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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Assessment Opinion

What’s the Best Way to Grade Students? Teachers Weigh In

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 16, 2024 14 min read
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Educators spend countless hours thinking about grades, talking about them, and doing the work involved in giving them.

Many posts on this topic have appeared here over the years, and I’m sure more will be published in the future.

Today’s column is what I hope will be another positive contribution toward answering the question, “What are effective ways to handle student grading, and how do you define “effective”?

You might also find more useful resources at The Best Resources on Grading Practices.

‘Consistency Is Essential’

Damian Shelvin is a special education teacher in Texas:

Grading is an essential aspect of education that offers feedback to students and educators about academic progress. An effective grading system should be built upon clear criteria, consistency, timely feedback, anonymity, self-evaluation, and recognition of achievements. This essay delves into each of these best practices in detail.

Firstly, grading criteria should be communicated to students explicitly to ensure fairness and clarity. One way to do this could be through a rubric highlighting different grading points. This helps avoid confusion on the students’ end about what is expected of them.

Secondly, to ensure objectivity in grading, consistency is essential. This means using a standard set of grading criteria across assignments and grading all students’ work similarly. This fosters understandability and fairness among students.

Feedback is another essential element of effective student grading. Timely feedback is critical since it enables students to understand where they have excelled and where they need improvement. Receiving the necessary feedback early enough will allow them to correct mistakes and adjust their understanding of the subject matter. Moreover, nurturing constructive feedback is instrumental in ensuring emotional growth and promoting student-teacher relationships.

Using anonymous grading is another effective way to promote fairness. It might not always be practical, but anonymizing assignments, essays, and tests can help limit inherent biases. When grading is anonymous, the focus is solely on the work without considering the student’s name or personality.

In addition, promoting self-evaluation is an excellent way to develop self-awareness and self-efficacy in students. When they evaluate themselves, they gain a deeper understanding of the grading criteria and can grasp what strategies and techniques work best for them. Furthermore, encouraging self-evaluation also implies that students become more responsible and reflective in their learning process.

Lastly, recognizing and celebrating achievements promotes motivation and self-esteem in students. It enables students to realize that their hard work is paying off and they are making strides in their academic performance. Celebrating achievements could be done through simple rewards like praise, certificates, or more significant accolades like academic awards.

In conclusion, effective student grading is crucial to delivering impactful feedback that students and educators can use to gauge academic performance. By using explicit criteria, consistency, timely feedback, anonymized grading, promoting self-evaluation, and recognizing student achievements, we empower our students to grow and succeed. Highly effective grading systems ensure that feedback is informative, constructive, and helpful. This way, students can work smarter as they strive to meet their academic, professional, and career learning objectives.

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Allow Resubmissions

Abby Baker is a middle school ELA teacher in Wake County, N.C.:

When it comes to student grading, what is “effective” is largely subjective. Grading has shifted within the last few years with the increased use of technology, and rightly so. Thus, the way that teachers assess students has also shifted.

“Effective” grading can no longer be limited to a single letter grade given at the end of a quarter, semester, or term. Instead, teachers today are focusing on having more real-time conversations and giving students timely feedback on their work.

This feedback can be in the form of written conversations that occur on online platforms such as Google Classroom or Canvas or in oral conversations that organically occur during classroom discussions or investigations. With teacher feedback, students can then improve their work, and mastery of skills can be achieved. The days of students receiving a grade without the opportunity to correct and learn from mistakes are long gone, as the emphasis today is on students actually mastering the skills that are being taught—what a concept!

Another way teachers can assess student work is by completion. Contrary to popular belief, not every assignment one gives needs to be graded. Giving students credit for completion on things like homework and classwork especially not only makes a teacher’s life easier but takes the pressure off students to get answers “right” when the assignment is low stakes.

As times have changed, I’ve personally been more forgiving with grades and I allow students to resubmit work often, but within reason. Once students know how they can improve (after receiving feedback), give them the opportunity to make the necessary improvements to their work. Of course, putting limits as to how many times students can resubmit is a best practice, as it prepares them for the “real world” where there are not always chances to redo and resubmit.

Essentially, “effective” grading boils down to one’s teaching style and your school or district’s policies. The longer I teach, the more effective I believe my instruction and grading practices have become. I’ve learned the value of tweaking my grading practices to coincide with technology and a changing world. Instead of being a “stickler” for things like late assignments and poor first attempts, I encourage teachers to have a little grace and flexibility. You will be surprised at how much growth students will make if they are given more than one opportunity to prove themselves!

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‘I’m Along for the Ride’

Sarah Cooper teaches 8th grade U.S. history and civics and is the associate head of school at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, Calif. She is the author of two books, Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom (Routledge) and Making History Mine (Stenhouse):

The longer I teach, the more I realize that “effective grading” means assigning something I truly want to read, watch, or listen to! Of course, this is not always possible, because sometimes helping students learn means giving written or conferenced feedback on more traditional analytical paragraphs or essays. I enjoy seeing how students’ minds work on the page, but I can’t say I always love facing a stack of these papers.

Especially in this new age of AI language models, though, the good news is that a broader variety of assessments benefits all of us: students, because these assignments require creativity that will help them flourish in the future and have fun in the present, and teachers, who can enjoy our students’ often unexpected approaches to topics we thought we knew.

In my 8th grade U.S. history and civics classes, students often get to choose how they present information. For a visual to accompany a reformers research project, we spent time in our school’s makerspace, where some groups created 18”x24” posters with Canva while others laser-cut inspirational quotations into wood or cardboard. For a project comparing how international and domestic newspapers addressed a topic, students created products ranging from a color-coded chart to a three-circled Venn diagram to a 15-slide bright-red Google Slides presentation. For a war-stories project focusing on people’s experience of war, some groups focused on video or oral testimony, even historically accurate movie clips, while others homed in on the power of photojournalism.

One more element that adds excitement to grading students’ final products is learning new tech tools along with them. As they compiled a Works Cited list for a research project, using our Gale eBooks and ProQuest Historical Newspapers databases, I was excited to see the updates in functionality, such as highlighting text and searching within books even more effectively. As we navigate the impact of AI on all of our teaching, I sometimes ask these middle schoolers to test out a search in ChatGPT so that we could see how accurate the results are or to become better prompt engineers.

Ultimately, if I feel like I’m along for the ride as the students find new ways to show their learning, this keeps me fresh and excited to see yet another facet of who they are and how they express themselves.

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Making A ‘Shift’

PJ Caposey is the Illinois superintendent of the year and is a best-selling author, having written nine books for various publishers. PJ is a presenter and consultant who has a widely read weekly newsletter available at www.pjcaposey.com:

The problem with grading is far too few educators take time to ask themselves what is the purpose of this firmly embedded practice. I think if we did, changing this traditional and in many ways useless process would be much easier.

Let’s start off at the macro level. Grading is simply a mechanism of reporting student progress. Now that is established, and we can move forward.

From my vantage point, I see four unique purposes that this grading/reporting SHOULD serve. They are as follows:

1. To provide clear feedback to a student as to their level of performance.

2. (Which is really 1a) To provide clear feedback to a student as to their level of performance as measured against a clear objective, benchmark, standard, or whatever nomenclature you prefer.

3. To provide a clear medium of communication as to progress with concerned other parties such as parents, coaches, etc.

4. To ultimately determine if a student has demonstrated enough mastery of the key content and skills to move forward in their learning process.

Given all of the above, if I sat down the greatest educational minds in the world to create a system that achieves the four things above, I cannot think of a single scenario where those people would create the A through F system that permeates schools and universities. THIS IS THE REASON FOR CHANGE!

That is it, I do not think I can say it more clearly than that. We would NEVER invent it this way if we had not inherited this system. So, let’s do better.

The research has been clear on two things regarding grading. First, traditional grading in and of itself does not increase student achievement. The system DOES NOT push our kids forward. Second, student achievement IS impacted when they have a clear understanding of what they need to show comprehension of, how they will need to demonstrate mastery of that content and those skills, and if they have a deep enough understanding of the aforementioned to accurately assess their own progress while learning is taking place.

This seems simple enough to me that we should be able to make relatively large shifts in short order by doing three core things. We have the expertise within each of our buildings right now to do this. Here is how I recommend we start to make the change.

First, as educators we must make it abundantly clear to students, parents, and anybody else who cares precisely what the intended learning outcomes (content and skills) for students are. (THE WHAT)

Second, as educators we must make it equally clear what they must do to show us that they have learned the intended outcomes. (THE HOW)

Lastly, we must ensure that both parties (the educator and the student) understand how to measure progress toward steps one and two at all times.

If you are reading this, you may immediately think that I am making the case for standards-based reporting (SBR). First, notice I used the term reporting instead of grading. Second, to be clear, I am not—at least in the manner it has been commonly deployed in our schools.

While the process laid out better aligns to SBR than to the traditional A-F system, I have seen FAR too many instances of SBR changing nothing and having nebulous outcomes that allow for subjective measuring of progress that students cannot discern. Also, I have seen many instances where the label “exceeds standards” is simply the new A and one system is transposed on the other. The point being—nothing positively shifts to benefit kids.

My hope and reason for writing this is that I really think that the system is actually simple to create if we think about WHY the system should exist in the first place. There is enough collective brilliance in every school to create a system that achieves the four purposes laid out in the beginning of the blog and encompasses the three steps explained later. If we made such a shift, we would create a system of grading/reporting that quite possibly would actually lead to increased student achievement instead of one that just fits with antiquated norms.

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‘Standards-Based Grading’

George Farmer, Ed.D, is a passionate administrator dedicated to growing teachers, developing students, and empowering parents. He is the author of the blog FarmerandtheBell, which provides solutions to current educational challenges:

Reflecting upon this school year, I remember a day when a student walked into my office in tears about his progress report. His presence in my office and demeanor showed that he cared deeply about his grades. His question was quick and to the point, “How can I increase my writing grade?” I looked at his progress report and gave him direct answers based on the assessed skills and skills he did not master.

Where traditional grading falls short of identifying areas for growth, standards-based grading identifies growth opportunities. Standards-based grading addresses specific strands within the standards. The integration of assessing standards is most recognizable in standardized testing. Students fall into one of four categories: advanced proficient, proficient, partially proficient, and below proficient. Standards-based grading leaves little room for teacher integration of philosophies and focuses on student mastery of content standards.

A significant benefit of standards-based grading is giving parents specific details on areas in which their child is struggling. Targeted standards lead to more meaningful and productive conversations with parents.

Consider this Common Core State Standard: ELA-LITERACY.W.3.1.A, Introduce the topic or text they are writing about, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure that lists reasons. The conversation with parents can lead to an explanation of understanding and a plan of action. Using the example of CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.3.1.A, a teacher can dialogue with parents about the student’s ability to introduce a topic and state an opinion but an inability to create an organizational structure that lists reasons. The productivity and action steps are definitive and create an environment for student learning while giving parents a clear pathway on areas of improvement for their child.

Grading should support student learning by effectively communicating student mastery toward grade-level standards. Effective grading adequately addresses two areas: content and communication.

1. Content

A curriculum should assess student mastery of standards. Learning targets are primary for evaluating students. The systematic approach to teaching standards is attainable when learning targets are established.

2. Communication

All language and correspondence regarding grading must be clear to teachers, parents, and students. Communicating with parents and students about grading and the positive effect on student learning is critical. Teachers need substantial training on policy, requirements, and examples of student work that reflect the grading practices aligned with standards-based grading.

The success of students begins with successful educational practices. Grading is a useful measure of student achievement; however, more meaningful and valuable actions are required to close achievement gaps which can occur through effective grading systems. Standards-based grading is a vehicle that, if utilized, can steer educator effectiveness and drive student success.

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Thanks to Damian, Abby, Sarah, PJ, and George for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 12 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list here.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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