How Effective Graders Think

Grading reform is about reforming how people who do grading think

by Susan M. Brookhart

One of the things teachers dislike the most about their jobs is having to grade student work.  Actually, many of them will say it slightly differently—they’ll say they dislike having to “grade students.” As long as teachers focus grading on students and not their learning, grading reform will flounder. And that’s a shame, because the current push for standards-based grading or competency-based learning has some good ideas to offer.

The thing about “grading reform” is that it isn’t really about reforming grading.  It’s about reforming how the people who do grading think. When we don’t realize that, we risk working around the edges of grading reform, tinkering with the system and not really accomplishing much.

student workingIt has been this way throughout the history of grading.  For example, in the 1930s and 1940s (mostly), grading changed from mostly norm-referenced (“grading on the curve,” or comparing students with each other) to mostly criterion-referenced (grading based on achievement of learning goals). At the time, the term “absolute standards” was used, the term “criterion-referenced” didn’t become common until the 1960s. The point to be made here is that this change happened because of a change in how educators thought, not because someone popularized some new methods.

It wasn’t until most educators changed their thinking, from believing that the purpose of school was to sort students to believing that the purpose of school was to teach students certain things, that this reform was possible. Now, of course, most educators do believe that the purpose of school is to teach students certain things (codified in curriculum and standards).  That reform “took,” but it took decades.

Since at least the 1990s, another change in thinking about grading has been struggling to overturn the common view among educators that grades are something that students “earn” for doing their “work” in school.  With the rise of the standards-based reform movement in the 1990s, schools began aligning curriculum with various versions of state learning standards. As they did this, it soon became clear that grading in the traditional way, where students earn points for doing work, did not correspond well with teaching an aligned curriculum. So the standards-based grading movement was born.

school busWhy, over two decades hence, is standards-based grading still struggling and, to be frank, done so poorly in some places?  The problem is that standards-based grading proponents have been busy trying to reform grading rather than trying to change the way graders think.  Grading reform that comes as strategies to implement—for example, decide on standards, revise report cards, revamp the gradebook, and so on—doesn’t deal with the fact that in grading, as in many other areas, what educators do reflects what they think.  

If attention is not paid to changing how educators think about grading and learning, reform will stall.  Or worse—and this is happening in many places—the strategies will be implemented but nothing will change.  Revised, “standards-based” report cards may, for example, report student achievement on a proficiency scale of 1 to 4 (instead of A to F) on sets of reporting standards (instead of subject areas), giving the appearance of reform.  However, closer inspection may find that the grades which led to those proficiency ratings were still based on earning points for following directions rather than evidence of true proficiency on the standard.  In many settings, standards-based reporting is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

grading school workThe change in thinking that needs to occur to make grading more standards-based is this.  Educators must believe that grades should be based on the quality of a student’s work in relation to the intended learning goal, not on following directions or completing the requirements for an assignment.  This is true whether a school district has transitioned to standards-based report cards or has maintained traditional report cards.  

For example, if a teacher’s directions say that students should use five sources in a report, and she counts sources in order to assign a grade (5 sources for an A, 4 for a B…), she is grading compliance, not learning.  However, if the teacher appraises the students’ use of the sources for what it says about student understanding (were the sources relevant? credible? used strategically in the report to support the thesis?) in order to grade, then she is grading learning.  This change in thinking, from “earning points” to “demonstrating knowledge and skills,” can happen whether a district uses standards-based or traditional report cards.

glassesOr for another example—one I just saw in a class again this week—some teachers give points on tests or reports for things they often call “required elements,” things like putting one’s name, date, period number, and so on, on the paper, or having a title page, or using 12-point font, or whatever.  Think about that.  If a report is worth 50 points, and a third of those points are about name and date and font and such, what does the resulting score mean for any given student?

It’s not that students shouldn’t follow directions.  The change in thinking that needs to happen in order for grades to become more meaningful is that educators must believe following directions is an academic behavior, not a learning outcome.  Compliance needs to be monitored, which can often be done by the students themselves. Breaches in compliance need to be handled, of course, but not with grades.

The idea that grades are the carrots and sticks teachers use to get students to comply with directions is incompatible with true standards-based, learning-focused grading.  Only educators who believe that grades are the pay students earn for the work they do can do that. Only when educators’ beliefs change, and they truly accept that grades are judgments about the quality of students’ knowledge and/or skills relative to standards, can the current standards-based reform movement make real headway.  

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