“Fixing” broken grades

Assessment has always been an interesting professional discussion for me.  Much of my knowledge around “best practice” for assessment has been accrued through professional dialogue with colleagues and friends.  Coming from a high school background as well, my practice has tended to be influenced by factors truly not related to the mastery of the outcomes in question.  Through professional conversation, PD, reading, and dialogue, I find my practice has changed considerably.

Recently I had the opportunity to help present to the Campbell Collegiate staff about assessment and best practice (presentation with L. Lerminiaux, Jan 2013).  Much of the PD focused around Ken O’Connor’s A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades, and Damian Cooper’s Redefining Fair and Talk About Assessment.  During the conversation, we provided the participants with some prompt questions.  They were to indicate their belief on the following prompts:

*that everything a student does that I assess should be included in their final grade evaluation.

*accepting late assignments encourages students to become irresponsible.

*giving zeros as grades for incomplete work is an effective way to motivate students and teach them accountability.

*citizenship marks (attitude, attendance, tardiness, behaviour, participation, volunteer hours, changing out, permission slips, fee payment, effort, etc.) should be included in my final grade calculation as they are listed in the Ministry’s curricular outcomes for my course.

Of course, much conversation ensued after these prompts.  Different core areas, different philosophies around the role of the teacher and what assessment truly is, these conversations laid the groundwork for the discussions that were to follow.  We continued by looking at some case studies from Damian Cooper’s Talk About Assessment – with the intent that people would begin to question some of the typical assessment practice that we see daily.  This is especially relevant at the high school level where our report cards are not divided into outcomes based assessment and a social and personal growth rubric.  There were many interesting conversations as we passed by the tables and it was great to see the engagement and interest from the staff about a topic that is truly relevant to all educators.

We continued with more discussion prompts in the form of a rotating discussion circle, and then dove into Ken O’Connor’s A Repair Kit for Grading.  Although there are fifteen ‘fixes’ that O’Connor identifies, we chose to focus on five.

6860540818_e6088fa91f1.  Fix 1: Don’t include student behaviors (effort, participation, adherence to class rules, etc.) in grades; include only achievement.

2. Fix 2: Don’t reduce marks on work submitted late; provide support for the learner.
3. Fix 7: Don’t organize information in grading records by assessment methods or simply summarize into a single grade; organize and report evidence by standards/learning goals.
4. Fix 12: Don’t include zeros in grade determination when evidence is missing or as punishment; use alternatives, such as reassessing to determine real achievement, or use I for Incomplete or Insufficient Evidence.

5. Fix 13: Don’t use information from formative assessments and practice to determine grades; use only summative evidence.

Photo Credit: giulia.forsythe via Compfight cc

The teachers did a jigsaw strategy to become experts at their ‘fix’ and then shared their knowledge & table discussion with their new group.  There was some great discussion about what best practice with assessment looks like.  Out of those conversations came these big ideas:

* Consistency is key (between schools, across the content areas, across grades).
* Assessment should be aligned with outcomes; students and parents should be able to access this information.
* Assessment is not just about the mark; it is about informing teaching practice, about helping students learn where they are and what they need to do to master the content/outcome.  In addition, assessment should indicate only where a student is at versus the non-essentials.
*Formative assessment is designed to support teachers as they plan their instruction for students.  It is not an indicator of mastery of content and thus should not be used as a “grade”.
* Support of teachers; removing late penalties can be problematic if many assignments are handed in at the same time at the end of the year – teachers need to make their assessment practice work in function of their workload and demands from their classroom.
* Teachers feel their role goes beyond the curriculum.  If we are assessing only the outcome in the curriculum and not the whole child, is this enough?
* Sometimes concepts work well in the abstract but in practice are more difficult.  The realities of our classroom may conflict with our best intentions.

And of course… much more.

For me, professionally, one of the most important lessons regarding assessment that I’ve gained from the Fifteen Fixes discusses the notion of taking off “late marks”: “Penalties distort the achievement record the grade is intended to communicate, can actually harm student motivation, and for many students do not result in changes in behavior…  Supportive approaches do not distort achievement or motivation and more closely mirror practices in the world beyond school” (O’Connor 24-26).  Evidence from my classroom indicates to me that students who hand in late assignments are not motivated by the removal of late marks and tend to repeat the behavior over and over.  Again – the question of what I am truly assessing in the classroom – student achievement of the outcome or behavior?  O’Connor tells us that late marks do not reflect the real world but rather, forcing students to take accountability and make arrangements for missing or late work does a better job of preparing our students for the world after high school.


In all, the day started some great professional dialogue and will be interesting to see the next steps.  Our division will eventually see outcomes based reporting at the high school level and there is an action team focused around what this might look like at Campbell Collegiate.  I am sure that assessment will continue to be a major focus of our practice, especially as our province continues to discuss standard assessment across the grades.

If you have a moment, check out this xtranormal video on authentic assessment.


6 thoughts on ““Fixing” broken grades

  1. Awesome blog post!

    Thank you so much for sharing. Next time you happen to be presenting this workshop, let me know because I’d love to be there.

    You have me thinking about the relationship between effort and success. Is there one? If so, how do we forge that connection with students who have endured years of believing they can’t achieve at the same level of their peers despite their best efforts?

    I wonder what would happen if we equally valued effort and achievement, or considered putting forth one’s best effort as achievement in itself.

    You don’t have to answer any of these questions. I’m just thinking things through and maybe even frontloading a professional inquiry project for myself.

    Again, thanks so much for sharing!

    • Erik – These are great questions. Putting forth effort to me is not the same as success – but it is a building block to getting there. To me, building that connection with students comes from structuring our approach differently in terms of instruction and assessment. Our students who struggle the most do not tend to respond to the traditional penalties. They respond to our desire to do what it takes to help them be succesful and truly master the content. Our continued efforts to support students and provide them with every opportunity to be succesful are what will help students bridge that gap.

      Optimistic… I know.

  2. Great post Monique! You’ve really got me thinking. I get that a student’s success at (or quality of) achieving the outcome is more important than the ‘effort’ it took to get there but like Eric, I too think that the value of effort (and other attitudes and values…read behaviours) needs consideration. When that student leaves our education system and goes to a job interview won’t the employer be just as interested in their work ethic and ability to work with others as they are in the grade on the transcript? In preparing our students to successfully transition to the real world I think these behaviours are critical. (*I guess it depends on how content or process driven the outcomes are.)

    In some curricula (like music for example) attitudes and values are expressed as part of the outcomes. It’s a fine line to be sure and also very difficult to remove subjectivity out of grading those outcomes. Yet they are the very crux of what happens in a performance driven, group oriented class.

    Perhaps in the future our high school reporting will also include a separate social growth indicator like our elementary counterparts so that outcome achievement can stand alone but still be supported by information on the whole child.

    Fantastic dialogue! Wish I could’ve heard more of the discussion. Love following your journey:)

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