There’s something to love about the first pancake that comes off the grill in the morning. The first pancake usually comes out a little more lumpy, misshapen, or overdone than the rest. Yet there’s no way to make our best pancake without learning from that first attempt. Our success in making pancakes builds from our first try to our last. Learning often works much the same way.
The last word on a student’s learning in a class—that last pancake off the grill—is their grade. Grades are a summative assessment, and like all summative assessments, they summarize the learning that has taken place over a given period of time. What does and doesn’t get included in this summary motivates students’ behavior and sends clear messages about how learning works and what learning is for. We tell students that their grades show how good they are at school, make them eligible for certain classes or extracurriculars, and can dictate their future course in life. It would be hard to find any single test that had more implications for students’ day-to-day lives than what gets put on their report cards. Students naturally want their grades to look like the best and most complete representation of what they know and can do.
Formative assessments are, instead, a little more like that first pancake: part of the practice that gets us from the knowledge and skills we have to the knowledge and skills we need. We wouldn’t judge an entire breakfast by the quality of that first pancake. But the breakfast can’t happen without the sometimes messy process of getting it off the grill. Formative assessments exist to monitor progress in the moment and motivate students to continue learning. They provide the opportunity for teachers to adjust their instruction to meet the emergent needs of their students, and for students to understand the steps that lead toward mastering a skill. When done correctly, formative assessments can empower learners by giving them the tools they need to understand their learning, engage in meaningful practice, and make decisions about their own next steps.
What grades shouldn’t be
Because of these differences in purpose, it doesn’t make sense to include formative assessments in a student’s final grade; doing so unfairly punishes students while they’re still growing. Formative assessments are incorporated directly into instruction, meaning they’re meant as opportunities to make mistakes and understand barriers to growth. For many reasons, students can come into classrooms believing that mistakes aren’t okay, or that their first try at something is a reflection of something fundamental about them. Incorporating formative assessment results directly into grades only feeds these misperceptions.
Grades often try to put learning on a timeline, punishing students for submitting late work or preventing a student from re-taking a quiz if their results were lower than anticipated. We summarize learning this way even knowing that students learn at different rates and that growth matters alongside final proficiency. It’s not hard to understand why students are unwilling to invest the time and energy necessary for long-term academic growth when the system around them rewards short-term performance.
By the same token, a student’s behaviors shouldn’t factor into their final grade, no matter how positive those behaviors are. Behavioral or participation grades can be dangerous for three reasons:
- They motivate students to participate in learning as a means to an end, rather than for their own sake.
- They reproduce inequality. If a student enters the classroom less inclined to open participation because of their cultural background or a history of negative reinforcement, participation grades only echo back these challenges.
- They confuse students and families by mixing what students have learned with how they learned it, preventing both from truly understanding where students are and what learning steps to take next.
There is no question that how students participate is a central factor in how well they learn. Formative assessment practices provide opportunities to increase student participation while also learning from that participation what content and strategies can help students get to the next level. Unfortunately, building these behaviors into grades, because they are so important, makes it less likely they’ll actually happen.
What grades can be
Most teachers don’t have a lot of choice about whether or not to grade their students. But there’s nothing that makes grades by themselves wrong or suspect. Grades are meant to communicate to students, families, and others what a student has learned. All of us (especially students) need that shared understanding to ensure our classrooms and schools work to improve learning for all students. The key is ensuring grades act as a true measure of learning—instead of as a measure of behavior, engagement, or frequency of practice.
Grading for learning is one strong approach that demonstrates what grades can be: an effective summary of what a student has learned that documents a student’s hard work, rather than driving it. Designed correctly, formative assessments and graded work can combine to bring meaning to students’ learning without precluding the practice that makes learning happen. At the end of a learning cycle, a grade can help both students and teachers celebrate what a student has accomplished and understand what it took to get there.
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