How do we know what they know?

The way teachers structure their grading sets a culture for the class and communicates what the teacher values.

As a teacher, It is important to think about the reasoning behind the grading decisions you make. If you do not accept assignments beyond a due date (or deduct points for late work), you may be communicating that speed and completion is more important than quality and understanding. If you do not allow (or require) students to re-take unsuccessful tests you may be unintentionally communicating a fixed mindset leading to students giving up and feeling that they will never be good enough. The best resource I’ve seen that moved my thinking forward on how to structure my grading is A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades by Ken O’Connor.

In addition to how a teacher structures their grading is the type of feedback you provide. Dylan William’s book, Embedded Formative Assessment sited a study showing that as soon as a student receives a grade, learning stops. Even if a teacher painstakingly spends hours providing detailed feedback to each student, if there is also a grade on that assignment students won’t interact with the feedback. Ashli Black illustrates this point well here.

Here is what I have found to be effective:

<I’d prefer to eliminate grades altogether and focus only on growth and feedback, but this isn’t possible in today’s culture.>

  • Standards Based Grading makes student understanding of specific skills visible to the teacher for planning, and informing the student & parent. A weakness with standards based grading is that students and parents see the content as a checklist of skills to demonstrate and not a cohesive integrated body. In addition to listing “standards” in my gradebook, I added a “synthesis” category where I include grades for in depth modeling tasks which incorporate a variety of skills. Adding this category also reminds me as a teacher to be sure to develop or find and implement these types of tasks on a regular basis.
  • Regular class assignments get feedback only, no grade. The grade is posted on the online gradebook, which students can access anytime. Students are encouraged to respond to feedback and improve their work and I will adjust their grade accordingly.
  • Don’t grade everything! Sometimes practice is just practice. This also allows a teacher to spend more time providing feedback on key assignments.
  • Quizzes/Tests get 2 rounds:
    1. Students give the assessment their best effort. Then I write feedback on a few select questions that attempts to move their learning forward even if their work on the quiz is flawless.
    2. The next day students must respond to my feedback using a different color. Then I grade their demonstration of knowledge on each learning target using a 4 point rubric. If a student has shown that they do not understand a skill I mark this skill as “missing” or “incomplete” and they must schedule a time to work on this skill and re assess when they are ready.  When students get their quiz back they track their progress.Capture

Reasoning behind the 2-round quizzes:

  1. Test anxiety is a real thing. It impedes a students ability to access information. Students knowing that they will have another opportunity to review their work helps relieve some of this anxiety, allowing student to demonstrate their understanding.
  2. Students see me as their partner in learning. It changes our relationship. Students believe that I want them to be successful and that I believe in their ability to achieve at high levels.
  3. I’ve noticed that this system of assessing & grading builds a relationship with students over time and most students value the assignments you provide more and become less likely to turn in in low quality or late work. Motivated intrinsically instead of trying to avoid a consequence.
  4. Students develop a growth mindset though seeing the documented growth on each quiz. They see their faulty reasoning and their revisions and they recognize their growth that occurred during the assessment process.
  5. I get a better picture of their genuine understandings and misconceptions which better informs my teaching.

8 thoughts on “How do we know what they know?

  1. Do you allow students to retake a different version of a test, or they receive “makeup” points if they make corrections on the same exam that they took? Would you be concerned with students tending to procrastinate or not give it their best shot the first time around, if they get the chance to make points up later? I’m starting to see a list of pros and cons for allow students to “redo” assessments that count toward their grade, in that there are always trade-offs when it comes to decisions about grading. I definitely agree with the merits of SBG-type models and allowing students more time to turn in quality work so as to accommodate for various learning needs, versus a strictly scheduled “all or nothing” assessment program, but it’s challenging to find the right structure for grading so that students are still being held sufficiently accountable *and* are motivated to do their best. Grades can definitely work both ways, both discouraging some from trying and encouraging others to reach toward their potential. (I know that when I was back in secondary school, grades were a motivating thing.) For the students who are gifted or have higher ability, they also need to be given a way to distinguish themselves. I have yet to find a grading model that would differentiate assessment for a whole range of students.

    On another note, I do definitely agree wholeheartedly that students tend to look at the grade on their paper and then ignore other feedback. I’ve recently been inspired by the use of highlighters (, which requires students to figure out what they did wrong, instead of being told (so teachers don’t have to write so much when they grade, which is another win for this strategy). Fawn also recently talked about how she does it with highlighters (

  2. Thank you for the thoughtful questions!

    First I have to say that I’ve never *Loved* any grading system, but I’m most satisfied with the system described above. When I am making grading policy decisions I always have to decide what the ultimate goal is with my grading.

    I usually make 3 versions of an assessment in order to make sure students are showing me what they know (and not their neighbor) then, if a student wants to re-assess I have other versions already made to give them. This is time consuming at first but if you make good assessments, they can be re-used each year, with only minor adjustments or updates. I too love the highlighter method of feedback because it is much more efficient. I always write at least one question to extend student thinking on something also.

    I’ve noticed that this system of assessing & grading builds a relationship with students over time and most students value the assignments you provide more and become less likely to turn in in low quality or late work.

    At some point, the grading period ends. I make and stick to a deadline to re-asses or turn in revised/late work and communicate it to students and parents well in advance. I also require that students show some evidence of remediation before they re assess – usually it’s reviewing their first attempt of an assessment and reflecting on their misunderstandings.

  3. Love this thought about the 2-step assessments. I’ve been struggling with how to get students to interact with the feedback I give them, considering that in the system where I teach I must also sometimes give a grade. This sounds great to me. I’ll definitely give it a try in January!

  4. I love the synthesis standard. I’ve been looking for a way to incorporate this – and review – and this could work. I can’t go back and change standard in previous quarters.

  5. I would love to see your gradebook columns and what your gradebook looks like. Also what kind of schedule do you have at your school? If you are up for a conversation DM me on twitter @jenn_blalock I am a geometry and precalculus teacher in Ellington, CT

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