April 8, 2020

A Picture of What They Really Know: Reflections on Grading in a Time of Remote Learning

By Mariane Gfroerer, New Hampshire Learning Initiative

Grading is complex. It is an important form of feedback loop between teachers and students and depending on the grading practices of the instructor can convey how well the student is mastering the objectives of the learning (mastery-based grading) or the student’s performance relative to other students in the class (norm-referenced grading). 

In listening to educators speak about grading challenges, one of the issues of grading that becomes very clear in this “new normal” of remote learning, is that measuring student achievement relative to other students when you have no control over equity of access is unfair. On the other hand, a student’s achievement toward individual mastery of the learning targets is or can be enhanced in a remote learning setting, as personalized supports become more available. It is the expertise of the instructor that makes this possible in recognizing the unique needs of the student – whether their need is time, scaffolding, more independence, more support and guidance, more hands-on engagement, a deeper dive with more focus, less visual and more auditory, the ability to connect online with classmates and self-assess, adaptive online supports, or any number of elements. 

Ellen Hume-Howard, executive director of New Hampshire Learning Initiative and a curriculum director who helped her district move to a competency-based approach, gained practice in how comprehensive a competency-based grading system can be in her early years as a middle-school writing teacher. The potential of this stood out so much for her that she based her two-year master’s thesis on grading, studying leaders in the subject such as Rick Wormeli, Wiggins, McTighe and Guskey. This experience gives her hope and inspiration as she thinks about the issues of grading in this time of remote learning. 

“Teachers are looking down into the abyss of 4th quarter right now, and wondering where to go with grading. There are those who think they’re done and are planning to base 4th quarter grades on averages of work already completed and those who are planning on 8 weeks of new work to generate 4th quarter grades,” Hume-Howard says. In fact, the bridge over this abyss is closer to hand than educators think. 

“If teachers have a running understanding of competency measures that inform their judgements in grading, they are able to look over the quality of the work that the student has already produced and look at it in comparison to what it should be at the end of the year. By using Achievement Level Descriptors (ALDs) and competencies, they can see clearly which direction each student needs to go. It is reassuring.”

“A lot of students, especially seniors, have already met competencies.” Their task in this 4th quarter might be to apply their mastered learning in a deeper, more interdisciplinary project, transferring secure skills and preparing for the types of learning that occur in college and careers. 

“Others, as the teacher reviews work done in Google classroom, might reveal a need for skills and learning to be shored up” – relearned, scaffolded, or broken down into smaller steps.

Hume-Howard has confidence in teacher’s abilities, even in these tough and changing times. “They already know this – they can do this, and there are frames to look back to – big ideas, big competencies, ALDs, and learning progressions – that allow teachers to say ‘I see it. The student has done it.’.”

In keeping with this view, Brian Stack, principal of the Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH., has said that his teachers have already spent a lot time training on what proficiency looks like and they have competencies in place. The only change now is in how students provide that evidence. 

Kim Conant, an interventionist from Sanborn Regional School District, agrees. She explains that it’s best to focus this remote learning time on formative assessments. Summatives are possible and appropriate in small doses. But it is best to focus summative assessments on application of secure skills (reviewed from the first 3 quarters) for 4th quarter grading and use formative assessment to ensure growth toward new learning gained in the fourth quarter.

Bari Boisvert, also from Sanborn, teaches primarily sophomore ELA as well as AP. She echoes this confidence in a competency-based grading approach. 

“I can see that the work is there – at this point in the year I can recognize their writing “voice” and can see that it is definitely there – it just not something they did the night before and passed in. I can see the work that went into it. I can go into their documents in Google Docs and provide feedback so the grading is still fluid for me. I can do real-time conferencing with them there too – its impromptu, not scheduled – I can just pop in to make sure they are actually doing the assigned work and tell them to just go for it. Whether I give them formative feedback on their reflections or a summative assessment, I’m always there, floating around in the Google classroom.”

However, she points out, creating a summative assessment that is fair and equitable can be challenging in this remote learning period. 

“It’s harder to do in this setting because now it’s just me – normally there’s a paraprofessional or extra help and students who learn differently can just ask for it or even go to another spot for extra help. Alone in my living room it’s not ‘all hands on deck’ anymore – it’s one hand on deck. And everyone is looking for help so all the staff is tapped – we can’t always work together with the same class at the same time. Sometimes privacy is an issue too unless you use breakout rooms in Zoom. When you’re giving extra help online, you don’t want to single any student out in front of others, just as you wouldn’t in the face-to-face classroom. In my own classroom I can divide them into groups and can pop from group to group. Fair and equitable often means getting that extra help.” 

“People say students will lose educational momentum during this time. Will there be a gap? No, I don’t think so. There is focus on their work now because they’re not distracted. It’s interesting to me that with the kids we’re seeing a better quality of work, and I can see in their drafts and their prep that it’s their own work. I’m seeing a lot of mastery – a lot of excellent work.”

Chantel DeNapoli is a K-5th grade math specialist in the Concord, NH School District, supporting teachers with math instruction across five schools. In her district, she says, “There is a large effort to use a lot of formative assessment online as we introduce new learning. To my knowledge, we haven’t done a lot of summative assessment.” 

She also recognizes the equity aspect of grading remote learning. “The biggest thing [with summative grading] – and we don’t have a solution yet – grading has a different meaning because we can’t grade kids in the same sense as we had them in school. It’s a completely different context. We can’t grade them on what support they have access to or don’t have access to at home, whether it is noisy and distracting, whether they are connecting through internet, or whether someone is available to support them just when they need it so they can get that work in when its due.”

What works best, she says, is formative assessment during this time. “In formative, we are looking at ‘are they learning?’ and ‘are they understanding new concepts?’ and ‘can they move forward with new learning?’.” It helps us understand what kids need.”

“I predict report cards just won’t look the same”, DeNapoli says. “They’ll be more about Where are they now and where do we need to bring them? It’s going to tell us where we need to pick up when we come back in the fall. It’s a small perspective – small in the sense of one student at a time – because there is a lot of flexibility in teachers’ hands to see what works. It’s nice that they are able to explore what works with their group of kids.”

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