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“Grading” Principles (Part I of the Assesment Series)

December 15, 2012

Teacher Musings:

A few months ago a colleague asked me about a grading system I use.  I explained the mechanics for her, and I hope it saved her some time and headaches during end-of-term grading.  However, after we talked, I felt a little unsettled, but I couldn’t figure out why.  After some time, I realized what was bothering me was that I hadn’t had a chance to explain how the mechanics and logistics of my grading system fit into my principles around assessment and grading.  In fact, I’ve explain my grading “systems” to lots and lots of people, but rarely am I asked about why I grade this way.  So, today I’m starting a multi-post series about the way I view and implement grading in my classroom, and I’m starting with my “grading” principles.

I started my first year teaching with a pretty standard grading system.  There were categories that made up percentages of students grades, like “Homework” and “Projects.”  And I was a well-trained teacher, so I had rubrics!  Rubrics and rubrics galore!

Every assignment had its own rubric so that students would know how they were graded.  Of course, I sometimes made the rubric after giving the assignment, and students rarely saw the rubrics before they turned in the assignment, and students didn’t really look at the rubrics (only at the grade), but still, I had rubrics!!  Rubrics, grading categories and Easy Grade Pro.  Now, surely, I could focus more on teaching and less on grading.

However, pretty quickly I learned that what I was calling “grading” and teaching needed to be linked.  First off I learned that categories could be problematic.  When I went to turn in my first progress report I realized that I had only assigned one minor “project” but, because of my categories, that “project” constituted 20% of my students’ progress report grade.  I turned in my progress reports, but then tried to explain to my students why those progress report grades were not an accurate reflection of their probable end-of-term grade.  My explanation fell flat, several students assumed that they were doomed to fail anyway and several other students had a false sense of how well they were doing in the class.

After this debacle, and many others my first year, I got better at figuring out which categories to use and how to weight them so that grades were supposedly more accurate.  But the question that nagged me year after year was “accurate in regards to what?”  When I honestly looked at my grades I found they were far more correlated to a students’ ability to do “school” well than their actual reading and writing.  For example, every year I had a couple of kids that wrote well, maybe even pushed themselves to write deep thoughts, but they didn’t always turn drafts in on time, or turn in other worksheets.  Their grades were lower than the kids who showed up every day, did every assignment on time, but didn’t read or write as well by the end of the year.  Now, these were just a few outliers.  For the most part, the kids who did “school” well were also the kids who had better reading and writing skills (maybe suggesting that school taught them something?)  Either way though, the outliers made me wonder what the grades I was giving (or students were “earning” – however you want to put it) really meant.

Now, I think there is a valid argument to be made about rewarding students who exhibit what I call “school” skills, like showing up everyday, turning in work on time, making sure they type in standard form and not bizzaro 15 point font, etc.  But the problem with grades is that we are selling them to kids as a measure of their skills, knowledge, heck even their worth as a person sometimes!  And it is not OK to do that if that is not what grades mean.

All of these factors, the outliers, the incongruities, and the technical problems, pushed me to re-think my grading a few years ago.  I read a number of books and articles, including Understanding by Design, Building the English Classroom and Write Beside Them.  Based this thinking, reading and working with colleagues, I currently have several key principles that I try to return to reflectively every time I have to make a decision about grading systems, grading assignments, or explaining grades to students:

  • The purpose of assessment is to help a learner learn how to do something and to improve their practice.  The purpose of grading is to report a student’s learning progress in an easily reportable and shared form.  Don’t let the grading get in the way of assessment.
  • If assessment is about learning, and I want grades to accurately report student progress based on assessment (as much as possible) I cannot use grades as punishment for behavior.  Or, at least if I do, I have to be transparent about it.
  • If I want my assessment to be valuable to students, I must only assess the skills and knowledge that is actually valuable.  This can include “school skills” but I do not want this skills to be the primary skills taught in my classroom.

Similarly, there are a couple of patterns I have seen with students over the years that I refer back to when considering my assessment systems, my grading systems and the way I assign work:

  • Most students value grades at some level.  They also have lots of things going on in their lives.  Therefore, if certain assignments count for “more” of a grade, students are more likely to figure out how to get a good grade on those assignments.  This also means they may neglect assignments that are count as “less” of a grade, regardless of the learning potential of each respective assignment.
  • If I give student a grade with feedback, they are likely to ignore the feedback.  If I give them feedback without a grade, they are more likely to pay attention and incorporate the feedback and improve their work.

So, these principles and patterns form the backbone of my grading and assessment systems.  My next post will focus on the third principle I mentioned – how I decide what skills and knowledge are valuable enough to assess carefully, and therefore also focus my instruction.

Check out the rest of the Assessment Series!

Part II: Focusing on Mastery

Part III: A System that Works

Yummy Stuff:

I LOVE creamy soups. It is totally worth the transfer from the pot to the blender and back again as far as I am concerned.  Yes, I know about immersion blenders.  We have one and it is great for making chunky soups, but for the really creamy ones you just can’t beat our Vitamix.  Anyway, I’m not going to wax poetic about creamy soups for this whole post – instead I’m going to give you a recipe for one!  I puree the whole thing for maximum creamy-ness, but you could totally add in some whole corn kernels later for a more chunky soup.

Creamy Corn Chowder


5 cups of corn kernels.  (If you are buying them frozen, fire-roasted ones are especially good here)
2 TB of non-dairy butter, divided
1 medium onion, chopped
1 tsp dried tarragon
1 tsp dried thyme
4 1/2 cups of vegetable stock or corn stock (made by boiling corn cobs for a long time)
2 large yukon gold potatoes, cut into 1/2 -1 inch chunks
1/2 cup non-dairy milk
2-4 TB fresh basil, chopped (optional)


  1. Melt 1 1/2 TB of butter in a large sauce pan over medium heat.  Pour in the corn kernels and stir to coat them in the butter.  Cook the corn for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Then, if you want to have corn kernels in your soup (instead of a totally creamy soup) pull out 1 cup of corn kernels and set off to the side.
  2. Push the corn to the side of the pan a bit and add the last bit of butter.  Put the onions on the buttered side of the pan and stir a bit.  Cook for another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally
  3. Add in the tarragon and thyme and stir around.  Then add in the potatoes and stock.  Bring to a boil and then cover and turn to low.  Simmer soup for 20-25 minutes or until the potatoes are tender and can be pierced with a fork
  4. Ladle the soup into a blender, puree, and then pour the soup back in the pan.  This may take a few rounds with the blender.
  5. When the pureed soup is back in the pot, keep the heat on low and pour in the non-dairy milk, and the reserved corn kernels (if you pulled them out in step 1).  Stir in the optional basil and serve!

From → Assessment, Dinner, Soup

  1. What a good teacher you are! That you give so much thought to this and are willing to share it speaks volumes. Love creamy corn soup too.

    • Thanks so much Tammy! To be honest most teachers I know think about these things quite a lot. Figuring what to do about it is another matter all together. That is still DEFINITELY a work in progress! As is my next post. As soon as my baby starts napping for real I’ll get it posted!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Focusing on Mastery (Part II of the Assessment Series) « English Teachin' Vegan
  2. A System that Works (Part III of the Assessment Series) « English Teachin' Vegan

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