Thoughts On Grade Reform: What Does A Grade Measure?

When it comes to grade reform, I still and probably won't ever consider myself an expert. I've read a lot of books, I've tried a lot of things, and I've been lucky enough to be able to document and discuss it all very publicly. When it comes to what is the best practice I have a few core beliefs I keep returning to:

  1. Teachers are at their best when they collaborate and share ideas. Not only can we learn from those who teach the same grade and content as us but we can learn as larger cross-curricular communities. 
  2. I don't believe grade reform is one size fits all.
  3. I believe there are some essential conversations that need to happen regarding grading practices. 
One of the essential conversations I think all educators need to have more is what does a grade measure? I don't think this is a one and done conversation, I don't think that once you "reform" your practices you get to check this conversation off your to-do list and move on, I think this needs to be constantly on the radar of teachers because what a grade measures is essential to every aspect of lesson design and planning. 

In most public schools, grades are required, and while many colleges and universities have ways to allow for alternative grading systems, our students and parents mostly see grades through the traditional lens of being a measure of what comes next. But what do those letters mean? What are they a measure of? 

So much of what I used to grade was compliance: did you complete it? did you turn it in on time? did you participate in the discussion? And while none of these behaviors were anywhere in my standards that was the real grievance here: none of them were measured as individual skills. None of them were reported in a way that I allowed me to then tell a student or parent: this is where you struggle and this is where you excel. Whether you determine that Standards-Based Grading or Portfolio Grading or Reflective Grading works best for you is a whole other beast of a conversation to have but something I wish more teachers would get behind is delineating grades to show what is truly being measured. 

Rubrics often do this, but a rubric attached to an assignment with no conversation about it or no time to review it with students will result in students only looking at the averaged total score. A rubric on its own changes nothing, to make grades a tool of learning requires a circular pattern process of setting a goal, working towards that goal, getting feedback on where you are towards that goal, and making the changes needed to meet the goal. 

Often as teachers, we know what the points mean when we grade out of total points, but how often do we communicate that with students? Even in classrooms that are Standards-Based, I have seen students confused about what a grade means or what it is measuring. I know personally when you go standards-based in a school where few others are standards-based you have to work extra hard to get students to understand the process but if they don't understand how you grade how is what you are doing a tool for learning? 

I started this post by saying I think there are conversations that need to happen more and the one that weighs heaviest on my heart is: What does a grade measure? What does a grade mean?

I don't think this has to look the same in every classroom, I personally teach English Learners and AP World History and my grade books are different based on the needs of my students, I know that it is not one size fits all. But I do think there are two big things we can all do more of to help make grades a tool for learning. 

1. Delineate grades more to show what each number truly measures. And make sure to have conversations before, during, and after the assignment is done to help students understand how to meet those measures, where they are at, and where they need to improve. This step will help make grades a tool for learning. 

2. Make sure students understand how you grade. As I said before, this can be particularly challenging when you implement grade reforms in a school where the majority of teachers are sticking with traditional grades but if you want grades to be a tool for learning and not just an end result, students have to understand what is being measured, when it is being measured, and how it is being measured. You have to teach them how you grade when you move to non-traditional practices, not just review the syllabus at the start of the year but actively and consistently check that they understand how you grade. Because if a student does not understand why or how they earned a B in your classroom what would make them work for an A?

As I've said before, I am not personally convinced that this must look the same in every single classroom. I also think that as teachers explore these concepts it is important that we continue to discuss what works, what doesn't, what challenges we face, and create a culture of collaboration where we share resources, ideas, practices, and challenges. 

John Hattie's research shows that Collective Teacher Efficacy (when a school staff believes it can collectively accomplish great things for students) is the most impactful practice teachers can do right now to increase student achievement but collective teacher efficacy means we need to tear down our classroom walls and work together with a belief that the hard work will impact student achievement. We need to put aside our egos and have tough conversations and I think one of the most important ones we need to continually come back to is: What does a grade measure? 

What do you think? I'd love to hear from you, share your thoughts in the comments. 


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