How to take the dread out of grading, scoring, and reporting: Part 1

I can’t point to an exact moment when I realized that my grading and scoring practices weren’t empowering my learners. Rather, it was a gradual awareness that with just one score or letter, I could wipe out hours and hours of carefully built trust, clarity, and student agency. Part of this understanding was noticing my dread and task avoidance. I hated grading all those papers and spent way too much time figuring out ways to ignore the piles. Then I was resentful when I finally handed back the graded papers—only to see them end up on the floor or in the garbage.

One reason for the slow realization: I worked in middle and high schools, where grades and scores carry long-standing traditions and meaning. These metrics are major factors in course credit and other transcript information, communication with caregivers, scholarship awards, college entrance requirements, and access to career choices. So, while I knew that traditional patterns such as teach-test-grade and mechanisms such as one hundred-point scales, weighted grades, and averages often failed to accurately reflect learning or motivate students, I also knew that big changes to my scoring, grading, and reporting practices could create significant issues for students.

Gradually, and with a lot of support, I began to learn how I could make my practices empowering and aligned with students’ learning journeys—without creating barriers for students in the process. I worked slowly and steadily with my students to implement responsive practices, including when it came time for grades, scores, or reports. The results? These changes not only increased student academic success, but they also helped boost their well-being and self-efficacy. And get this: I even stopped dreading and avoiding grading.

I’d like to break down this process for you, starting with some background. I hope I can reassure you that grading, scoring, and reporting are important parts of the teaching and learning journey that don’t have to feel gross for students or educators. I also hope this can help you celebrate what you’re already doing and provide ideas for next steps.

The challenges that come with reform

Even before the pandemic, researchers and practitioners were calling attention to the need to examine and update “traditional” grading, scoring, and reporting practices. The type of information and guidance found in publications such as A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades is not new, but the impact of COVID brought new urgency to this topic. For example, see “Amazing and very challenging’: More educators rethink grading.”

Even though there is established guidance and a renewed focus on changing the way we grade, score, and report, we face the same kinds of reform implementation challenges that we see in other improvement endeavors. A few examples of these challenges, drawn from my experiences working in middle and high schools, appear below. Maybe these will sound familiar to you?

  • Schools or districts adopt an updated policy or gradebook without support for shifting any other teaching and learning practices. This results in a mismatch, with updated grading, scoring, and reporting practices clashing with traditional policies or instructional practices still in place.
  • Educators are expected to shift their teaching and learning practices to include a strong emphasis on formative assessment processes. Meanwhile, they are still expected to use a traditional gradebook policy or tool. This also results in a mismatch.
  • In the rush to update grading, scoring, and reporting practices or tools, learners are left out of the process. Despite the positive intent of the reforms, when there isn’t co-ownership, actions continue to be done tolearners instead of with This can perpetuate the use of disempowering and unresponsive grading, scoring, and reporting practices and tools.

With traditional practices so ingrained, even the best-intentioned reforms come with real challenges. It can become very easy to forget that grading, scoring, and reporting are important parts of the learning journey. During this journey, our goal is to partner with students to synthesize learning information and evidence gathered along the way, make important decisions together, and exchange communication in ways that move learning forward. If the parts of the learning journey are disconnected or mismatched and we aren’t engaging learners as partners, then we can’t make informed decisions—and our communication suffers. We risk creating barriers to learning, well-being, and agency. So what can we do?

Start with inspiration and reflection

It can feel overwhelming to confront entrenched traditions, tackle reform implementation challenges, and heal from the impacts of COVID all at once. It’s perfectly OK to start with a little inspiration and reflection. Hearing from other educators who are engaged in this hard work might be what you need. If so, check out season one of The Continuing Educator podcast, which includes experiences and encouragement from educators around the world.

Next, notice if your grading, scoring, and reporting practices are disconnected or mismatched from the rest of the learning journey. Ask yourself whether you’re applying actions to or for students, instead of with them. You can use your reflections to take relevant next steps.

To begin this reflection process, I suggest getting rooted in the mindset and principles of assessment empowerment and the practices of the responsive learning cycle, which I described in my blog post on responsive learning cycles. I invite you to reflect on this excerpt from that article: “Responsive learning cycles are comprised of quality, human-centered, goal-driven processes, practices, and tools that fuel agency and success for all students. These cycles can and should be used to inform big-picture issues, such as district, school, and classroom assessment ecosystems, as well as day-to-day practices, including teacher and student learning routines.”

You can refer to this excerpt as you reflect on your grading practices and tools, using the suggested prompts below. You can repeat these questions for your scoring and reporting practices, too.

  • Do my grading actions consist of quality, human-centered, goal-driven processes, practices, and tools?
  • Do my grading practices lead to actions that fuel agency and success for all students?
  • Does the grading tool that I use lead to actions that fuel agency and success for all students?
  • Do my grading actions align to the rest of the responsive learning cycle?
  • What conversations can I have with my colleagues to work toward refining our grading practices without creating more barriers for students and their caregivers? (Sometimes this includes looking at policy, too.)

If you find yourself answering “I’m not sure” or “No” to these reflection prompts, I recommend exploring the following resources:

  • Giving Students a Say: Smarter Assessment Practices to Empower and Engage gives more examples for partnering with students in ways that fuel agency and success.
  • Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms explores how updating grading practices is a way to put educational equity into action.
  • Classroom Assessment Standards for PreK-12 Teachers provides guidelines for quality grading, scoring, and reporting.
  • How to Grade for Learning: Linking Grades to Standards, especially chapter 10, is helpful for reflecting about digital and non-digital tools.
  • These NWEA blog posts: “Formative assessment is not for grading,” “3 ways to make the switch to grading for learning,” and “4 ways to ditch grading behavior for good.”

A shift in thinking, and then action

When I first began teaching, I was doing things to or for learners, rather than with them. My grading, scoring, and reporting practices were disconnected from or even contradictory to the other parts of my practices, such as developing strong relationships or engaging in high-impact formative processes. As I grew as an educator, I learned how to shift my thinking and actions so that I engaged in the full learning journey with my students. This included making sure that empowering and responsive grading, scoring, and reporting practices were integrated and aligned to parts of that journey. Once I shifted my thinking and actions, my students and I experienced relief and success. It was well worth the hard work.

After inspiration and reflection, what’s next? Stay tuned for my next blog post, where I’ll recommend six actions you can start taking today.

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