Grading Practices That Better Support 21st Century Learning



If you’d like to see just how polarized a high school faculty can be, survey them on how much they think homework should count in their overall course grade. You’ll get a range of responses from zero to one hundred percent. The start of a new school year for many teachers necessitates the writing of course syllabus documents, which means it is time to decide how much weight will be given to categories such as homework, class work, tests, quizzes, and class participation.

The former high school math teacher in me has come to understand that by asking myself a simple question like how much weight I would give to homework or tests, I had an extremely flawed grading system that told me nothing about what it was my students knew and were able to do. Across the country, teachers are throwing away these dinosaur grading systems in favor of standards-based systems that more accurately measure and report student learning. Maybe your school district is making the switch to such a system this year. Whether they are or they are not, there are some grading practices that you can implement right now in your own classroom that will better support the 21st century learning of your students.

1.       Separate and acknowledge the role of both formative and summative assessment. Formative assessments (things like homework, classwork, and quizzes) measure a student’s progress through their learning. Summative assessments (performance-based tasks like research projects, presentations, and demonstrations) measure a student’s ability to demonstrate competency and transfer of a skill.  Professor Robert Stake of the College of Education at Illinois says “When the chef tastes the soup, that’s formative. When the guests taste the soup, that’s summative!” Med Kharbach of Educational Technology and Mobile Learning developed this helpful visual diagram to explain the difference between formative and summative assessment.

2.       Stop averaging averages to get more averages! University of Kentucky College of Education Professor Thomas Guskey once wrote, “If someone proposed combining measures of height, weight, diet, and exercise into a single number to represent a person’s physical condition, we would consider it laughable.” This same logic applies to our traditional approach of averaging test and quiz averages to get quarter averages, and averaging those averages to get course averages. Instead, consider letting your course grade stand alone as a rolling grade that runs from the first day to the last day of the course. Give separate grades for each skill or competency that a student masters. Consider using a learning trend that more-heavily weights the later work that a student does in a course rather than the earlier work.

3.       Separate academics from academic behaviors. Most teachers generally agree that good academic behaviors (asking questions in class, completing homework, and meeting deadlines) lead to a better understanding of material, but teachers compromise their entire grading system when they let these behaviors influence grades. A course grade should be academically pure – a measurement of what it is a child knows and is able to do in a course. For many teachers, the hardest part of this separation is adopting other strategies (rather than assigning a zero) for students who miss a deadline. Educational author Rick Wormeli does a great job in this video addressing the idea of missed deadlines.

4.       Use rubrics and a rubric scale, not percentage scores. Teachers who have implemented standards-based grading models have come to understand that the rubric-based scale produces grades that are more accurate, consistent, meaningful, and supportive of learning than grades that were produced from the 100-point scale. Ben Mainka of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals puts forth perhaps one of the most well—written arguments against the 100 point scale in his blog post Challenging the Grading Paradigm, Part 3 (Alternatives to the 100-Point Scale). There, he offers point-system alternatives, and all are based on the use of rubrics.

Teachers, as you develop your grading practices this fall for inclusion in your course syllabus documents, I challenge you to think differently about how you grade your students. Don’t settle for the way things have always been. Strive to make your grading practices capture the learning that is taking place with each of your students.  

This article was written originally for MultiBriefs Education.




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