As teachers, we have a series of traditions we use when we try to determine how well our students are doing. For example, we mark everything our students do and average it together, or we might focus our feedback on finished assignments or tests. In many cases, we engage in these practices because it is what we experienced in K-12 education and during university, or because it is what other teachers showed us how to do. I have never met a teacher whose reason for being in education is the opportunity to spend evenings marking student work. Report card time is not happy hour.
Why we grade student work:
Having said that we don’t really like it, few of us (even experts) have a really clear sense of goal of grading even through we need to know (Guskey, 2015). A friend of mine, who by coincidence is named Mark, was the first person to tell me that the goal of marking was to “grow the pig” not “weigh the pig.” While the livestock comparison might be unfortunate, it has really stuck with me, and it moved me as a teacher from focusing on summative measures to formative ones that could help me better meet student need. I realized the purpose of grading is to determine exactly how a student is doing so that you as the teacher, in collaboration with the student can be as effective as possible in growing the student’s learning. Parents look to a report card to see how a student is doing.
However, my need to actually understand exactly what a student could do or needed help with was actually harmed by my own grading practices. I took in various examples of student work and placed them in categories like tests or assignments, but the end mark did not actually tell me how well my students were doing relative my curriculum outcomes. I also averaged early practice in with major assignments, even though one was learning, and one was designed to see what had been learned. I had key content and skills I was trying to teach, and it began to frustrate me that my grades did not help me know exactly how the students were actually doing on the essential understandings and skills.
I was talking about the issue with my vice-principal at the time, Kerry, who suggested I think about criterion reference versus norm referenced grading, and read about standards-base assessment. I did, because I am nerdy that way, and I made a change to my grade book. Instead of organizing based on units, test, and assignments, I started making a category for each outcome. The simple change in my practice was far reaching.
How my grading changed:
The first time you try organizing by outcomes, it changes things. I realized I had outcomes I taught but didn’t really assess, and that some assignments (like an essay or final exam) that assessed multiple outcomes. I couldn’t just put the average in all of them because that didn’t help with my goal, which was to know exactly how a student was doing relative to each outcome. So I started recording parts of test and essays in different outcomes.
Why it helped my students:
I had to explain my process to students because it wasn’t what they were used to, and we made one of those epic journeys together. They started asking what outcome the activity was for, instead of how much is was worth. In response, I started always explaining the goal at the start of the lesson. My strongest students were largely unaffected, but the student who really needed me started understanding purpose more, and began doing much better. One of my students pointed out her newest evidence was much better than her first try and I found this was often true. I started taking the best evidence instead of all evidence because I wanted to see if my students could actually do the skills in outcome I had just taught. My students understood more and took more responsibility.
A fellow teacher asked me last week why it was worth doing this. He said it would be more work. It was initially. I made the switch because it made me a better teacher and improved my students’ investment in their learning. I continue to like it because it is more fair and accurate. The mark I give represents exactly what the curriculum is asking for, not something else. I still don’t like grading and find it too time consuming, but now it really helps learning and accurately reflects how much is happening. Outcomes-based grading was worth the investment, even though I had no idea what I was getting into when I got started.