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Volume IX Issue II

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Assessment and Grading: Point/Counterpoint

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


How individuals approach grading and assessment spans a wide continuum. Some are exploring new territory as they wrestle with alternative ways to measure student learning, while others hold firm to their traditional beliefs and practices. A healthy, productive outlook is to keep an open mind, examine the pros and cons of new ideas, and remember that as professionals, we should all be lifelong learners.

In the 1970s, a feature on the CBS news program 60 Minutes was called “Point/Counterpoint.” During this segment, two individuals presented different points of view on the same topic. This process came to mind as I thought about the contrasting attitudes and beliefs educators have about grading and assessment. In order to bring to light these differing views, I decided to use the point/counterpoint format to highlight different viewpoints. Read on and determine where you stand on each of the six areas addressed below.

Point #1
Offering students a second chance on assessments is counter to the way the real world operates.

While some practitioners hold this belief, others have made a shift in their thinking. One of the most convincing arguments for allowing students to have a second chance to improve their performance is put forth by Rick Wormeli. In a recent EL (Educational Leadership), Wormeli writes, “Many teachers reason that they are building moral fiber and preparing students for the working world by denying them the opportunity to redo assignments and assessments – or if they allow retakes, by giving only partial credit for redone assessments even when students have demonstrated full mastery of the content.” In truth, in the world beyond school, redos and retakes are a common practice. As Wormeli points out, LSAT, MCAT, Praxis, SAT, bar exams, CPA exams, driver’s licensure, pilot licensure and mechanic certificate exams are high-stakes “adult level, working-world” assessments that may be redone for full credit. If we want our students to engage more fully in our school’s mission, we must give them hope and a reason to persevere. Second chances may just be the way to reach our young people.

Point #2
Students learn responsibility when they have to meet established deadlines. Being flexible will send the wrong message and defer their understanding of the importance of punctuality.

There is no doubt that we want our students to learn the importance of being responsible and conscientious in their work habits. The acceptance and assessment of late work is a problematic issue for teachers. Unless we explore reasons why students do not turn in their work in a timely manner (or at all), we simply impose penalties on our students which often lead to failure and even less work submitted. It is important for teachers to think deeply about what they are requiring students to do by analyzing how much time must be invested by the students and how important the work is in meeting the required standards of the course. Additionally, teachers should consider the incredibly complicated lives some students lead outside of school as well as the total workload required in all the classes in which students are enrolled. Some teachers have reevaluated their requirements and concluded that if the assignment is important enough to do, then students must complete the work and submit it whether it is late or not. However, they take into account the unique needs of some students and make modifications so that the work will eventually be completed. Massachusetts teacher Eileen Dame, who has revised her late work policy, has written, “There is nothing about timeliness of submitted assignments, one-try-only testing, or orderliness of binders in my state framework.” As a result, she has revised her messages to her students to include: It is your responsibility to do all your work; ignored work does not disappear; and, a job poorly done must be done again.

Point #3
Some schools jump on every bandwagon that comes down the pike. Rethinking a school’s assessment practices, which is currently the trend in education, is not really necessary because it will be too contentious, disruptive and time consuming.

How teachers assess student learning and eventually determine a final report grade can vary from school to school and even classroom to classroom in the same school. Even though general guidelines are in place, many schools have never talked openly about the subject. Hence, how teachers make grading decisions is “all over the map.” On the other hand, rather than ignore the inconsistencies that exist, efforts are being made by some districts and individual schools to reach a consensus on the meaning of grades and how they are determined. Susan Brookhart, author of Grading and Learning: Practices That Support Student Achievement, suggests approaches that will facilitate the process and have the potential to bring about constructive changes. As she points out, faculties can run into trouble early in the process if they take on too many grade-related subjects at once. She writes, “The main issue is not what scale to use, how often to report, how many grades to combine, or how to combine them. These secondary issues can be decided only after you answer the main questions: What message do we want our grades to convey? and Who is (are) the primary intended audience(s) for the message?” She further emphasizes that all constituents must be “heard and understood” in a respectful setting as they begin their dialogues. Other topics that schools can address in this public process include:

  • factors that should be included when grading
  • the role of zeros
  • how lack of achievement will be assessed and recorded
  • the ways in which to document student progress
  • the development of meaningful assessments and periodic reexaminations
  • assessment and modification of the grading system


Point #4
Some assessment practices are rooted in tradition. They are well known to teachers, parents, and students alike. They have worked for educators for decades and should not be called into question.

There are many grading and assessment approaches that have been followed and rarely challenged across many decades. These practices include assessments which primarily emphasize factual recall, pop quizzes to keep students on their toes, projects completed outside of school, class work grades (often a packet), homework that is graded and included in determining a student’s final grade, and finally, major periodic tests (sometimes on a semester basis) that represent a significant part of a student’s final grade. Students become accustomed to these types of assessments (whether they find them useful or helpful in the learning process) and parents rarely object to the practices since their learning was assessed the same way. Be that as it may, educators and researchers are publicizing and promoting different approaches that are challenging such long-held practices. Some approaches being debated are:

  • Determining a student’s final grade by using the best representation of the student’s work rather than averaging all grades together;
  • Reducing the importance of or eliminating what Doug Reeves calls the “semester killer;”
  • As Ken O’Connor suggests, determining a student’s final grade by looking at trends in student work;
  • Developing the talents of individual students by providing different ways for selected students to demonstrate their learning;
  • Deciding a student’s final grade using only summative assessment criteria rather than include both formative and summative data;
  • Banning the use of zeros since a zero lets students off too easily, seldom serves as a motivator, and is not an accurate reflection of what has been learned


Point #5
We must do whatever is necessary to promote the self-esteem of our students. They will never improve their academic performances and get better grades unless we send a positive message to them.

For many years, some educators have operated under the misconception that a student’s higher self-esteem would result in greater student achievement and better grades. As a result, they have provided empty praise for their students based on very little or non-existent data. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, brain researchers have learned that “… a growing body of research over three decades shows that easy, unearned praise does not help students but instead interferes with significant learning opportunities.” Moreover, when we simply make children feel good about themselves for spurious reasons, they fail to work hard with the potential result being that they will be less likely to successfully compete in a global economy. Instead, teachers should promote resilience and risk taking as they work with their students. When students see that their work ethic and persistent effort lead to greater academic gains, their feelings of self-worth will grow in a more realistic manner.

Point #6
Using data to make instructional decisions is too time-consuming.

On a regular basis, we replay in our minds our spending decisions, personal plans, employment opportunities, and individual relationships. Reflecting is almost a subconscious way of life. As we focus on our assessment practices as teachers, perhaps we should follow a similar process, except do it with purpose and deliberation in order to make informed instructional decisions. For example, after administering and grading a unit test, some teachers have students reflect on their progress by comparing their initial pre-assessments to the results on their final products. In Maryland, many schools follow the Classroom-Focused Improvement Process (CFIP). Instead of asking, “What did the students score?” or “How many passed?” they shift their focus and analyze test data by asking themselves, “What do the students know?” “What do they not know?” and “What are we going to do about it?” Insightful teachers believe that it is not the assessment itself that is important but what they do with assessment results that matters most. As professionals, they understand that the investment of time and energy is quite important if student learning, not grading, is the goal.

Whatever opinions we may have, assessments and grades are institutionalized, are an established way we do business in the education field, and will always be a part of our lives. But within these topics, we have choices. We can either adopt a laissez faire attitude leaving things as they are, or we can indulge in healthy, unemotional, and sensible dialogue surrounding the topics and decide whether we need to adjust our thinking and our practice. Change can be healthy and in today’s world, “running in place” or “standing pat” are should be rejected as options. Let’s keep the dialogue going.

To Be Continued…

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:

Oliver, Bruce. “Assessment and Grading: Point/Counterpoint” Just for the ASKing! February 2012. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2012 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.

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