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In the 2016 book Pedagogy of Faith, I contributed a chapter on the role of grades in teaching the faith. The topic comes up often when I talk to other teachers, and the chapter seemed to resonate with a quite a few readers. So I decided to expand on some of the ideas in that chapter over the upcoming weeks, creating a series on grading and assessment.
I know that grades and assessment don’t get many people excited. Most of us do not become teachers because we can’t wait to grade papers and assess students. Most of us have a combined love for teaching and nurturing young people, a love of learning, and often a love for learning in one or more content areas. Yet, at least in the majority of schools, it’s impossible to avoid some form of grading and assessment.
That doesn’t mean there is only one way to complete these tasks. In fact, there are countless ways to approach both grading and assessment, each with its own benefits and limitations. As such, look for a list of articles over the upcoming weeks on this subject. We’ll look at the role of grades, the benefits and limitations of grades, and alternatives that some people are exploring and using, as well as a number of different approaches to assessment. We’ll look at self-assessment; peer assessment; standards-based assessment; using rubrics and checklists; emerging innovations in this space, such as digital badges; the differences between formative and summative assessment; and many other topics.
Before we get to all of that, let’s start out with a basic question. What is the difference between grading and assessment? I’ve been using the terms together, but others use them as distinct terms. At the same time, the distinction is not always as simple or clean as we might like. In the real world, people jump between the terms, sometimes using them interchangeably and other times distinguishing between them.
To keep it somewhat simple, I’d like to offer a couple of working definitions to use throughout our series. By its very definition, the word grade is about ranking or rating someone on some sort of scale. You might grade people by comparing them to one another. That is the case in certain college classes some of you may have experienced where the teacher used a curved grading system, giving the highest grade to the top 10 or 20 percent and going down from there. This style is not very popular today, especially in K–12 education. Teachers on these levels rate students according to a certain standard. Some use a point or percentage system. Students earn points and percentages on individual assignments, quizzes, tests, projects, and the like. Those points and percentages are combined and calculated to come up with a grade. That is still how the majority of people come up with grades.
Some like to think of a grade as a measure of how much students have learned, but that isn’t always accurate. For example, some teachers reduce grades if students submit work late, don’t follow specific instructions, or fail to follow some rule not directly related to the content or skill being taught. As such, some students might earn a low grade in a class when, in fact, they have just as high a level of content or skill mastery as another student with a higher grade. A typical grade often represents more than just student learning.
There are exceptions to this use of grading, some of which we will explore in future weeks. Standards-based grading, for example, is an approach to grading that seeks to focus the process on the extent to which a student meets explicit standards. There might be an overall grade, but it is broken down and communicated in a way that helps one see the extent to which students mastered more discrete standards. If I see that a student earned a B in a class, I don’t know why. With a standards-based approach, I might be able to look under the hood and see that the student had a high level of mastery for some knowledge and skills but struggled in other knowledge or skills. Yet, the performance averaged out to a B.
This last exploration of grading leads us to that second term, assessment. Assessment tends to include greater analysis of what students have or have not learned. It is most often used to look at more discrete or specific areas of strengths and limitations. This can be incredibly helpful for students and teachers. It allows us to see how a student is doing in a way that can guide next steps. As such, you might be able to discover that a student is struggling because of one particular concept that the student misunderstands. Identify and address that challenge, and the student suddenly begins to make impressive progress. Or we might find that a group of students are all struggling with certain concepts while doing very well with others. This is great feedback for a teacher when trying to figure out the most effective ways to teach or to help students learn something new.
These two descriptions of grading and assessment are not perfect because our use of the words is not precise in education. Nonetheless, I offer these as a starting point. We can use them as we spend the upcoming weeks exploring more specific questions and topics. Again, I know that most of us don’t get excited when we hear words like grading and assessment, but I invite you to stick with me. I’m going to face the challenge of helping you see a new side of grading and assessment, one that will give you a greater sense of how these can be powerful tools for improving student learning and engagement across the curriculum.
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