At the end of the last school year, my fellow teachers and I compared notes about classroom management, co-teaching models, and student performance. The conversations veered toward grading and participation as we discussed how poverty impacts student engagement. We also shared our concerns with how standards-based models create negative consequences such as proficiency segregation.
Based on those conversations, I wanted to reevaluate my grading structure. I sat down with my colleagues and we began to consider the role of participation grades. We pondered the question: How could we take the rather ubiquitous practice of assigning participation grades and redesign it into something both convenient and transformative? This year, I decided to swap participation grades for assessing future-ready outcomes.
Limits of Standards-Based and Participation Grading
Like any teacher, I want my students to meet learning standards. However, not every student is going to master argumentative writing or SOHCAHTOA (sine over hypotenuse, cosine adjacent hypotenuse, tangent opposite adjacent) to the same degree. There is value in asking students to rhetorically analyze a text, but I have students who are navigating systemic racism, chronic absenteeism, and other inequalities first. Their futures are complex, not just academic.
Many schools are moving away from traditional grading to standards-based models. Although standards-based grading is a step in the right direction, we should be asking whether a mastery of rhetorical devices or quadratic equations adequately prepares students for the demands of the future. I’m not arguing that teachers should abandon teaching and assessing content, but the information is meaningless if not partnered with a skill that has a material backing.
Likewise, the conversation about the weight and value of participation grades in practice is diverse, and the research indicates that the assignment of participation grades is often very subjective. In order to maintain consistency and avoid bias, teachers need to specifically articulate a common set of outcomes for assessing participation—outcomes that are approachable, adaptable, and inclusive.
Since affluence is almost always a predictor of high participation levels, we have to acknowledge how gender and race have serious impacts on student performance. If we assess participation grades solely as the extent that a student contributes to conversation, we risk isolating a majority of our students. Participation is more than just measured academic conversation or “grade fluff.” Participation is creative thinking, adaptability, awareness, empathetic listening, and more. Students will know when participation is arbitrary and that it doesn’t constitute the kind of deeper learning we must facilitate.
Future-ready outcomes (FROs) are a series of learning outcomes aimed at reinforcing skills that students need now, while also preparing them for an uncertain future. I use the XQ Student Performance Framework as a guide. With 13 specific outcomes grouped in five competencies, the framework is designed to be implemented across a wide array of teaching experiences. There are five universal outcomes that all teachers seek in student performance, regardless of content:
- Holders of Foundational Knowledge
- Masters of Fundamental Literacies
- Original Thinkers for an Uncertain World
- Generous Collaborators for Tough Problems
- Learners for Life
Many school districts have developed a framework for FROs, identifying objectives that educators and administrators can collaborate on. Rather than reinventing the wheel, we can enhance our current frameworks by infusing FROs into our grading structures as the standards or benchmarks of our participation grades. By implementing them, we can bring a stronger sense of purpose into our learning that evolves beyond content-specific standards.
When planning, I typically start with my learning outcomes, identifying the standards that will support the instruction. As I plug in trusted collaborative and reciprocal learning models to get students engaged, I shift the focus of the participation element of the rubric to measure FRO, explicitly sharing this information with the students.
For example, when we prepare for bigger class Socratic seminars or Harkness discussions, I first group students into smaller collaboration groups, where they unpack texts together. I provide them with a single-point rubric that identifies at least one focus standard partnered with one future-ready outcome. For instance, I might pair the focus standard of “Close Reading of the Text” with the FRO of “Engaging in Productive Group Work.” I give both equal weight so that the students know I’m paying attention to their engagement with the content-related standard as well as how they work with each other. Students understand that these skills are crucial for preparing for a larger conversation.
Before we move on in the lesson, we not only reflect on how we approached the content-related standard but also make it a key point to identify how we collaborated with our peers. This is the part of the lesson where students buy in because they are talking about themselves. In smaller groups, the discussions become more lively and rewarding as factors such as affluence and shyness have less of a grip on student agency. We focus on strategies for accelerating collaboration.
Students have to engage in order to learn, and creating a consistent routine of participation requirements can help with developing executive functioning skills in students. If we’re going to give students a participation grade, then we need to provide the meaning behind the context. It’s not just that you did it, but you did it for this reason: to achieve a future-ready outcome. When applied consistently, participation grades that are focused through targeted outcomes can be used in conjunction with content-specific skills to better monitor students as they approach proficiency. It becomes more than just what students are learning: It’s about whether they are engaged in their learning.