Shifting the Focus From Grades to Growth

by | 09.16.21

Nicholas Emmanuele is an ELA teacher and Department Chair in Pennsylvania. Follow him on X @NAEmmanuele.

Last school year, I had a student who told me near the end of the semester, “I think I have a C.” I could see in her work that she was earning a high B or even an A. I asked why she thought she had a C, and she said, “Well, I’m just a C student in English. That’s what I always get.” 

Conversations like this are a reminder of how hard it is to put labels on learning. We’ve developed grading systems to allow us to do that, but just a letter doesn’t say much about where a student has been, the goal they’ve set, or where they’re going. And yet our students get used to these labels – so much so that they can start to attach the labels to themselves. 

I told my student, “Well, let’s take a look at some evidence of your learning. Here’s your really strong claim. Here’s where you’re using in-text citations correctly already, in the first half of your ninth grade year. You’ve read three novels so far.” 

I’ve found that these discussions, which take the focus off the grade and turn it toward the ways students are growing, can be transformative, boosting confidence for students who think their identities are set. They walk away realizing they can do more than they knew. Interactions like this are why I’ve taken a couple steps to change my approach to assessment.

I’ve shifted to a standards-based grading model, which is based on growth instead of points.

Assignments are not awarded points that average together, and every assignment can serve as evidence of student learning in our six major learning targets. If students don’t finish a particular assignment, that can be fine – as long as they have other evidence of mastery of the same learning target. This allows students to shift their focus from their grade to their learning –  tracking it, demonstrating it, and reflecting on it.

Often, when students enter my class in the fall, they want to know, “How many points do I need to pass?” Not getting “points” for every practice assignment throws some students off at first. The mindset shift requires a lot of discussion early on. We’ve really been focusing on talking about learning. What is your evidence of your learning? What can you do now – and how can you show me? 

I tell students: Players don’t get stats during practice, they get stats at their game. Similarly, if you’re rehearsing something, you’re allowed to mess up. If you fail your first driver’s test, you get your second driver’s test. They don’t average the two scores – you pass the second one when you demonstrate mastery, and then you get your driver’s license.  

The process of gathering evidence is challenging at first, so I’ve been refining how I teach students to do that. But the key message to students is that I’m on their side. I’m here as a partner in their learning, not a judge. My feedback is in service of helping them master the learning target. And when students do get it, they refocus their energy on learning –  not ‘getting’ a grade.

I’ve started inviting students to “pitch” their grades in conferences, based on their evidence of learning.

Every week, my students reflect on their evidence of learning and their progress toward the standards. We check in, with their evidence and our learning targets, and I ask them, “What’s something you’re doing really well this week?” Or “What’s something you’re still working on?” Then, every five weeks, students “pitch” their grade to me, sharing evidence to demonstrate their progress. 

When these grade pitches roll around, the students and I already have a pretty good pulse on where they are, because I’ve given them feedback along the way. I’ve learned that the success of these conferences comes down to communication, and  I’ve learned to be very specific with my questions. I’ll say, “Show me an example of a complex sentence.” Early on, I was saying things like, “Show me evidence of your accomplishments as a writer,” and that was too vague. Students need support in identifying evidence. Sometimes the student’s written grade pitch with evidence is sufficient; other times, it will require a one-on-one conference to discuss how their evidence matches their grade (or not).

It takes a lot of work to get students thinking this way, but I’m proud that students can talk about what they can and can’t do, what they have accomplished, what they’re proud of, and what they’re still working towards. That quarter-end letter grade in the class will still be there– in the way grades are still prominent in our schools – but the students’ journey with me will be focused on what they know and what they can do rather than a letter. This system shows a bit more grace and understanding – and a bit more humility on my part, as the assessor. 

Students come to us with so many different backgrounds, with so many different abilities and needs. Focusing on progress gives students room to grow – and acknowledges that they’re all bringing unique strengths to our classrooms.

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