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A System that Works (Part III of the Assessment Series)

February 17, 2013

Teacher Musings:

I’m wrapping up my Assessment Series with a description of my actual assessment and grading that I designed to best match my principles and ideals about assessment, even in an imperfect system.

Last year I dramatically altered my assessment and grading system to better align with my assessment principles and specific mastery goals for students.

Of course, I don’t work in a vacuum.  I would love to have just a standards-based grading system, or even simply a narrative report that I give students every year that outlines their strengths and weaknesses.  But I’m working with a system that expects a letter grade every nine weeks, which then all get averaged out into a final year-end grade.  Also, my school had an online gradebook that students expect to be able to check to see their grade in “real time” at any point in the term.

These constraints created some problems for me.  Firstly, one of my important assessment principles is this:

  • The purpose of assessment is to help a learner learn how to do something and to improve their practice.

Improving one’s practice involves making mistakes and learning from them, often through revision of work (especially with reading and writing).  As mentioned in part I of this series, students rarely revise or learn from their mistakes when I put a grade on something.  So, if I truly wanted them to learn through revision and improvement, I had to take some grading out of the equation.  So my portfolio and benchmark system were born.


The portfolio contains the work that is the heart of my classroom – and therefore also the heart of my assessment system.  The final portfolio counts for 60% of the student’s final term grade and consists of the most crucial products in my class.  Basically, the writing and thinking I’m asking students to do in their portfolio require them to master the skills I consider most important in my classroom.  Last school year a student’s final portfolio consisted of:

  • Two “analysis paragraphs” from their reading logs (about two different texts or two passages from the same book).
  • One piece of writing (we wrote pieces that ranged from narratives to persuasive articles)

Now, in nine weeks, we read and wrote a lot, and not everything student’s wrote or read was represented in the portfolio.  On average, in a term, students wrote 4-5 analysis paragraphs and two major pieces of persuasive, narrative or informational writing.  As students did all of these assignments throughout the term they received narrative feedback from me.  No grade on the assignment or work itself, just a note from me about what I saw them doing and what I thought their next steps for revision were.  With their larger pieces of writing I also had them ask me for specific feedback – some students asked me to correct their grammar and spelling, and some students asked me if I got their “main point” and for ideas about what they could do to make that claims clearer.  The point is, I gave students feedback on all their pieces, and they were expected to revise and edit selected pieces that went into their portfolio and were officially graded on standard rubrics that I used throughout the year.

The narrative feedback I gave students on these pieces of work revolutionized my grading.  I no longer hated taking their work home to read.  Instead of spending time adding up points or checking off sections of a rubric I spent time writing authentic feedback to students about their work.  Then they actually revised the work!!  It was the first time in my teaching career that a substantial number of my students actually revised and improved their writing after receiving feedback from me.  I want to note that I have always tried to give student’s feedback on first drafts and final drafts of their writing.  However, having this revision and improvement be part of a process towards a larger final product (the portfolio) was nothing short of revolutionary for me.  Instead of grading I as truly assessing students, and they were (mostly) using that assessment to learn and improve.

One important logistical point is that I did give every single assignment a “completion” grade that went into their classwork grade (which was 10% of their overall grade).  Every assignment got either a “complete,” “partial” or “incomplete” score.  This helped me keep track of what had been turned in when so that I could track down students who hadn’t given me work.  It also allowed students to check their “grades” online and see what assignments they were missing.  I fixed the grade program so that it did not show an overall grade.  Then I told students that those who turned in all their work on time were on-track for a passing grade.  The main function checking grades became making sure they had turned in all their work.

This completion grade went into their “classwork” grade (which was 10% of their overall term grade).  I didn’t make a big deal about the completion grades, but it did help me keep track of who turned in what, when, and who needed some nagging to turn things in on time.

Benchmark Tests:

There was one other key components of my grading system: my benchmark tests.  The benchmark tests (which made up 20% of student’s term grades) were tests that I gave every other week that were modeled after our state standardized test.  I don’t agree with standardized tests, but I also want my students to understand what the tests look like and how to tackle them since these tests are a barrier they have to deal with, regardless of my personal stance.  The benchmark tests were my compromise.  The benchmark tests all involved a cold text, some multiple choice questions and a writing component.  Students got feedback on each test, and, at the end of the term, I took their highest scores and used those as their final benchmark grade.  Again, even with a standard test that I was expected to use in some capacity I found a way to encourage some level of learning from past experience.  I tried to make sure that students looked at past tests and wrote down goals for themselves before taking the next one.

In the end my portfolio system and benchmark tests are a small step in the right direction.  I would like to get to a place where students’ “grades” are really descriptions of what objectives they have mastered and what their next goals for learning are.  However, as long as I’m working in the traditional grading system, this will be an evolving process for me.  I look forward to refining and improving this system next year when I’m back in the classroom.

Check out the rest of the Assessment Series!

Part I: Grading Principles

Part II: Focusing on Mastery

You can also read more about the details of my portfolio system here

Yummy Stuff:

We have been buried with snow over in my neck of the woods, which has had me craving some comfort food.  Enter one of my favorite treats: Veggie Italian Sausages!  We make our own seitan-based sausages rather than buying the prepared ones at the store that have a ton of salt and/or are super expensive.  These sausages are great to add to pasta dishes, breakfast scrambles or (my personal favorite) jambalaya.  The recipe below is the one we use, but we adapted it from Julie Hasson’s fantastic recipe.  You can get her recipe and watch a video of her preparing these sausages here.

Spicy Italian Vegetarian Sausages
Makes 8 links

2 1/4 cups vital wheat gluten
1/4 cup nutritional yeast flakes
1/4 cup chickpea flour
1 heaping tbsp Mrs. Dash seasoning
2 tbsp granulated onion
1 to 2 tbsp fennel seed, optional
2 tsp coarsely ground pepper, preferably freshly ground
2 tsp ground paprika
1 tsp dried chili flakes, optional
1 tsp ground smoked paprika
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp salt
1/8 tsp ground allspice
2 cups cool water*
6 to 8 cloves garlic, minced or pressed OR 1 tbsp garlic powder
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp soy sauce

1. In a large bowl, mix together all of the dry ingredients. Whisk together the water, garlic (or garlic powder), olive oil and soy sauce and using a fork, gently stir into the dry ingredients. Stir just until ingredients are mixed. If dough mixture is too dry, you can add another tablespoon of water or as needed.
2. Scoop 1/2 cup dough mixture at a time and shape into logs. Place logs on piece of aluminum foil and roll up, twisting ends. Place sausages in steamer and steam for 30 minutes. Once sausages have cooled, remove from foil and refrigerate until ready to eat. After cooling, the sausages may feel a bit dry on the outside. Don’t worry, as they will soften and firm up considerably after chilling.

Variation: You can shape the dough into little patties instead of links. If you don’t want to use aluminum foil, you can wrap the links in damp muslin or tea towel and tie ends with cotton twine.


From → Assessment, Seitan

  1. I think it’s very cool that you shared what you learned through the process as well as what the kids did. I’m interested in trying these vegan sausage too.

    • Thanks Tammy! I find that writing things out also helps me think about how to refine the process. I hope to improve it even more next school year! And the sausages are amazing – take that from someone who used to eat LOTS of Italian sausages as an omnivore 🙂

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Beyond “What am I doing TOMORROW!” | English Teachin' Vegan
  2. “Grading” Principles (Part I of the Assesment Series) | English Teachin' Vegan
  3. Focusing on Mastery (Part II of the Assessment Series) | English Teachin' Vegan

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