Reflecting on Assessment, Part 1: How a Student Changed My Beliefs About Grades

Tyler Rablin

by | 04.25.22

Tyler Rablin is an English teacher in Washington. Connect with Tyler on Twitter @Mr_Rablin.

During my second year of teaching, I met one of the most brilliant students I’ve ever known. Tiffany was a junior in my intervention class. She read nonstop, and she loved writing and was just fantastic at it. And she was failing my language arts class. Her grade was something like 9%.

The assessment focus in my class was skills-based, but I had too narrowly defined what success could look like. In too many classes – including, at that time, mine – the main reason kids fail is because they don’t turn in the right percentage of work. And that was partially what was going on with Tiffany. I had dictated specific tasks that needed to be done, and she wasn’t doing the correct amount of them, so her grade was low. In other words, her grade was more closely tied to her behavior – the amount of work she turned in – rather than to her learning. 

How My Assessment Philosophy Shifted

I didn’t know how to put my finger on it at the time, but looking back, I can see how my experience with Tiffany first led me to identify my approach to assessment as a problematic area of my teaching at the time. I started looking at my teaching and asking, “What needs to change for my assessment practices to center students’ needs?”

It led to a mindset shift that has come to define a core part of my practice. I used to think my students had to turn in certain assignments to “earn” a grade. Now, I believe it’s my responsibility to give students enough opportunities to demonstrate their learning, so even if they miss an assignment or two, they still have a chance to show me how they’ve grown. 

Whether the student turns in an assignment or sits down with me one-on-one to explain their learning, I focus on  finding evidence of growth. There will always be some element of student behavior involved in the assessment process: If a kid never submits anything or never comes to class, I won’t be able to find that evidence of learning. But by making this shift, I can ensure behavior is no longer the foundational element of whether or not a student is successful. 

How This Shift Matters for My Students’ Identities

In addition to making sure that I am giving students opportunities to demonstrate growth, I’ve learned how much assessment anxiety my students carry and have changed my practice in order to help guard against that. My students used to go into assessments really unsure of themselves and how they were going to perform. They saw an assessment as a way for me to decide “you are successful” or “you are not successful,” but I wasn’t making it clear how those determinations were made, and they weren’t able to track their progress and reflect. 

By changing my assessment model to something that’s more aligned with “standards-based grading” or “mastery grading,” students can see their own growth, and when they enter into an assessment, I don’t see that same level of fear. They know that their job is to show me what they know, and that if they need more support to gain a skill, I will give them another chance to show evidence of learning. 

I know this shift is making a difference because of the confidence I see in my students. It used to be that when a student saw “F” after “F” on their progress reports, they would look at the grading scale mathematically and say, “Well, there goes my chance to be successful. I’m done.” They would check out. I don’t see that happening as much anymore. I won’t pretend the shift has caused a miracle and now all of my students are 100% engaged all of the time, but I no longer see students give up on themselves and their learning. There are plenty of reasons I think it’s important for us to rethink assessment, but if an increase in self-belief were the only thing that had changed in my class, it would be worth it. 

As they grow up, our students are looking for anything outside themselves to figure out who they are, and too often, grades and scores are where they turn to label themselves. When we’re not careful with labels that we throw around, so many of our kids form an identity around the letter that we give them. I want students like Tiffany to identify as the insightful readers and writers that they are, not as a “D” or an “F.”

Resources for Rethinking Assessment

In the next post in this series, I’ll offer more resources that might guide your thinking as you reflect on your own assessment approach. If you are looking for a deeper dive now, I recommend the book Grading Smarter, Not Harder. It opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking about what we’re looking for when we assess our students. 

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