Tenets of Assessment/Grading Reform

Matt Townsley is a former math teacher and a director of curriculum and technology in Iowa. He, along with Alfonso Gonzalez and Joe Bower, were the people who really got me started in thinking critically about how we assess. He is a great advocate of standards-based grading and his arguments are both well thought-out and well-researched. It’s an honor to have Matt write here.

First of all, I’d like to thank Jason for inviting me to be a part of the summer guest blogging series on assessment practices.  In a way, it seems a bit out of my comfort zone to be asked to write somewhere other than my own blog, because I firmly believe that anyone can become an expert in today’s world of self-publishing.  The difference between me and many other educators interested in assessment reform isn’t knowledge – it’s context.  Assessment reform (a.k.a. “standards-based grading” or “SBG”) will look a bit different at different grade levels, with different students and in different disciplines.  No matter what it looks like, it should be more than a mere change in the way grades are reported out.

“…changing classroom assessment is the beginning of a revolution – a revolution in classroom practices of all kinds…Getting classroom assessment right is not a simplistic, either-or situation. It is a complex mix of challenging personal beliefs, rethinking instruction and learning new ways to assess for different purposes.” (Earl, 2003, pp. 15-16)

In my reading and six years of experience, I’ve found a few core beliefs of assessment worth hanging on to – the “tenets of assessment/grading reform,” if you will and I’d like to share them with you.  Without further ado…

Allow new evidence of achievement to replace old evidence.

“Classroom assessments and grading should focus on how well – not on when – the student mastered the designated knowledge and skill” (McTighe & O’Connor, 2005)

Consider the following example. Assume that homework is graded on completion and quizzes/tests on content mastery.
Bobby: Homework: 50% Quiz: 60% Test: 100%
Suzy: Homework: 100% Quiz 100% Test: 100%

Bobby did not understand the concepts and therefore did not complete the homework. Somewhere between the “quiz” and the “test” Bobby came in for extra help and finally “understood” the concept which explains his/her sudden improvement on the “test.”

In the traditional grading system, which student earns a better grade? Suzy, of course. A traditional points system penalizes “later learners.” On the “test,” both students demonstrated the same level of understanding, but Bobby is penalized for initially struggling. Do we have a realistic expectation that students will “get it” the first day we teach concepts to them? If so, then why not have daily tests?

Some educators, in their standards-based grading implementation plans, have mentioned assessing a single skill twice and then averaging the two scores or adding them up before entering the scores into the grade book.  I question whether these tweaks to the grade book truly serve the Bobby’s in our classrooms – the ones who learn later.  Priority of “what” a student knows should take precedence over “when” he/she learns it.

Traditional assessment and grading schemes tell students…

You must learn (insert big idea) by Thursday.  If it took you until Friday, too bad!

Sure, we all have grading deadlines pre-determined by our schools, but if students are permitted to ask questions about daily/homework/practice assignments during or outside of class, what can’t they do the same for “tests,” too?  Students only see “tests” as final, because our traditional grading systems treat them that way.

New assessments and grading schemes tell students…

Learning on Thursday is just as important as learning on Friday.  In fact, opportunities exist for you to learn the essential concepts and skills, even if it is a week or two later.

We’re in the business of helping kids “get it,” right?  Our assessment and grading schemes should encourage and reward students who understand the essential concepts and skills throughout the course, not just on our firm and rigid time lines.

Feedback trumps grades, numbers and percentages.

“Assessment always has more to do with helping students grow than with cataloging their mistakes” (Carol Tomlinson in Fisher & Frey, 2007, p. 119)

“The most powerful single modification that enhances achievement is feedback.” (John Hattie in Marzano, 2006, p. 5)

I used to think I was providing feedback to students by writing scores on their homework, quizzes and tests.  I assumed that a 15/20 on a quiz was sending the message “you need to work on some of this stuff before the test.”  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Instead the message I was sending was “get our your calculator…congratulations, you just earned a 75% in the grade book!”  As much as I hoped students would examine the quiz questions and the correct answers I wrote in, they weren’t.  Ask your students what they do when a quiz lands in their hands.  I’m fairly confident the super-majority of them will respond “I look at the score and then recycle it/throw it away/put it in my folder.”

“To be effective, feedback needs to cause thinking. Grades don’t do that. Scores don’t do that. And comments like ‘Good job’ don’t do that either. What does cause thinking is a comment that addresses what the student needs to do to improve” – Nov. 2005 Ed. Leadership article.

One strategy I found to be very helpful in making this shift in my classroom was going from number/score feedback on quizzes to a lykert scale/narrative feedback based on specific learning targets.

Quiz lykert scale

Quiz lykert scale

This subtle change provided clear descriptive feedback to students where they are in a learning progression.  In some instances, students were asked to first complete the lykert scale themselves in pencil.  Under each learning target narrative, the problems numbers associated are listed.  After writing in correct answers and providing written feedback on individual problems, I circled in pen where I felt each student was on the continuum, too.  When large gaps existed, it created some much needed conversation between the student and myself.  A follow-up class activity involved matching Students with relative strengths and weaknesses for 5-10 minutes to ask questions of each other or me for the sake of learning from their mistakes.  These quizzes are not entered into the grade book – they are intended to be structured feedback opportunities before the unit assessment takes place.

Grades, because they’re necessary, must have meaning.

“When grades are not deliberately connected to learning, they provide little valuable feedback regarding students’ academic strengths and weaknesses, and can even be counterproductive.”  (Winger, 2005, p. 62)

I’d enjoy eliminating grades if it was possible, but for the past six years that decision hasn’t been mine to make.  Grades are a reality in most of the secondary schools in America, so making the most of them is the best many of us can do.  In workshops I’ve conducted, I usually ask questions such as “What does an 85%, B, mean in your classroom?”

  • Does it indicate a student understands 85% of the material?
  • Does it mean a student understands 100% of the material, but didn’t turn in 15% of the assignments?
  • Is this B a result of a student who understands 90% of the material, but turned in an assignment late?
  • Did this student understand 75% of the material, but turned in a few extra crossword puzzles raising his/her grade to an 85%?

Homework, extra credit and late work penalties vary from classroom to classroom.  In my opinion, these factors only contribute to the points game and something I call grading pollution.  If you’ve taught secondary school for any length of time, you’ve probably received emails like this one…

actual parent email

Point accumulation without knowing where these points are coming from is the norm in the minds of our parents and students.  Low grades should communicate gaps in learning, not factors too difficult to synthesize from the list of assignments and points in the grade book.  I am a firm believer in standards-based grading.  Rather than reporting homework, quizzes and tests separately, points are assigned solely based on a students’ ability to demonstrate an understanding of essential concepts and skills.

standards-based grade book

Notice the different categories along the top. The learning targets are the only area of focus.  When parents and students click on the learning targets in the student information system, the target description such as “Define and classify special types of quadrilaterals” is displayed. I’ve found success using a four-point scale correlating to key phrases:

4 – demonstrates thorough understanding
3.5 – high level of understanding, but with small errors
3 – demonstrates understanding, but with significant gaps
2 – shows some understanding, but insufficient for a passing grade
1 – Attempts the problem

Grades now have meaning.  A 100% indicates a student has a thorough understanding of the learning targets assessed up until that point in the course.  Grades communicate one thing (learning) rather than leaving the percentage-to-understanding conversion up for grabs.  Parents and students gain a clearer picture of the learning goals for the course and how closely the individual student is to mastering those concepts and ideas.  That’s a good thing, right?


Assessment and grading reform isn’t a simple task.  Many of us grew up playing the points game and for some of us, we played it very well.  We earned A’s in courses we knew very little about because we completed worksheets and turned them in on time.  We earned B’s in courses in which we were bored silly – we were sleeping through lectures of seemingly little importance and forgot to turn in an assignment or two.  We also earned C’s in courses we knew very little about, but because we knew more than our peers, the curve permitted us to pass.  Sadly, we also earned A’s in courses because we caught on to content “by the test” while our slower learning peers were punished for learning the same content a few days or weeks later.  We could rarely distinguish between As and Bs because the game was played with different rules in different classrooms.  Each and every one of us has an opportunity to change the culture of our classrooms and our buildings by taking a careful look at our assessment and grading practices.  Do grades reflect the speed of learning or learning itself?  Are the majority of our assessments feedback-driven or do they seem terminal to the students?  Finally, are the grades we communicate polluted or do they represent learning?


Works Cited:

  • Earl, L. M. (2003). Assessment as Learning: Using Classroom Assessment to Maximize Student Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
  • Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2007). Checking for Understanding: Formative Assessment Techniques for your Classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • Marzano, R. J. (2006). Classroom Assessment & Grading that Work. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • McTighe, J., & O’Connor, K. (2005). Seven Practices for Effective Learning. Educational Leadership, 63(3), 10-17.
  • Winger, T. (2005). Grading to Communicate. Educational Leadership, 63(3), 61-65.

8 comments to Tenets of Assessment/Grading Reform

  • I have been reading (with great interest) these posts about standards-based grading for a while now, and I am very interested. I am glad to read one from a secondary teacher because I would like to implement this in my classroom, but I am trying to figure out how to work it out with grading programs, admin, and parents. I am interested in the lykert scale/narrative feedback form. Is there a place where I can download a copy of this? Also, I will check out Matt’s blog. Hopefully, I will see more info about the gradebook aspect. Thanks!
    Knighton´s last blog post ..Connecting to 1984

  • Matt Townsley
    Twitter: mctownsley

    @Knighton – Here’s a link to the quiz with lykert scale: http://drop.io/points2learning/asset/blue-quiz3-6-7-pdf
    Thanks for reading!

  • ktenkely
    Twitter: ktenkely

    Yes, yes, yes! It is so easy for students to learn how the assessment system works and then work the system. I got straight A’s in history. I can assure you, I shouldn’t have gotten an A. I didn’t understand any of it. I knew how to play the assessment game.
    Reform may be uncharted territory and an uneasy place for administration and parents to go, but it is necessary for our students. We owe them better feedback, better guidance. Great post!
    ktenkely´s last blog post ..Answer Garden

  • Janelle Wilson
    Twitter: janellewilson


    Thanks for this great information and an example of using a standards based gradebook. I am definitely pushing to reform the way I grade/assess this year. I want it all to have so much more meaning. I really like the wording you use for each of your areas.


    Thanks for this guest series on assessment reform. It’s a great help to me!

  • design courses
    Twitter: http://www.aica.edu.au

    Some educators, in their standards-based grading implementation plans, have mentioned assessing a single skill twice and then averaging the two scores or adding them up before entering the scores into the grade book.

  • [...] Bower–Abolishing Grading and The Grading Moratorium Matt Townsley — The Tenets of Assessment/Grading Reform (guest post)Alfonso Gonzalez — Why Grade to Assess?(guest post)Jason Bedell’s Summer Series on [...]

  • Marc

    I know our system isn’t likely to change, but I have felt for a very long time that there is something very wrong with how students are graded and how those grades are used to judge students for everything from qualifying for a scholarship, admission to a school, or suitability for a job. From a big picture perspective we discourage students from taking risks to learn a challenging subject. In my own life I had a chance to take an art class or sign up for study hall. The art class would have been graded in part based on performance/competence and in part on competition with my peers. Most of the art students had been taking the classes since their Freshmen year and were very good, and I realized in my first week that I was not going to be anywhere near their level. I had to decide in my first week to continue or change to study hall. I didn’t need study hall to get my work done and would have preferred to learn something new and challenging, but fear of the effect a bad grade could have on my transcript prompted me to switch. I graduated Salutatorian, which might not have happened if I took a chance on that class.

    Cumulative grading systems also force students to drag early bad experiences with them all the way through high school, which can be very demoralizing for those who start to shine mid way but know that they have already lost their shot to finish school with the marks they need to get where they want to go.

    It seems to me that learning and conferring of credentials should be completely separate processes. Begin with a pre-assessment. If a student already possesses sufficient mastery then the pre-assessment might allow them to skip the course altogether. If they take the course then homework, quizzes and other performance evaluations serve as feedback during the learning process. We might block the student from proceeding to section 2 of the course until they have satisfactory mastery of section 1. Traditional classroom instruction involves keeping an entire class on the same page and near the same level of progress, but self-paced study allows fast learners to accelerate their education and slower learners to have more time to master material. Short assessments during the course can prompt learners to go back and read a section again or practice exercises until skills improve. The students choose to take the credential assessment when they believe they are ready and can repeat the assessment as many times as they choose to improve their final score.

    As far as conferring credentials is concerned, the conventional A, B, C, and F approach does not communicate well what a student has accomplished. At one institution most of the students in a class will receive a C for being average, very good students will get a B, and may just one or two students who are truly exceptional will get an A, often needing to outperform their peers and demonstrate out-of-the-box ingenuity rather than merely learning the material as it is presented. Other institutions or classes will grant an A to every student that showed up, turned in assignments on time, showed their work on exams, and could demonstrate that they read the textbook, reserving B’s for the disorganized and distracted and C’s for slackers who make half an effort. So being an B student might be great if your studying physics at MIT but not so impressive if you’re taking a word processing class at a community college.

    A better approach would be classify one’s level of accomplishment in a course or a series of courses. So an assessment in one course might show that you are a “novice” in the subject, but later you re-assess as “proficient”. For another credential perhaps you have studied more advanced material and qualify as an “expert”. You may have a peer that is talented and gifted and might qualify as a “master”, and maybe a collection of high performing credentials might earn one a title such as “grandmaster”. An assessment exam might involve objective test questions like multiple choice, true/false, etc. and some subjective criteria such as showing work for multi-step problem solving or writing an essay. Credentialing might also take into consideration factors beyond an exam, such as a successful internship, capstone project, or real-world accomplishments such as holding patents, getting published, winning a competition, or getting a letter of recommendation.

    Different credentials could have different criteria for various levels of success, but any student could be free of the stigma of a “bad” grade in a class and instead highlight all of the shades of their successes with the opportunity to improve to a higher skillset. This would be similar to how professionals self-report their level of competence with various skills, such as their level of familiarity with a software application or level of comfort speaking a foreign language. They may say they “have experience” with program x, “expert” at program y, fluent in language p, and beginner in language q.

    In the current system, if a student takes a college class and gets a D, that D is stuck on their transcript like a mark of shame. They can’t choose to leave it off their transcript – it is there forever, except in rare circumstances where a student is allowed to repeat the class and change the grade. Though even in these circumstance often there are rules, like the highest grade for a repeated class might be a C, or the transcript might show both attempts and the grades for each. In either scenario the total GPA might be dragged down significantly in just one bad semester, maybe in part due to a tragic death in the family. There are stories about otherwise qualified people being overlooked for certain jobs because HR personnel saw an F in a transcript and discarded their entire application.

    On the other hand, many people get into their careers by taking an exam to become licensed. There are also many third party certifications, some of which are quite respected in industry, and often with varying degrees of mastery based on meeting experience requirements and taking a second, more advanced exam. With these certifications an individual chooses which to pursue, and they also chose which certifications to highlight on their resume. For these certifications they can just keep it to themselves that they failed the exam or didn’t meet other requirements for a license or certification they were pursuing. Higher education could make use of this route as well, giving students some flexibility to present themselves as novices in some subjects and experts in others, and allow degree conferring institutions to decide what acceptance criteria to use and what level of proficiency in various subjects would be required to earn the degree.

    Imagine if a student took Calculus I, Calculus II, and Calculus III. Now imagine that there was only one credential for Calculus, with ratings as “novice”, “expert” and “master”. Completion of calc I conferred novice status, but by completion of calc III they would have earned “master” status. Now imagine that highly motivated and capable students could take the calc III class but continue the Calculus assessment to the point that they earned title of “grandmaster”, or some equivalent description. “Grandmaster” may or may not confer points like a GPA on a transcript, but regardless, the student would have earned bragging rights and could point out in their resume that they successfully completed their course of studies for the degree and oh, by the way, they are also a “GrandMaster” in Calculus. Such a highlight might show one employer that the student is motivated to succeed, while another employer might consider this an essential qualification for a special position. Point is, assessments should be an accurate reflection of competency at time of assessment, perhaps even with continuing requirements to maintain a credential.

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