George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Courageous Conversation: Formative Assessment and Grading

Is education really all about the grade?

December 15, 2011

With all the education action around Standards-Based Instruction, Understanding By Design, Assessment for Learning, Grading for Learning, Project-Based Learning, Competency-Based Instruction and more, we need to have a frank conversation about formative assessment and grading. This may be a difficult conversation to have.

Educators may end up mourning the loss of past practices and frameworks. It is a paradigm shift, and consequently, we need to have empathy for all stakeholders as transitions occur.

Grades for Everything?

Let me start off by making a clear distinction between two ideas, assessment and grading. They are not the same; they are related. We grade assessments, and assessments reflect learning that has occurred. However, the concept of grading and assessment is complicated, and has further been complicated by the many ways that education reform has manifested itself in the classroom.

Secondly, I want to be honest with all of you about my journey with this concept. When I first started teaching, I utilized both what I learned from my experience in the classroom as a student and from my student teaching. Everything was graded -- and I mean everything. Why did I do this? Well for one, that was my leverage to make students do the work I know they needed to do in order to be successful. The intention was good. In addition, this practice was normal for students, and they understood the routine. We know that routines provide stability, so I thought I was doing them a service by continuing to grade everything. I developed an elaborate system of weights to create what I thought was a clear system for parents, students and other stakeholders. Parents understood it, because it was the same system most them had experienced.

So what was the problem? Where do I start? I had no time. I was grading everything. I had so much paperwork because I was trying to give great feedback on everything in addition to grading and inputting the grades. Perhaps even worse, I wasn't focused on the larger problem. My students cared more about the points than they did about the class. They weren't engaged, and whose fault was that? It was mine. I was "cattle-prodding" them into doing work. It was punitive. "Don't do the work and your grade will suffer." I should have been focusing on my instruction and creating engagement lessons and projects for students to do.

Instead, I was clouding the issue of instruction with grading. I was putting the blame on students rather than on myself. That is a key reflective moment that every teacher should engage in when students are doing the work: What did I instructionally do, or not do, to engage all learners? Not, how can I make them do the work?

Changing the Conversation

What has changed? I don't grade formative assessments. Yes, you read that correctly. What do I do with them? I document them in the grade book, because I need evidence of progress for students, parents and myself. I give specific, focused feedback on the assignments I collect. I have students reflect on their formative assessments and set goals. I have conversations with students after completing a summative assessment; we reflect on the grade of the summative and how the formative relates to the grade they received on the summative. I facilitate moments where students and I connect a seemingly irrelevant assignment, like a comma worksheet, to a more authentic, relevant and engaging summative assessment. These are all things you need to be doing instead of grading.

Why don't I grade formative assessment? For one, a grade is supposed to answer the question: "Did the student learn and achieve the learning targets or standards?" If this is the case, then the summative assessment primarily represents achievement. Formative assessment is practice. It is part of the journey. I would feel evil if I punished a kid during practice and then, literally and figuratively, brought that punishment to his or her "A-Game" in the final match (summative assessment). We've all seen that happen. A student achieves on the summative assessment, but because of a mediocre performance on the formative assessments, they get a lower grade. Ethically, that is just plain wrong. If a student ended up achieving in the end, he or she should be rewarded for that achievement, not penalized for a failure during practice.

The Payoff

A couple of important notes: I do use formative assessment in two ways. If students don't do well or complete the summative, I use the formative to create a "progress" grade to input. It is good evidence, and can be used this way. In addition, if I am assessing the 21st century skill of Work Ethic, formative assessment can be utilized as part of that grade. If one of the quality indicators, for example, is "turning in work on time," then I can leverage formative assessment as part of that grade. You will notice, however, that the intent is different. The learning target is different.

I'm not saying this is an easy transition; it is a paradigm shift for everyone. Parents need to be educated, stakeholders need to be educated, students need to be educated, and teachers need to be educated -- and provided the space to wrestle with these ideas. I took a while to get to this place. However, the payoff feels better, both from an instructional and ethics standpoint, and also from a student achievement standpoint. My students often asked, "Wait, so you are only going to reward us at our best, not necessarily when we tried and failed?!?" Then they'd say, "Hmmm, I guess that makes sense" as the idea sunk in.

Is it time your grading practices made a little more sense? Formative assessment is about ensuring equity for all students. Thank you readers for being open to this conversation. Cognitive dissonance is healthy. As I like to joke in my workshops, "If I have made you a little uncomfortable, I've done my job."

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