence of work relating to the objective. It truly shows what you know and what you remember."

My Thoughts For Now...

I would be lying if I didn't tell you all I am worn out. I would be lying to you if I said 100% of my students got it and loved it. I would be lying to you if I said no student ever tried to cheat this system. This work is hard, it is challenging, it requires constant reworking and attention. But I am a better teacher than I have ever been, my lessons are more aligned, engaging, and relevant than they have ever been, and my students are learning more than they ever have.

What I have to decide is what I value most in my class. I told myself when I started I wanted students to value learning, I wanted the class to be truly student-centered, and I wanted students to develop a growth mindset, I wanted a culture of "I don't know yet." So many of the changes I have made have helped me build the class and class culture of my dreams but I would be a liar if I didn't share my challenges with you. The work is hard, and somedays I want to go back to points and packets, but ultimately I know that this work is far more fulfilling for me and far more beneficial for my students.

What do you think? Have you tried different grading practices? Do you have questions or concerns about what I do? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments. 


  1. Thank you so much for your honesty, and sharing the pro's and con's that you and your students have found in this system. I am so sorry that there are those that do not support you in front of the class, but in the end, you are focused on the students and what is best for them, and that is what matters. Don't let those people devalue the amazing things you are doing. As a teacher, I am thankful for all the things you share with us, as it inspires me daily to try new things for my classroom and students. Keep it up!!

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read this. I appreciate your support and encouragement.

  2. Ha! Just before reading your post, I was writing the introduction to my next book, which will be titled Make Them Score It. I finish typing for the morning, check my Twitter and @brianharrissays had sent me this post in a tweet. The funny thing is, I was just writing about this very thing in the intro to my book!

    You're right it is not easy. And I haven't been nearly as brave as you, going completely to reflective, evidence-based grading. I have a mix of the old and the new (though I plan to go all-in on a gradeless classroom this upcoming school year).

    But what you're describing at the end of your post, how meaningful it is, how fulfilled you feel as a teacher, all I have to say is just . . . YES! YEEEEEEEEEEEESSSS! That's exactly it. It is all about the return on my investment (ROI). There was little to no ROI with traditional grades and marks. Any ROI I experienced was when I incidentally had a genuine learner on my roster. When I shifted my instruction from teaching students my subject to teaching student how to be learners in my subject area, I rediscovered the joy of teaching!

    I have a partner in crime at my site, and you're right that it's better in a PLC. I'm lucky that way. I am also lucky that I don't have haters to the degree that you do. I'm sorry.

    At least you can say this: you have one more teacher in your corner. One more fan! And I'm not that far away either (I teach at Hillcrest High School, off Pierce Ave. in Riverside).

    Keep going! I am sure it will get easier as you immerse yourself!

    1. Your book sounds like it will be amazing. And yes, it rekindles the joy of teaching when you find ways to make the focus learning and not the game of points. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts.

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