Making the Grade: Transforming Assessment (Part 2 of 4)

Think of a baseball card — when you looked at Mickey Mantle’s card, it didn’t say an A on the back. It included his fielding average, hitting average, home runs — then you know why he’s a good player. Why would we give a student just one grade?
Robert Marzano

This blog series, in four parts, tells the story of how we sought to address the challenge of transforming our school’s grading and assessment system from one that had organically grown to focus more on measuring learning rather than nurturing and supporting it. Engaging in our own learning as a leadership team was a key part of this process and is the main focus of this second entry. Part 1 of this blog series can be located here.

Working as Learners Ourselves
As educator Scott McLeod has frequently stated in relation to school change, “if the leaders don’t get it, it’s not going to happen.” We therefore set our own learning as a high priority as we approached the work of transforming our assessment system. Throughout the project, we met on a weekly basis, for two years, as a middle and high school leadership team with only this work on our agenda. We read voraciously. We debated. We challenged each other. We learned. We reached out to experts in the field. At an excellent conference on assessment run by Pearson in Portland, Oregon, we met Ken O’Connor. We had been impressed with his writings, but when we met him in person, we knew “The Grade Doctor” was going to be an important resource for us and his work with our faculty proved invaluable. In his book, A Repair Kit for Grading, O’Connor lists fifteen “fixes” for traditional. broken assessment systems and we set a target to implement them all, not simply because they were in his publication, but because he had articulated, in succinct, pragmatic language, what needed to be done to best support student learning and the profession of teaching. We bought all of our teachers a copy of his book and I highly recommend it to all educators. We also brought O’Connor to work with our faculty and parents. His ability to relate to these groups was impressive.

O’Connor’s repair kit for grading is essentially a list of things that he suggests schools should stop doing because they distort an accurate picture of student achievement. Other notable writers on assessment, Marzano, Wormeli, Guskey, and Reeves, have echoed these ideas. Most critically for us, we saw clearly that we had to stop: including student behaviours (late work, plagiarism, attendance, etc) in grades; basing grades on unclear criteria or poorly conceived assessments, and we had to end the mindless activity of accumulating points and averaging them in order to determine an achievement grade. For some, these moves made little sense, threatened an unchallenged status quo, or gave students too many opportunities to be successful, so we sought to understand the main concerns as they emerged and to address them before launching the new system.


College Admissions Will Be Compromised. In advance of any parent communications, we had our College Counselling team engage in clear dialogue with colleges and universities about grading scales and our proposed changes to ensure we would not compromise our students’ college prospects in any way. They assured us that they needed a conversion scale no matter what the system being used, so we could award Disney characters instead of letter grades, just as long as we had a solid, learning rationale that could be easily understood. Almost all parents relaxed when they heard this. It has proven to be true.

Failure is Part of Life and Students Need Penalties for Poor Behaviour. Some common sense examples here went a long way. Pilots and surgeons are good examples of professionals who learn by failing in controlled environments before being assessed on mastery. Similarly, things like attendance – while they may impact achievement – are separate from achievement. A zero is a punishment that also masks a true recognition of learning potential and achievement. In practice, for example, our response to plagiarism is to have the student complete the work honestly. Young people are not adults; life is not an unforgiving place of misery. The big fear that more and more students would be successful under the proposed, new system … was notable.

An Accumulated Average of Collected Points is the Fairest Grade. This is an area where parents were very honest and fair about their need to understand this shift in thinking. Of course, they were products of an averaging system themselves. Rick Wormeli offers clear guidance here: “we mark and grade against standards/outcomes, not the routes students take or techniques teachers use to achieve those standards/outcomes.” With parents, we found a simple exercise where we asked them to think about their experiences learning to drive: learning from their mistakes, taking their driving test only when they felt ready to demonstrate mastery, without being punished for earlier mistakes, even if the test needed to be re-taken as a result of an earlier failure. Almost everyone would have an F on this assessment if averaging were used with aspiring drivers.

You Must Grade Homework or Students Will Not Do It. This proved to be a complete red herring. We needed to redefine the purpose and value of homework first and this took almost two years. Fundamentally, we doubted the value of most homework that was being assigned and determined that homework should only be assigned if it had a clear learning purpose with pre-designed, clearly articulated learning purpose. In addition to this, we introduced after school Study Halls, not as a punishment, but to support the learning of those students whose learning time outside of classroom hours fell short of the expected standard. The homework myth was quickly consigned to history. Homework completion has proven to be a non-issue and the quality of work being assigned has improved significantly, so that students see the value in doing it.

In working through this significant amount of work, one key philosophical statement guided every decision:

The primary purpose of assessment is to improve learning.

Every aspect of our work had to support this philosophy. We implemented all of O’Connor’s fixes in this context; moreover, and vitally, we implemented them in a school in which massive work had already been done to articulate a compelling vision for learning. Under the auspices of a curriculum project that began at our school as The Common Ground Curriculum – and has since grown into The Common Ground Collaborative – we had what many schools did not have: a clear definition of learning, a cycle for defining how it should happen, a mission that guided our beliefs, and a set of philosophies and practices that supported our direction. The pieces fit together.

Distributed leadership was a core part of how we engaged faculty in this process. We engaged our Heads of Departments, through the leadership of our Curriculum Director, in leading the work of creating the standards we would eventually assess to. Having done the groundwork, we now had to implement the new system.

You can learn more about the Common Ground Curriculum here.

Part 3 of this blog series (located here) describes the assessment and reporting system we devised and how distributed leadership helped us to make it happen.