Grading for Learning

What’s in a Grade?

One of the most challenging aspects of education lies in assessment. Whether in public school, private school, or home-school, teachers work to determine how much a student learns. Traditionally, assessment means grades. And grades are typically assigned by combining homework, projects, and tests scores into a single letter grade for each subject.

Most adults are familiar with this A-F grading system, which is based on percentages. A=90-100%, B=80-89%, C=70-79%, and so on. With some variation, this mode of assessment dominates grading from first grade through the end of college.

Recently, however, teachers in Minnesota questioned this approach to grading. It’s not the percentage and letter aspects of the system that they’re revisiting, though. It’s the process of combining different aspects school work into one grade. In their opinion, this grading habit gives everyone a skewed view of what students are actually learning.

Separating Content Knowledge from Life Skills

In a report prepared for the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, two middle school teachers from Ellis Middle School in Austin, Minnesota, Curtis Bartlett and Eric Harder, present an approach to grading based on a book written by education theorist Ken O’Connor called A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades (for a quick summary of the book, click here). In their report, they outline a system of assessing student achievement called “Grading for Learning.” They believe this approach paints a more accurate picture of what students learn than the traditional model. The main difference between “Grading for Learning” and the assessment styles that precede it is the identification and creation of two distinct categories of student grading. They use Knowledge grades and Life-Skills grades.

The first half of their grading system, the Knowledge grades, assess true academic learning. Knowledge grades give parents and teachers an accurate view of a student’s progress in terms of subject content. Teachers assign knowledge grades under the traditional A-F percentage paradigm. They include student performance on quizzes and tests.

Under the “Grading for Learning” approach students can re-test as needed in order to raise their overall Knowledge grade. In contrast, the second half of the “Grading for Learning” approach, the Life-Skills grades, teachers use a 4-point system. In this system 4 is “excellent” and 1 is “unacceptable”.

Life-skills grades include things Bartlett and Harder consider to be practice work, i.e. activities that train students to acquire knowledge, but aren’t the knowledge itself. They put things like homework, classwork, projects, and daily worksheets in this category. Practice work develops an entirely different type of learning. It focuses on skills such as responsibility, respect, citizenship, and teamwork.

A Comprehensive Approach

Parents and teachers have long understood that students come to school to learn more than academics. In addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic, they learn life skills such as cooperation and collaboration. They learn study habits and social skills. They learn citizenship and personal responsibility.

Parents who teach their kids at home know these things, too, and by including social activities and daily chores into their daily home-schooling regimen, they ensure that their kids receive a well-rounded education. Under the traditional model of grading, which combines practice work and performance assessment into one letter and/or percentage, it’s difficult to identify where a student really needs to focus his or her energies, and what they truly know.

By separating behavioral habits from academic achievement, teachers and parents will be able to understand whether a student needs to work on homework habits, test-taking skills, or some combination of the two. The “Grading for Learning” approach advocated by Bartlett and Harder is forward thinking in that it recognizes that the educational process is more than just collecting points in order to maintain a high grade point average – it’s about preparing students for all aspects of life.