Crafting Fair Assessments for Flexible Assignments

When teachers provide students with multiple ways to show their learning, they can also develop different ways to assess that learning.

January 10, 2024
Johner Images / Alamy

Teachers are called to create deeper, more flexible learning opportunities for students to learn at high levels. This often raises questions about how to assess student work, given that student products may range from podcasts to digital storybooks, virtual reality experiences, and published poetry.

To complicate things further, personalized products need to be graded equitably, which means that grades need to reflect mastery of standards and not, for example, the sound quality of the podcast. To simplify the process to incorporate both Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and more equitable grading, we offer the following tips.

5 Strategies for Implementing UDL and Standards-Based Grading

1. Clarify and prioritize your standards. UDL is a framework for designing learning experiences, so that students have options for how they learn, what materials they use, and how they demonstrate their learning as they work toward the same firm goals. The first step in both UDL and equitable grading is to ensure that you have clear and consistent standards that have been intentionally prioritized.

2. Embrace construct relevance as a pathway to student choice. Before designing a lesson, ask yourself, “What do all students have to know or do?” In this process, you will note there are different types of standards. Content standards articulate what students have to know. These standards often start with verbs like explain, communicate, demonstrate, and analyze. Given that there are numerous ways to explain something, this is a perfect opportunity to create a choice board to provide options for students to choose how they want to explain—in writing, with audio or video, or with artistic or multimedia artifacts.

Methods standards, on the other hand, require students to complete specific tasks like writing, solving, and discussing. It’s important to recognize that the methods are nonnegotiable and that any flexibility has to be in honor of the goal.

If the standard is “Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence,” a standard in Chris’s class, all students will produce written arguments. The flexibility lies in the format of the writing—a letter or a speech, for example—as well as the options provided to support the writing process (graphic organizers, writing conferences, etc.), along with the tools used to produce writing (typing or voice-to-text).

3. Unbraid the knot that is academic and nonacademic factors. Often, grades are a combination of academic factors (what a student knows and can do) and nonacademic factors (timeliness, effort, extra credit). As such, they do not paint an accurate picture of where each student is in relation to mastering the standards.

Researchers Marco Muñoz and Thomas Guskey suggest unbraiding the variety of factors that go into traditional grades by reporting and recording student feedback on the product (what they know and can do), the process (timeliness and effort), and the progress (growth in learning). By doing so, teachers are able to paint a complete picture of the student academically and behaviorally without any one factor conflating with the other in some sort of cryptic average. Simply put, there is clarity in all aspects of academics and academic behaviors.

4. Create pathways for student ownership, self-assessment, and tracking. One of the best ways to increase and maintain student engagement is to empower them to own their learning through self-assessment.

When students simply assign themselves a desired or perceived letter grade or percentage they believe they deserve, learning and ownership are minimal, and barriers to true and sustained engagement remain. However, when students work to assess themselves on academic standards, they are forced to interact with the standards in meaningful ways, review and analyze exemplars, track and reflect on their learning, and determine next steps for continued growth and learning.

5. Communicate clearly to all stakeholders. When teachers begin to report student learning in relation to specific standards as opposed to traditional assignment-by-assignment grading, families can quickly become confused and left unsure of how their students are doing in class because they, as students, lived in traditional grading systems. So, it becomes essential that individual teachers and/or schools have a robust, detailed, consistent, and widespread communication plan that provides multiple means of representation and considers the varied languages spoken so that all stakeholders have equal access to improved understanding.

As teachers seek to remove as many barriers as possible for authentic learning, rethinking assessment and grading practices through the lens of UDL provides pathways for more targeted lesson planning and instruction, more accurate assessment of student progress, increased student ownership, and deeper learning.

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  • Assessment
  • Design Thinking
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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