What I Was Thinking
Pretty much anyone who has been teaching a long time has figured out that traditional grading systems don’t work. Last spring, during my nineteenth year teaching 7th and 8th grade English, I decided to do something about it.
Without getting too deep into my disillusionment with traditional letter grades, I’ll just say that grades in my class did not reflect student learning. Not only did grades not show what students understood and knew how to do, letter grades also did nothing to motivate or inspire lifelong learning.
Inspired by Catlin Tucker’s (2015) blog post “Grading for Mastery and Redesigning My Gradebook,” I decided to redesign my own assessment system. My other resource was Robert Marzano’s (2017) book The New Art and Science of Teaching, as well as “Tips from Dr. Marzano: Formative Assessment and Standards-Based Grading” (Marzano 2018).
My redesign had three elements:
- Use a 4-point scale instead of letter grades in order to clarify learning for students and families.
- Connect the 4-point scale to the mastery grading feature of our LMS. In other words, each assignment would be assessed for mastery of a specific English language arts standard.
- Provide a system for students who do not achieve mastery the first time. Make it a requirement for students to revise and redo assignments that do not meet the standard the first time.
First, I created a proposal document to share with my administrator. Grades are a sensitive issue in my community, so I needed administration support in the endeavor. After thinking about it for a few days, my principal OK’d my idea. It was a small risk because I only taught one class at the time—80% of my day was spent as a tech coach or teacher on special assignment (TOSA).
Next, I created a simple two page document to share with students and families. (NOTE: I created the document on Google Slides. Click HERE for the slides version. Feel free to make a copy for yourself.)
Finally, I reconfigured my class on our learning management system, NEO. The biggest thing was setting the grade map to convert points to grades at the end of grading periods. While I was using the 4-point scale in my classroom, I was still required to submit letter grades.
I took Marzano’s advice and adopted the following grade map:
The LMS automatically converts a 3-point score to an A-. If a student earns a 2 on a given assignment, the LMS converts it to a C-. A 2.5 is a B-.
At the same time, I hid the letter grades from students until the end of each grading period. When students looked up their grades in our LMS, they saw only numbers. I told them the goal was to earn a 3-point score for each learning target. If they earned a 2 or 2.5, they knew they had to revise and resubmit.
NEO, the LMS my district uses has a mastery feature which ties assignments to standards or competencies. Students can access a dashboard with a colorful graphic depicting their progress on the standards or competencies they’ve completed. Teachers see a similar version with data for the entire class.
I configured the mastery tab to show green if a student exceeds the standard, orange if he or she meets the standard, red for near standard, and blue for below. The minimum percentage for green is 93% because a student would need to earn a 3.5 or 4 on a given competency.
Why did I choose those colors? I have no idea. In fact, I think I would put more thought into that part if I were to try this again.
Tips & Tricks
Mastery-based grading is a balancing act for English teachers because we want to give emerging readers and writers positive feedback so they keep trying. The last thing we want is for students to quit because they think they are bad at reading and writing. At the same time, we owe it to our students to be honest with them. I found Marzano’s grading scale system to be very helpful because in contrast with a traditional rubric, the scale is more like a ladder.
In the example below, a student earns a 2 for doing several things well. To achieve mastery, however, he or she needs to add a few elements. The 2 is not about what a student cannot do; it is simply a description of where they are on the ladder with directions about where to go next.
I also developed a way for students to revise and resubmit work that did not earn a 3. For my class, I created two simple Google Forms and linked them to my class blog. One form is for Requesting a Regrade. Students explain what they revised or changed and provide a link to the assignment they want to resubmit.
The other form is for students to say I Finished Something! The I’m Finished form works for those who needed more time to finish a particular competency, as well as for students who worked ahead on something new or different.
I made sure to enable notifications on each Google Form so that I would get an email when a student submitted it.
Yes, if I were still a classroom teacher, I would definitely stick with a 4-point, mastery-based system. The biggest plus is that students know definitively if they are meeting learning targets. They learn not to expect an A or a B just because they turned something in. To make this system work fairly, it is critical that teachers gives students the opportunity to redo, revise, retest, and resubmit any items that do not show mastery of a standard or competency. For me, this meant I had to be very strict with myself about not inflating grades based on effort. If students do not meet a learning target, it does not help them if I tell them that they did. Instead, I can point out the things students did well and support them with the skills they still need to learn.
Warning: This is not a magic bullet. Grades still exist. I don’t see my school district doing away with them any time soon. Some students will do anything for an A and others could care less. The point of the 4-point system is to promote a different mindset, one that sees learning as a process not a hurdle. My hope is that students will begin to see that when they earn a 1 or a 2, they are not done. They haven’t lost. They are just on their way to mastering something a bit more challenging.