What’s in a grade? – AFL (Part 2 of n)

During my first year teaching, I learned a lot about building a healthy learning environment, creating meaningful relationships with students, classroom management strategies, collaborating with peers, and, of course, grading.

As mentioned in a previous post, I began my teaching career grading similar to how I was graded. I counted tests, quizzes, homework, classwork, projects. I even gave extra credit (#shivers). The whole nine yards. It wasn’t until a few veteran teachers shared their grading philosophies: they followed and implemented Assessment For Learning (AFL).

At its core, AFL is a practice that encourages students to be more proactive in the learning process, teaching them how to self-diagnose understanding and misconceptions. It acknowledges that learning is a process, and that individuals learn at a different paces. Reassessment opportunities are allowed for students to show growth. The ultimate goal is to create self-regulated learners. In the beginning, I thought it was just something new and trendy that some teachers were trying. But the more I learned about it, the more AFL began to make complete sense.

I had the opportunity to meet with a small cohort of new teachers and a veteran, henceforth Ms. A (not her real name), who was implementing AFL during my first year in district. She shared her experiences in preparing students for this shift in assessing and grading, as well as how she had to modify her teaching. One of the biggest takeaways from my year with Ms. A had to do with assessments, particularly how to “grade” them. Gone were the days of tabulating points. In came written feedback. I’m not talking about “Nice job!” or “There is an error here.” Descriptive feedback is an extension of scaffolding. Its intent is to guide a student and provide support to help them realize their error, ultimately to learn from and correct it. John Hattie reports that, with an effect size of 0.73, feedback is among the top-10 things that strongly influences student achievement.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the story.

The first semester of my teaching career just ended, and I decided to make the bold move of adopting AFL. Yep, mid-year. But what exactly does that mean? For me, all things related to compliance (homework, participation, attendance, etc.), as well as non-summative assessments no longer counted for points. Students’ grades were determined based on how they performed on their summative, end-of-unit assessments. Intermediate, formative assessments were given regularly to check for understanding, but it was all about the test. And if students did not perform to their liking, they were allowed to reassess so long as they met the retake requirements (corrections to all unit assessments, completion of practice/homework, and at least one tutoring session with a student tutor, teacher, or private tutor with appropriate documentation of what they worked on during their session[s]). Additionally, and most importantly, I had to make sure students understood what was going to happen. Parents had to be informed as well. Regular, open communication is key when making a change this drastic (or any change for that matter).

Things went well for the next two and a half years, as I didn’t make any significant changes in grading. The grading practice detailed above gradually became the norm in our department, and then school, with some modifications from teacher to teacher. Students got used to formative assessments and homework not counting for points. Correction time was built into instructional days, with students using each other as resources and support. Students began to regularly self-assess and report their level of understanding on each assessment, which, according Hattie, is the number one influence on student achievement based on effect size (1.44).

It seemed like I found the resolution to my grading dilemma. So why did I feel like something was wrong?

It wasn’t uncommon for students to stick around after a tutoring session to talk about school, extracurricular activities, life in general. I recall one particularly lengthy conversation with a couple of students who shared their feelings about school and grades. One thing has stuck with me since:

“Grades make school very stressful.”

And that’s all I needed to hear. I needed to somehow eliminate grades, or eliminate stress, or….both.

Next time on What’s in a grade?: Standards Based Grading. What’s changed since last year? What am I doing now? How is it being received by students? Parents? Other teachers, faculty? Administrators?

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