Ken O’Connor Would Design Our Report Card . .

O’Connor, K. (2009). How to Grade for Learning, K-12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

As I discussed in my post on Rick Stiggins, we ultimately need to get away from the industrial age fixation with sorting students. When we do, the report card will become an anachronism. Unfortunately, as I explained in that post, outside pressures will slow our journey to this point no matter how rapidly we seek to reform our conceptions of grading as practitioners concerned with helping all of our students learn.  These pressures include the majority of universities still asking for class rank or relative GPA, parents who want to evaluate their child’s competitiveness in relation to their peers, and students themselves who have been conditioned to the extrinsic feedback loop of norm-referenced grading.

The steep ascent of the climb, however, should not be an excuse to abandon the expedition. School systems across the country, especially at the elementary and middle levels, have increasingly begun to adopt grading practices that intentionally move away from this sorting mission. Instead, they have moved in favor of communication of student mastery with the purpose of accelerating the progress of all students towards skills-based standards, not sorting strata of students in a rank order in relation to their peers. As Ken O’Connor summarizes this charge in How to Grade for Learning, K-12, “as it is virtually impossible to do away with grades, it is necessary to find ways to make grades more meaningful.” (p.23)

Grading doesn’t have to be bad. In fact, grading as effective feedback can be very powerful. In my post on John Hattie’s Visible Learning, I discussed how his research sought to rank order the effect size of different initiatives we focus on in schools to improve student learning. The effect size for student feedback was off the charts (.79), demonstrating that if we can use grading as a form of effective feedback to clearly communicate a student’s progress towards mastering key performance objectives, grading systems can be powerful tools to accelerate student learning.

So grading is a necessary evil at worst, and at its best, not an evil at all. But what does effective grading look like? O’Connor provides extensive research, case studies, self-assessments, and rubrics practitioners can use to implement some key best practices. At a very basic level, effective grading moves our communication to students away from a norm-referenced evaluation to that of a criterion-referenced evaluation. We are comparing students to their progress towards a performance objective, not comparing them to their peers. Secondarily, it is key to select meaningful criteria towards which to evaluate progress, otherwise criterion-referenced systems are just good ways of evaluating progress towards bad goals.

The common core standards, currently in place for Mathematics and English Language Arts, provide excellent performance-based criteria for us to evaluate students’ progress towards. So half of our work is done. O’Connor says that it is important to report student progress and achievement in relation to clearly identified performance standards and “the meaning of grades (letters or numbers) should come from clear descriptions of the standards.” (p.47)

The performance standards should be clearly identified to students and students should be given the chance to practice the types of summative assessments used to assess their achievement before they are asked to demonstrate mastery on that type of assessment for a grade.

Only summative assessments should be used to determine a student’s achievement grade in a course. Formative assessments assigned to monitor student progress or provide students an opportunity to practice should not be included in their grade. Instead, O’Connor recommends we “provide feedback on formative performance using words, rubrics, or checklists, not scores.” (p.247)

The grade a student receives should only be based on their individual achievement in relation to the performance-based standard. Group grades, “as well as effort, participation, attitude, and other behaviors should be reported separately.”(p.247)

Students should be given an opportunity to make-up summative assessments and zeros should never be recorded for missing assessments. Eliminating zeros is not the only change in the math of grading O’Connor calls for. As we transition from the sorting goal of grading, it is important to consider “the body of evidence” testifying to a student’s mastery of an achievement goal. We should seek to “determine” rather than “calculate” a grade, and when math is used the median or the mode is a better metric than the mean. (p.248)

These ideas are not new, but O’Connor does a great job of providing specific research and case studies to bring them to life. Many districts have already moved from norm-referenced grading philosophies that seek to reliably sort students into a bell curve distribution. They have bravely transitioned to criterion-referenced grading systems that seek to move all students towards clearly identified achievement goals, not identify the distance of the interval between a student and their peers. The most common term you will hear used to describe these systems is “standards based grading”, and many districts have adopted these reporting systems in conjunction with a separate “work habits” or “civic responsibility” rubric that allows them to report to parents on the progress of their child’s movement towards positive traits unrelated to academic achievement.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of districts who have moved to standards-based grading are K-8, and the class rank, GPA, and college admissions competition looming at the high school level still has a huge impact on grading systems 9-12. However, this progress at the elementary and middle grades is encouraging. It provides hope that we can soon transition to an entire public education system that values reporting a child’s success in relation to their progress towards valuable knowledge and skills rather then their relative outpacing of their peers.

Next On In A Perfect School . . .               Grant Wiggins Would Be Our Curriculum Specialist . . .