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Courageous Conversation: Formative Assessment and Grading

Andrew Miller

Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School
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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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Robert Ryshke's picture
Robert Ryshke
Executive Director of Center for Teaching


It was good to read your journey on the assessment train. Glad to hear you made the shift from grading everything to grading only when you want to know what they have learned in the aggregate--after the teaching is "over." In your post you write, "We grade assessments, and assessments reflect learning that has occurred." With the formative assessment you are using, these types of assessments are gauging the learning as it is happening, not after it has occurred. The good thing about formative assessments is that they should give both the student AND the teacher valuable information about the learning AND the teaching. As teachers, we have to do a better job of using the formative assessments to be the GPS that guides our instruction. We also have to be willing to make the mid-course adjustments in our teaching if the formative assessments tell us that students aren't learning. Finally, we can't just reteach it the same old way or blame the students. We have to find new ways of teaching to reach students.

I appreciate your post and the thought you gave to the subject. Again, glad you made the shift and shared your experiences.

See my posts on these and related topics at


Bob Ryshke
Center for Teaching

Earl's picture

This is not a NEW concept for me as I've done this for over twenty years. I should add here that I was "lambasted" over 10 years ago by administrators in my school for not taking in "more marks". It's very important to remember that having a supportive admin team is crucial for a classroom teacher to be effective and responsive to the needs of his/her students.

Thanks for this article.


Dave's picture

In return for demonstrating mastery, students should not be taught to expect a reward in the form of a good grade. Students should be taught that the reward is the mastery attained, and the satisfaction from having attained it. The grade merely documents that mastery.

Brock d'Avignon's picture
Brock d'Avignon
Real Client PBL EdTech Industrial Arts Social Sciences Teacher 7-12

Meaningful and Life-saving Project Based Learning with major CEOs, nationwide and national leaders is founded on George Lucas' Edutopian idea of presenting a problem to be solved, then all technology, mentors, money, and cooperation follows. PBL is now important to opinion leaders. My students have designed:
Central Asian TRAADE routes for prosperity, peace, and freedom with pipelines carrying water, oil, gas next to road and railways going north and south where none exists now.
Red Cross Robotic Search and Rescue Ambulances (SARA) vehicles for firefighters and DARPA Grand Challenge. Research contacts given to university students winning $2M prize.
Flood ending half-buried porthole pipelines carrying water elsewhere where needed.
Asteroid Detection Deflection Development (ADDD) solar system wide with banking collateral value to pay for it all at 6% discovery rights to title, 1/10,000th of dollar severe discount equals $1.9 Trillion in assets for California schools and colleges; 145T for US & A; more for other countries with telescopes; parcelization of 5 moons to every human with individual property title; and a Space Property-title and Asteroid Resources Company (STARCO).
New Island Creation Consortium (NICCO) pizzahedron truss structures, electro-deposition of sea mineral hulls, and Freedomaxium new country projects and open deep ocean fish-farming.
Identifying Moammar Ghaddafi's deep space rocket capability with nuclear batteries for space rock renavigation as WMD plus launch disguise, satcom interference, and satellite blinding alliances.
Resetting global economy to personally held space resources instead of oil, and achieving property title for all humans on Earth using Percentage As You Earn (PAYE) finance of houses and farms ending repossession vulnerability.
Achieving free market curative and preventative care for all as an outcome of a new charging method of percentage-of-income medical finansurance. Adding Quality Immortality (QI) percentage of income PAYEments while students decide to crack the supergene that controls aging.
Historical examples of income contingent business models in immigration of redemptioners of debt replacing indentured servitude and slavery; privateers; mountain men; old country doctors reckoning of percentages of income to take care of all; rePAYEment of college tuition with the outcome of equal opportunity to attend college while achieving the Separation of Higher Education and State in 11 years. Non-property tax based revenue cycle replacement with anywhere on the globe rePAYEment from college students to either taxpayers or Human Investors in a Career Futures Exchange.
Leg protection motorcycles.
Earthquake Preparedness-box Towers (EPT) on Wheels for all school homerooms including water bottles, MREs, rubble tools, warmth and personalized medical supplies; revision of disaster plans at schools to meet law, insurance, and civil defense shelter needs with Red Cross and sponsors, not taxes.
Creation of franchise images for Flying Saucer Pizza and Yellow Submarine Sandwich Galleys as examples of Communications English for local businesses.
Historical character relationships for screenplays The Star Spangled Banner and The Bear Flag Revolt.
Not bad for 7-12th graders some people think can only be janitors for some pocket change. Education should give something back to the businesses, community, and civic leaders that support it. Thank you George, would you like to help schools and students with licensing dealmakers and lawyers like universities have to reward intellectual achievement via property rights to all involved? Like to set up a CAFEX with me? Would you like to make a few movies about all the PBL and CBL teachers and students you've collected best examples of over the last few years? Ready when you are! Brock d'Avignon 831-512-6572

Jordan Johnson's picture
Jordan Johnson
4th grade teacher from Ada, MN

I really enjoyed your points on grading and the different ways you grade your students. I currently am trying to change my way of grading and assigning homework in elementary grades. It is difficult to find the guide as to what I should or shouldn't grade. Does every homework assignment need to be graded? Is this the only form of feedback students are getting? It seems that when beginning to learn a new concept it is fairer to students to not enter a grade on every assignment until they have improved on their skill level for that concept. Your article has made me think about what I want to grade and what I need to use as corrective feedback. How can you justify having students do the work as homework if you don't take the time to correct it? Or should all be corrected but simply not entered into a grading system?

LYRichardson's picture
Literacy and Instructional Coach/ Trainer/ Consultant

Great piece. Teaching/grading is an heirloom and too many still practice teaching by what was done to them. As we move from strict grading where the teacher was the sole arbiter of excellence to a system of self-assessment of strengths, gaps, we must remember that it is a journey and a paradigm shift (as pointed out) .Strict grading is a 20th century practice that was a tool used to extract strict obedience from students. This trait was necessary to be successful in the industrial economy (silence, obedience, stillness.) However, some teachers still use grades as a weapon, a practice that promotes the "school to prison pipeline" because must submit to authority. There is NO LONGER a reward at the end of the high school rainbow for such behavior and students rebel causing them to be suspended from class - one step towards the pipeline. 21st century requires assessment - knowing and understanding strengths, gaps in order to participate in a complex technological and globally competitive society. We are on uncharted terrain.

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