Grades, Learning, and Change

Grades,Learning,& Change

A few weeks ago, a teacher shared with me a question his had given to his students. He asked them,

“If you had the choice for your next grade, would you choose an 88 that you really worked hard for and learned something to earn or 95 where you won’t remember anything after the grade and didn’t learn throughout the process?”

I love the question. Both the question itself and the thoughts I have about the implications of either choice are fascinating to me.

Not surprisingly, many students opted for the 95. They are sophomores in high school, and with a few weeks to go until spring break, I can understand the allure of some free points.

Still, there was much to talk about.

So the teacher and I talked though his reactions and our mutual reactions to the students’ reactions while we watched a soccer game after school. I mentioned several articles and books on standards based grading, dropping grades, and assessing for learning v assessing the learning, and we continued on talking for a while about our hopes for students and our desire for great learning to come from the feedback students receive from teachers. He mentioned that he wanted to follow up with these students, and I committed to touching base with him over the coming weeks.

So a few days ago, I stick my head in to ask if they’ve had their conversation yet. I thought I would get a yes/no answer and maybe a quick recap as class started if they had talked. Instead, he invited me into his classroom.

We talked the entire class period!

I used two recent posts to get the conversation going. The first was an idea that I’d heard before but was succinctly summarized recently by George Couros in this post titled “What Success (and Learning) Really Looks Like.” I recreated the drawings he includes in the post, and we talked for a bit

Demetri Martin on what “success” really looks like (from George Couros' blog)
Demetri Martin on what “success” really looks like (from George Couros’ blog)

This idea resonated with everyone, even the few skeptics who were still a bit unsure about an assistant principal dropping in to talk about turning the grading world on its head.

With that in mind, I decided to share this image “Shifting the Grading Mindset Starts With Our Words” by Starr Sackstein that compares the language of grading with the language of assessment.

From Starr Sackstein’s blog, “Shifting the Grading Mindset Starts With Our Words”

This is where I really saw students begin to see the value in considering this. Many who if they were honest probably responded out of convenience for themselves initially with their teacher and even with me when presented with the “struggle to learn for the 88 or get the easy 95 and learn nothing” choice seemed to really understand the power of this.

To be honest, they really impressed me.

I expected that they would come around eventually (probably out of overconfidence in myself and the teacher, right?), but I didn’t expect it to come so quickly. Students mentioned their desire to take tough classes but the fear that accompanies that. They mentioned the pressure to succeed (from themselves, their peers, their parents, their coaches). Two students asked pointed questions about how a no grades classroom would work with eligibility for sports and extracurriculars.

Each of those questions have answers–though I am convinced by some more than others. But then they asked the question that has stuck with me the most: “Why don’t teachers do this?”

I was struck by their honesty and their enthusiasm for something that seemed so different from their normal and something that would daily ask more of them as learners. But more than that, I quickly realized that the reasons students might be reluctant to change are similar to the reasons the adults might also be reluctant.

Grades have their issues, but the process is predictable and consistent. Though the game doesn’t always measure what we’d like, it’s one students know the rules for. For teachers (and for me), I don’t always love the idea of something entirely new when I know I’m going to be evaluated on it. Teachers likely feel the same way. Grades are established and safe. Shifting is risky.

Three Takeaways From My Conversation

  1. Students will rarely rise above our level of expectation. If we expect them to be compliant, they will, but they aren’t going to try to push that ceiling on their own. At all levels, leaders need to be modeling what a reflective learner looks like. Doing so opens up valuable lines of communication between learners of all ages and breaks down barriers between positions and titles on campus.
  2. Change and learning require vulnerable conversations. I’m thankful for this, but it can be a barrier to our progress. In front of those students, I had to admit that the same reason that my reason for not pushing on this topic in a wider fashion is likely quite similar to the reason teachers aren’t always keen on pushing a tough to implement idea–it’s risky. I like to look like I have it together; taking risks doesn’t always do that. Still, it’s time we had those vulnerable conversations to push this forward.
  3. Success in reimagining assessment isn’t going to happen in a linear fashion. Wouldn’t it be nice if this was nice and neat to present? That’s not reality. Instead, our lived experience is going to follow the messy path that Demetri Martin depicts (and I think even his drawing is optimistic in that the change continues in a generally positive direction throughout it’s journey). As much as that’s not something I love to engage with, it’s a great (and necessary) reminder that our path through change is not one that is without risk at any level. Instead, it is one filled with excitement (and a bit of treachery along the path) and one that is worth effort!

I’ll leave you with a few questions. Leave me a comment to help push this conversation forward in a way we can share!

  • How satisfied are you with your/your school’s grading practices?
  • What would ideal grading practices look like to you?
  • What is one thing you could change to move toward that ideal?
  • What makes talking about the shift from grading to assessment worth it?
  • Any tips for the those interested in the transition?

Grades,Learning,& Change

14 thoughts on “Grades, Learning, and Change

  1. Stephan Hughes Reply

    I’m going to try to answer at least two or three of the questions in one go – maybe we should take off the word “ideal” from ideal grading practices and consider talking about measuring learning, not grading or assessing. If there is no ideal, then we are stating that any system implemented with the end of evaluating learning has to be personalized and co-constructed, even if we start off with a common framework.

    • aaronhogan Post authorReply


      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I agree–not my best choice of words; it’s indicative of how deeply entrenched we often are in our current practices.

      What I hoped to get at might be better stated like this: “What assessment practices would push students to learn?” As far as ideal goes, I only meant for each individual; I agree that finding something ideal that’s generalized then becomes someone else’s ideal, not one that’s always shared.


  2. Teresa Lee Reply

    Grades are difficult because they vary from teacher to teacher and content area. There is no consistent expectation. Points are randomly given and a grade appears. For students, the points don’t inform them about weaknesses or “how” to improve. I work with our RtI (Response to Intervention) team, and I’ve noticed that students who struggle do so because they don’t “do” the work. It’s hard to assess the quality if they don’t have anything to show their current level of proficiency. I’ve also noticed that some teachers give a “ton” of assignments and others don’t. In this system, students who are compliant and do the work get good grades; those who do nothing get poor grades. The system needs to be fixed. How? That is a giant can of worms. We need to start by coming to consensus about what is expected for each “grade”. The traditional scale isn’t going away anytime soon, so we need to find a way to make it serve our students better.

    • aaronhogan Post authorReply

      I think you’re right that it’s a systemic issue. What’s something that a teacher could do to help with one piece of the issues you mentioned?

  3. Stephanie Ryon Reply

    Love this – thanks for the insightful post! I have a ton in my head (and heart) about MY philosophy on grading – even in a typically boring, black & white subject, like math. But I’ll spare you the novel! Ha! My biggest barrier in trying to assess in a way that truly measures a learner’s understanding is dealing with 1) curriculum constraints (lack of meaningful curriculum that supports effective creation of understanding), 2) expectations of “common” assessments & common grade requirements, and 3) still having the standardized tests weighing down what we are doing in class to assess – while inadvertently pressured to get our students to pass, but not “teaching to the test” (and now having our new teacher evaluation system count against us if our students don’t achieve well on that test). This changes the way we assess, whether we want it to or not. And it makes me so sad! With all of that being said (and not being able to change these things at the top), I try my hardest to assess differently every day – formatively and summatively. It is not always amazing. And I don’t always ask permission to do it. But that is a risk I take that I know puts my student’s needs first. And in the end, that is all that matters. I agree with the comment on the broken system of expectations. I also think it takes a huge (district-wide) mind shift to appreciate and truly believe in the idea of assessing differently- and that is a beast. Fixable over time, but a beast. Amazing once we can all get there, but a beast to invoke that change. Definitely worth it.

    • aaronhogan Post authorReply

      It’s a beast, but it seems worth the effort to explore it. We spend a huge amount of time taking and reporting grades, so they might as well mean something valuable. Any thoughts about where to start? Could be ideas for starting a change in the classroom or starting places for at the district level.

  4. Lindsey Chase Reply

    Aaron, as always, I truly appreciate your frank and honest commitment to student success. I believe that when we make that change from a grade to an expectation for learning, we can truly shift the student mindset from fixed to growth. However, it takes time, patience and true grit to persevere through the change. Your students brought up great questions that I hadn’t even considered such as eligibility for extra-curriculars. Isn’t it amazing to seek their opinions and find what amazing ideas they hold? I also find the subtle yet marked shift to intrinsic motivation – learning truly for the sake of learning – is very powerful. I look forward to picking your brain at #WGEDD !

    • aaronhogan Post authorReply

      I agree. I was really impressed with their responses!

      Looking forward to our conversations at WGEDD, too!

  5. Justin Barrett Reply

    I have had fun with randomized computer assessments that students may take as often as desired. I have the blessing of being a math teacher with a computer lab, so I will create a difficult quiz or test with randomization thrown in. Every student gets different questions and different numbers. Students are allowed to take the assessments until they get a grade they are satisfied with until the end of the grading period, and because it is little to no work for me to grade (the computer does it for me), I see no harm in repeated iterations of taking a quiz. I also see no need to curve or throw in “easier” questions to make the grade fit the expected 70 passing rate. My students will often tell me that they learned some during the unit, but after the unit they actually get a grip on the concept because they have the freedom to fail with the expectation of eventual mastery.

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  7. Blair Peterson Reply

    I had the good fortune to work at a school that undertook the important task of reforming our assessment practices. The work was tough since we had to work through difficult task internally. As a faculty, we didn’t always agree on the approach and our implementation. Standardizing practices was a huge challenge. We also had to deal with students and parents who were questioning the changes. In the end, it was definitely worth it. You can check out my first of several posts on this process here. “What’s it like to change grading and reporting practices that have been around for over 100 years?”

  8. Elizabeth Wells Reply

    My district took on the beast that Stephanie mentioned in her comments. In ELA and Math K-12, committees of teachers created the standards-based formative assessments that many of the comments mentioned are crucial to systemic change. We call it Units of Study(UoS), and many surrounding districts did the same. When I started using the UoS, I was unsatisfied with my grading practices. I realized that my gradebook did not provide standards-based feedback to the students, parents, or other staff at the school. Standards-based instruction and standards-based assessment does not have a lot of meaning without standards-based reporting and feedback. I transitioned this year to SBG, even though I have a traditional gradebook that I have to use. I may be the only teacher doing this, though. To answer some of the questions, this is what I do: I only enter assessments in the gradebook. Each grade is entered as a standard, so a single assessment could be represented as 3-4 separate grades in the gradebook. I started out by entering 1,2,3,4 in the gradebook, but it skewed grades so badly that I switched over to percentages based on Marzano’s conversion scale. This works much better for me and my students. A problem I have is I still have kids ask, “What can I do to get an A?” I want them to ask “What can I do to become proficient?” Unfortunately, other school districts have dropped their UoS in favor of the new textbook adoptions. While I feel that we are getting close to what Will Richardson mentioned in a recent blog post as amplifying learning over improving instruction, others are not comfortable with the shift and want to go back to a traditional model.

  9. Priscilla Burns Reply

    Grading is a difficult. As a student I would like to get a B and learn a LOT rather than a meaningless A. As a teacher I hope that students adopt that same learning mentality. If we consider “genius time” or 20% “creative time” as many of the new doctrines suggest; along with Project Based Learning then we as instructors must scaffold rubrics and grading systems to accommodate the new instructional methods. No longer will it be “What can I do to get an A; but what skills do I need to exhibit to prove competency in a skill or knowledge set.”
    I think common core and PBL will lead us to new ideas about grading. My ultimate idea for grading would be mastery checklists… where students provide evidence toward mastery levels. This would require too much time based on current class sizes. But it is worth a “brainstorm”… maybe during genius hour 🙂

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