How to Make Sure Grades Are Meaningful and Useful to Students

Giving grades that truly reflect student learning is one of the perennial problems in teaching, and these shifts in thinking about how to gather and report grades can help.

November 25, 2020
Tempura / iStock

Confession: There was a point in my career when I hated assessment. I dreaded the ways students reacted when I said we would have a test. I loathed handing back grades because of what it did to student motivation. Most importantly, I hated feeling like assessment didn’t really matter.

I tried to fix it—I changed my grade category weights, how I reported grades, and the types of assessments I gave, and yet none of those changes really made a difference beyond the surface. What I learned is that I was putting lipstick on a pig, but I wasn’t changing the function of assessment in my classroom.

Slowly but surely, I started to identify some crucial mindset shifts that I had to make if I really wanted assessments to be meaningful.

Assessments as Evidence of Learning

The assessment doesn’t matter; the learning it reveals does. That was hard for me to grapple with. The key is in remembering that a single assessment is just part of a larger ecosystem of information that can be used to determine student progress. This helped me broaden my understanding of assessment. A conversation with a student? That’s evidence! Listening in on some group work? Evidence!

How did I make the shift? It came down to asking two questions: What do I want my students to learn? And what are the ways that they can show me that they have learned it? An approach to assessment that uses a variety of techniques gives you a more complete picture of student learning than you would get from an isolated snapshot.

Multiple Attempts, Not Redoing Tasks

When students have multiple attempts to provide evidence of learning, we can start questioning the practice of having students redo tasks. There are absolutely times when students need to understand the value of creating a high-quality product through revisions, but doing something again for the sake of points is just painful.

Instead of making a student redo something, what if we asked, “How else can you show me you know it?” That takes the emphasis off the task and puts it back on the student and their learning.

How did I make the shift? Recognize that not all of the multitudes of standards deserve equal time and focus. This matters because you can’t offer multiple attempts at a million standards. Limit multiple attempts to what is essential. Think deep, not wide, so that you can gather multiple pieces of evidence for a single concept or skill.

The Grade Book Can Be a Communication Log

I can remember the moment—walking down the hallway at the end of my first year of teaching to submit my final grades—when I thought, "What does this thing mean to anyone?" I knew who was good at quizzes, who turned things in, and honestly who hated my class, but that was about it. I had to ask, “What is my grade book communicating, and why?”

How did I make the shift? Step one is to identify the information you want to communicate. Think about what information would be helpful for all stakeholders, and then think about how you can clearly communicate that. From there, create space in your grade book for each of those individual elements. Make your grade book clear, make it meaningful, and make it accurate.

Using Comments to Point Students Toward Further Learning

When I started teaching, most of the feedback students got was a simple identification of an error, whether that was through a comment or a score. Slowly, I learned that my job wasn’t to identify the mistakes; my job was to identify the trends, analyze them to determine the learning need, and then point students in the right direction.

How did I make the shift? Honestly, this one came down to finding new ways to leave feedback. A short, written comment often didn’t do what I needed in terms of helping the student focus on the learning—too often my comments focused them on the mistakes. By leaving video feedback, using text expanders, leveraging one-on-one conferences, and making use of feedback portfolios, I was able to provide feedback that was more than just the sum of the mistakes.

I know these shifts seem small, but without them, our assessment practices will stay rooted in methods that don’t align with how kids learn best. For too long, grading and assessment have been a threat for students as they go through the school system, kicking them into a fight, flight, or freeze response because the assessment process has not felt safe, positive, or helpful to them.

The problem was that grades were out of their control, a process they didn’t feel part of. I still give grades, but with the changes I’ve made students know they are part of the process—they have a say in it and ownership over the results.

These shifts in thinking aren’t everything, but I can tell you that they have changed the atmosphere in my classroom. My kids don’t run from assessment anymore—they aren’t afraid of it. They understand it, and they understand that it has value for them, not just for me.

That matters.

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  • Formative Assessment

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