Guest Columnist

Overhaul the hodgepodge of grading practices in Iowa

It took over 100 years, but a public health crisis caused many schools to temporarily change their grading practices

A classroom in Springville on Wednesday, July 30, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
A classroom in Springville on Wednesday, July 30, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Within the past few months, media outlets have published numerous stories describing an increasing number of students receiving failing grades. Perhaps this is not surprising given that Iowa K-12 schools are routinely adapting their instructional delivery models in response to staff and student absences.

Looking back to the spring, national and state newspapers published stories about schools adapting their grading policies in lieu of a sudden shift to emergency remote learning. In response to these unprecedented times, schools utilized “do no harm” grading methods, such as freezing the previous grades, replacing letter grades with pass-fail and providing students’ choice among the aforementioned methods. Much of this flexible grading mindset appears to have gone away, yet the pandemic’s impact on Iowa schools remains.

For over 100 years, researchers and practitioners have documented educators’ use of grades and concluded that when a “hodgepodge” of factors is used in determining a letter grade, the output, frequently in the form of a letter grade, does not adequately communicate what a student has actually learned or is able to do. Rather than serving multiple functions (i.e., points for participation, progress and proficiency), grades ought to serve a single purpose: communicating students’ current levels of learning. In this column, I offer three grading principles focused on communicating learning that Iowa schools should consider during the COVID-19 pandemic.

First, letter grades should be based upon the level at which students have learned a prioritized set of course objectives or standards. Too often in the past, teachers have based grades upon activities rather than learning goals. For example, a culminating English assessment may be reported as “Unit 5 Test” in the grade book, which limits demonstration of learning to a test, but not project or essay. In hybrid or remote learning environments, teachers might more appropriately provide students with options to demonstrate their progress toward an individual learning goal. In response to potential hardships at home and learner preferences, some students might choose to video-record a verbal explanation, while others may opt to write an essay. Regardless of the use of a test, project or essay, learning should be reported in the grade book based upon the understanding of the learning goal. Thus, using a 1-4 integer scale, Suzy might receive a “4” in the grade book reflecting her proficiency of this particular English learning goal.

Second, schools should report non-cognitive behaviors, such as homework completion and participation, separately, if at all. Honestly assessing these behaviors within flexible delivery models may be a challenge; therefore, it will be even more important to separate or omit non-cognitive behaviors in order to accurately communicate what a student has learned in flexible delivery settings. When non-cognitive behaviors and academic learning are inappropriately combined, the result is a grade that fails to communicate anything meaningful to students or parents other than “your student is failing right now.”

Third, schools should create a grading system emphasizing what students have learned over when they have learned it. Interruptions to learning in remote settings should be expected; therefore, educators will need to be flexible in their deadlines for demonstrations of learning to be submitted. Furthermore, when students have not yet demonstrated learning by the deadline, schools should consider utilizing lenient reassessment procedures such as providing students with a checklist of tasks to complete before providing additional assessment opportunities.

With temporary grading changes implemented in the spring, now is the time for schools to overhaul their grading practices on a more permanent basis. These three grading principles are often packaged together as “standards-based grading.” While not new or unique to remote learning, they serve as guideposts for school leaders seeking to communicate learning in the “new normal.” It took over 100 years, but a public health crisis caused many schools to temporarily change their grading practices. Whether the “new norm” is here to stay, or Iowa schools eventually return to solely face-to-face instruction, the current pandemic-era of learning provides schools with an opportunity to reclaim the purpose of grades to communicate student learning. And that’s the point of grades.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Matt Townsley is an assistant professor in educational leadership at the University of Northern Iowa.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.