4 ways to ditch grading behavior for good

Groundhog Day, a favorite movie of mine, has really struck a nerve during the pandemic. Did anyone else feel like we were living our own version of it? There was an awful lot of optimism around the new year, yet #remotelife didn’t change all that much. Fast forward to early summer and the news that the CDC was no longer recommending we all wear masks.

We are now waking up to a new normal every day. But we are changed, just like Phil in Groundhog Day. Since there’s nothing we can do to truly go back to life before COVID-19, how can we make the most of the changes it’s forced on us as educators? I think there’s a lot we can do to seize this moment and rethink grading practices. Specifically, grading behavior.

It’s time to grade differently

Susan Brookhart, a well-known expert in grading and assessment, has spoken about the shocking surge in Ds and Fs that made so many headlines during the 2020–21 school year, and why our grading systems—not teachers—are to blame. Back in January, I urged you to test out some new grading practices and, yes, I’m sure many of you thought I was feeling the effects of lockdown a little too much when I suggested you no longer grade behavior. I won’t take it personally. Grading behavior is practically in our DNA as educators. I’ll admit, I never missed the chance to list “participation” on my syllabus. But is the practice valuable? Does it support teaching and learning, or is it merely something we do without giving it a second thought?

There are other ways to hold students accountable. Better ways. More equitable and more productive ways that leverage all the benefits social-emotional learning (SEL) practices have to offer. And while I know it’s daunting to think of more change after these many months of pandemic chaos, I’m here again asking you to consider a mindset shift that won’t pull the rug out from under your hard work. Trust me, you have more tools than you may realize to balance a well-designed change without working every night and weekend between now and winter break.

Shift the focus from behavior to SEL

Pulling behavior of any variety out of your grade book can be scary. Without approaching this in a thoughtful, prepared manner, the void in your grade  book will very likely be filled with the frustrations and challenges you imagine: late work, low effort, poor quality. Remember, we’ve conditioned students to believe that good behavior is rewarded with points. As we make changes to our grading, we must make it clear to students that behavior still matters and that we will be supporting their development of constructive behaviors. The antidote to the maladies we imagine lies in the actualization of a strong, clear framework for teaching, supporting, and even reporting on SEL. Sounds like grading for behavior? Not so fast. The key element is distinct separation from any measure of student achievement. A clear SEL framework supports our efforts to intentionally cultivate the pro-social behaviors that:

  • Support academic learning. In Assessment Essentials for Standards-Based Education, Jim McMillan refers to behaviors such as effort as “learning enablers.” When we use grading for learning, we aren’t neglecting behavior as a critical factor in our student-centered practices. What we are doing is developing a classroom culture in which students recognize the connection between their responsible decision-making and their learning progression, which can spur the development of student agency and academic growth.
  • Enhance the importance of social-emotional development. A robust framework of SEL competencies can provide teachers, students, and families with a clear understanding of the skills, behaviors, and mindsets that support academic learning. Distinguishing these competencies from your grade book will prevent blurring the line between grading behavior and grading achievement, keeping the two things separate.
  • Enable an equitable, clear system of reporting. Students and their families deserve to receive clear communication about social-emotional development and academic learning, but the two should never be mixed. Ken O’Connor, in his well-known 15 Fixes for Broken Grades, begins by exploring how combining the two distorts achievement. Yet simply pulling effort and attendance from your grade book won’t result in less confusion for anyone, least of all students, unless you intentionally implement strategies and steps to foster those learning enablers for all students. Hear more about what this looks like from Ken himself in episode four of the first season of the NWEA podcast, The Continuing Educator.

Where to begin

Perhaps your child development course in undergrad touched on some areas of SEL, but for many of us this is not an area we know a lot about. Exploring the work of experts is a great starting point. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is a phenomenal resource. Here are a few additional key steps you can consider working on immediately:

1. Ensure you have a vision of success and clearly defined supports

Spend time developing your expectations for student behavior just as you would for student learning. Already have these in place? Great! Now invest the time and energy to explicitly communicate these expectations to your students. Before we can give feedback on behavior, students must know where they are headed.

It’s equally important to have a plan in place for how to support students if they’re struggling to meet expectations. I’m a huge fan of the phrase, “If you have time to complain about something, you must have time to do something about it.” It never failed to stop me in my tracks when I wanted to chide a student for their mountain of disorganized papers. Penalizing their grade never helped. Not once. But sharing a model of simple organization tips and supporting them through practice, however, consistently empowered them to persevere toward my expectation.

2. Look to strength in numbers

Like any endeavor in our work, the expertise of the group is a powerful force in enhancing our likelihood of individual success. Whether you work with a single colleague or your entire department, engage with others as you make these changes. It will surely make the challenges of the unknown less daunting, and it can help you be more efficient by learning from others’ mistakes, too.

Codesigning your vision of success, for example, will illuminate the essential areas of focus you value, both as an individual teacher and as a department or even school. Develop non-negotiable ideals as a team and reap the rewards of your consistent approach toward not only addressing behavior but also speaking in a common language everyone in your school community can agree on.

3. Empower students with self-assessment

There is always power in engaging student voice. My colleague Erin Beard shares outstanding guidance on elevating students’ self-assessment skills in “The importance of student self-assessment.” I’ll take a good guess that you’ve also at least heard of the well-known researcher John Hattie and his work on self-reported grades, or student expectations. When students reflect on their progress, they can begin to see the meaning and value of developing social-emotional skills as much as academic ones. Be sure to make self-assessment a regular part of your classroom.

4. Rethink your grade book

Remember, it’s the mixing of behavior and achievement that leads to misconstrued reporting, not the act of reporting on behavior alone. If you’re anxious that, without being associated to those high-stakes letter grades and percentages, no student will have concern for feedback on their missed deadlines or disorganized notebook, I understand. The aim is to build a new expectation, and that’s what the culture-building practices I presented above will help you do.

Students need to become accustomed to viewing participation points or deadlines as contributing to their measures of learning, not the goal of their learning. A clear framework for expectations of behavior will give you the foundation of accountability for the learning enablers you aim to develop. That means planning for—and articulating—how you will respond when students don’t meet expectations. If you expect students to demonstrate proficiency on a learning standard, for example, consider refraining from giving a grade until the learner revises work and gives the required effort to demonstrate their learning, rather than giving a grade that rolls assessment for the work and behavior into one. This will get tricky if a student refuses to do the work until grades are due, of course, but hopefully they won’t push their luck that far. If they do, you may very well have to allow their academic grade to reflect consequences for undesirable behavior.

Remember, it’s the mixing of behavior and achievement that leads to misconstrued reporting, not the act of reporting on behavior alone.

Further, consider celebrating successes in character and behavior development the way we promote academic achievement. For example, you may decide to give small weekly prizes in behavior categories you think are valuable and measurable as a way to reward effort and build a bit of healthy competition. Depending on the age of your students, you could award a sheet of stickers to the child who clearly went out of their comfort zone to raise their hand in class that week (the Brave Participation award!), for example, or to the student who most improved the neatness of their assignment (the Clean and Clear award!).

How can you also report on student behavior to both the student and their caregivers outside of a report card? Use explicit language in conversations during goal-setting and other conversations with your students, as well as at family conferences. For example, rather than explaining that a student is failing a class because of behavior issues, it would be more accurate to say something like this: “They have done excellent on their vocabulary work this week” (which gets at achievement) “but they have not turned in all their assignments on time, and I worry that will make it hard for them to continue learning the material so well” (which acknowledges behavior). This may seem like adding work to your already full plate but, in reality, you may have already been incorporating behaviors into your grade book in categories such as participation, punctuality, and effort. Keep doing that, just pull them out of your grade book, or at least pull them out of any formulas you have set up to calculate grades. Simply isolating the two measures is the first step in ensuring that both are accurately communicated for everyone, teachers included. Equal emphasis on both academics and behavior sends a strong message to students—and families—about their value.

Change is possible

If our ultimate goal, as educators, is the sustained cultivation of both the academic and developmental needs of every child, it’s imperative that we communicate with students and their families about both achievement and behavior. To blend them in one single grade is to miscommunicate, however, and can complicate everyone’s understanding of where a student really is in their learning.

We’ve long been practicing grading based on tradition, aka, the this-is-how-we’ve-always-done-it mode of getting things done. So I understand how it may only add to your stress to have to even think of SEL as another silo apart from academic learning, or one more program we have to squeeze in. In an interview I had with Krista Leh, an SEL expert, she countered that idea by saying, “SEL is more than a program. It is who you are and what you do every day.” She went on to explain that, “To help students build SEL skills, they need opportunities to cocreate goals for SEL growth, practice these skills, monitor and reflect on their progress, then adjust for ongoing learning. When we fold feedback on these essential skills into the reporting of academic grades, we risk losing the emphasis on their necessity for lifelong success as well as on the focus for ongoing improvement.”

In your endeavors to grade for learning, rethink grading behavior and separate it from achievement. We know that work ethic, perseverance, responsibility, and development in other non-academic areas are all crucial to students’ overall success. Let’s communicate that importance to every student by giving each the emphasis they deserve.

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