Reframing Grading

Learning tends to stop when grades are assigned.  Part of learning how to navigate school effectively is to master the art of learning what will be on the test or what the teacher wants from you and then clearing that brain space for the next assessment.  I’ve always been pretty good at that and it’s served me well in the short term.

Yet, I’m hopeless at helping my 9th grader with her math or science homework.

When I look at my college transcripts now, it’s clear to me that the grades recorded do not correlate at all with my own learning, my ownership over the knowledge I demonstrated in exchange for those letter grades.  I did what I had to do to get the A.  But my B in biology doesn’t mean the same thing as yours and that is inherently the problem.  We have no consensus, no way to compare.  We just assume that all Bs are created the same and they absolutely are not.

In my doctoral program, I took a course where the standard was you could do all the coursework for a B and add a book review for an A.  So, an A = willingness or ability to do an additional task.  An A did not = mastery of content.

So, if we agree that traditional grading lacks reliability and validity, what do we do instead?  I’ve been working to reframe grading for myself and my students the last few years and am continuing to grow in the process.  I firmly believe in meaningful feedback, self and peer assessment, and conferencing as the basis for course grades.  (We live in a graded system, we have to assign a grade so we need to determine a mechanism for doing so.) I’ve incorporated more and more self and peer assessment into my courses, in class group work, and then my own assessment of progress toward mastery.  Ideally, at least twice in the semester, we meet individually for conferencing.  This allows for us to share our perceptions of progress toward mastery and what supports or feedback I can offer to support the student’s growth.

Different students need different things to move toward mastery and individualizing my feedback helps me support their processes.  It is a time commitment though and I will admit that this semester, I thought we had one more week in the semester than we did, so our meetings didn’t happen.  I was able to connect individually with the students whose self assessment differed from my assessment so that we could talk it through and come to consensus.

Yes, consensus.  Because I do not give grades, students earn them as a result of engaging in the messiness of learning.  But, for me, they are a requirement, an afterthought, they are not at all important to me and I try to diminish their value for my students in the context of my course.

In my final feedback form this semester, one student noted that taking grades out of the equation allowed them to open their headspace for learning.  Which feels like a win to me.


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