/ March 2, 2023

Grading for Learning and Equity: Why Our Practices Need Reform in NH….. by Ellen Hume-Howard and Brian Stack

In our post-COVID world, New Hampshire educators in schools around the state have been heavily engaged in conversations over the need for grading practices reform.  The global pandemic highlighted a number of shortcomings in schools, including the ways in which educators collect evidence of learning and report progress to students and families – grading practices are needed that support deeper learning and equity to promote high levels of achievement for all. Competency-based grading shifts students’ mindsets from “getting it done” to “How well did I show what I know”. 

To do this, educators must change their thinking… and recognize that “the way things have always been” may not be good enough any more. To engage in this work takes courage and an open mind, but educators should know that it is supported by a large body of research. The New Hampshire Learning Initiative urges educators to consider the following key points when making grading decisions:

  1. Grades represent to what extent and to what degree a student has learned something. Grading is an exercise in judging student evidence against clearly defined criteria on well-defined rubrics. Teachers, working collaboratively, develop rubrics by having conversations about what it means to reach proficiency for a particular competency, standard, or skill. They then discuss what it means to be below or above proficient. Rubrics are continually calibrated as teachers use them to review student work. Rubrics also serve to provide students (and parents) with very clear descriptors for what they need to do to reach proficiency and beyond. 
  1. Grades are not time-bound. Students learn at different rates and the amount of time it takes a student to learn something should not influence or impact their grade. Time restrictions for grades often exist because it is more convenient for the system to track learning for large groups of students. This practice comes at the expense of promoting a growth mindset, a major driver in student engagement. Students should be provided regular, timely feedback. If they need additional time to master a skill, the system must find a way to provide them with that. Failure to do this is a failure of the system, not the student. 
  1. Grades are based on what students learn, not what they earn. They are not based on points that can be “taken away” due to student misbehaviors (such as turning in an assignment “late”). Teachers must provide students with accurate and explanatory feedback. For example, “I wasn’t able to give you any grades this week because you didn’t give me any evidence of your work or thinking on this assignment. I would like to meet with you and talk through what prevented you from turning something in. UNtil this time, I have entered an incomplete grade for now, but this will change once you have given me something to review.” Poor grades, or a lack of evidence must trigger a response from the teacher for an opportunity to reread, relearn, revise and refine. This is what effective teaching and learning is all about.  Academic behaviors, often called success habits or work study practices, are incredibly important but must be reported as separate grades. Furthermore, educators must find ways to instruct students on work study practices. How else will they improve in these important, life-long skills? To commingle academics with academic behaviors is a slippery slope because doing so then does not allow all to know how to support students as they work towards competency.
  1. Achievement levels, and thus grading practices, must be fair, consistent, and calibrated across a school. Regardless of which educator is grading an assignment, the grade assigned should be consistent educator to educator. The only way to achieve this goal is to develop systems and structures to ensure that educators have time and a process to discuss in meaningful ways student work and rubrics. There is no shortcut for this.

We applaud the educators in NH and across the country who are transforming the way they provide feedback to learners. It is a big shift from a traditional grading system that focuses more on the management of grading then the progress of learners. 

The shift to a competency-based learning system is a challenge; a focus on the learner means more attention to students as individuals. This may mean shifting classroom and instructional practices to the development of new plans and strategies. Teachers, with their colleagues, may need to create new units and curriculum reflective of student interest and choice, to impact student engagement.

For grading and reporting to be accurate, student engagement and self-direction are key. Curriculum and instruction need to lift student engagement. Emphasizing that a student needs to demonstrate competency and to improve their performance is so important to building a sense of the value of learning. If what we ask students to learn is important, we want them to be truly competent enough to apply it going forward.

There exists a tremendous body of research to support grading reform. We urge educators to consult the work of experts such as Susan Brookhart, Thomas Guskey, Lea Ann Jung, Robert Marzano, Ken O’Connor, Doug Reeves, and Rick Wormeli. Additionally, Dr. Matthew Townsley, Assistant Professor, Educational Leadership & Coordinator, EdD Ed Lead ISA at the University of Northern Iowa maintains a comprehensive list of articles related to grading reform principles. Many are published in peer-reviewed journals. 

Earlier this fall, the New Hampshire Learning Initiative hosted a three-part virtual series of workshops with Brian M. Stack, Director of Innovative Projects. These workshops were at no cost and focused on the following three objectives:

  1. Advance understanding of the latest researched-based competency based grading and reporting practices.
  2. Identify opportunities to promote learning and equity through grading and reporting.
  3. Develop school-specific plans for next steps with grading for learning and equity.

NHLI is planning to offer another grading workshop series at no cost this spring. You can see all our professional development offerings by clicking here.

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Ellen Hume-Howard and Brian Stack

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Categories: Grading and Reporting

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