What story does your grade book tell?

black Fayorit typewriter with printer paper

***Updated with a video link at the bottom***

Since I began working with my Secondary Assessment Learning Team (SALT) at my school, I’ve attempted to tackle numerous projects, but none has been more significant and problematic than my grade book.

Since going officially gradeless (feedback only with students, no levels, no points, no scores, no percentages…until interim and report card time), three years ago (before that I was what I consider semi-gradeless but not necessarily fully gradeless because I either still used points and scores, had categories in my gradebook, or was transparent about standards-based levels with students), Easygrade Pro and FreshGrade (two grading platforms) had been less than accommodating for me, the gradeless educator. There was either not enough characters to express a curricular competency in place of an assignment, or the programs insisted on weighting standards and puking up overall scores (which I have since learned can be turned off, but at the time, ’twas a headache). Marks programs were a barrier to effectively communicating student growth.

I learned, through trial and error, to abandon the online grade book and focus on how I tracked achievement instead. After all, as so many of my assessment heroes have pointed out, one shouldn’t spend too much time sending out progress reports every few days, but instead withhold the grade. This gives students time to learn. I had learned (the hard way) in my first gradeless year, that both students and parents will wait as anxiously for the ping of a highlight showing the level of proficiency as they would a grade or score after a test. Delay the grade. Convinced.

But still, there are parents who want to know how their child is doing. What then? Where’s the balance? I learned that most parents are fine with not finding out levels of proficiency right away so long as they were updated on whether or not their child turned in work, if they are engaged in class, and if there is support needed at home. Parents don’t want to be surprised to learn at the end of a semester that their child is failing a class or has not been using class time to it’s potential. So, instead of being tormented by the online grade book, I decided to use it to appease parents. Now I send home progress reports with complete/incomplete designations for learning opportunities, email home if patterns of incomplete learning opportunities rear up, and notify all stakeholders if learning opportunities are excused due to absence or IEP criteria. Boxes ticked. Parents happy.

With that dilemma out of the way, I can focus on the grade book as a better story teller. After all, when it is time to tell parents how their child is doing, the expression of the learning journey is everything!

My grade book used to tell a terrible story. It was filled with points, scores, and numbers. These items didn’t communicate, to any stakeholder, where, specifically, students have weaknesses and strengths.

28/34 on a test — Where did the student lose six points? Presuming the test had, let’s say four areas of learning, did this student lose a little bit from each area? Did they lose six points in one area? Maybe three points in two areas? The score doesn’t tell the teacher or the student, weeks down the road, anything important. Oh, except that the student LOST six points. That’s what happens when scores are presented like this? A total shows students WHERE THEY WENT WRONG. It highlights what’s missing, instead of the so much more important, what’s been gained. It’s deficit-based.

man in black suit banging his head on wall

What if the score was communicated as a percentage instead? Maybe that would communicate a better message, eh? 28/34 = 82%. 82% communicates what to stakeholders? To the student trying to get on the Honour Roll, Wahoo! On track! Who cares where I had problems. I got a B! To the student who needs to get an A so their parents can reward them with a hundred bucks, they are now freaking out that they missed an A by four percent and desperately begin to do math to figure out, What do I need on the next project to get an A? To the student who is satisfied with anything beyond a pass, they are currently justifying that party they’ve been invited to this Saturday because they don’t need to study for the next unit test or turn in the next project because they did so well on this test that failing the next test won’t affect my average.

Oh. My. Oh. Dear. The moment students do math to justify their past learning, current learning, and future learning, Houston, we have a problem.

It’s obvious, then, that scores, points, and grades need to be withheld from stakeholders in order to prevent them from doing math to figure out their next learning move. It’s equally obvious that feedback should replace scores, points, and grades because numerous studies (Dylan Wiliam, Ruth Butler, Alfie Kohn, for example) show that feedback only moves learning forward when scores, points, and grades are withheld as well. It could also be justified that incessantly using proficiency levels instead of scores, points, and grades do similar harm to students because the levels are being attached to things instead of processes as in my grade book from a few years ago (#ashamed).

So how can the grade book show the learning journey? How can is honour the student?

Some people like technology. I like paper. I like being able to scrawl anecdotal details. I also like not having to rely on a flash drive or the internet to think. Don’t forget that I still like Fresh Grade communicating other facets (as explained earlier), so I’m not anti-tech. I use both, but I use my binder to track. With me so far? You could also set up an Excel spreadsheet like my buddy, Mr. Hanes showed me. It could look something like the the one above.

The picture, above, shows one side to a two-sided page, with two of five curricular competencies.

In this system, each student has their own designated sheet of paper with five curricular competencies (our department chose five for the quarter system because the very idea of trying to assess more than five in ten weeks made our heads spin). There is space for notes and there are columns to track the proficiency of learning opportunities. But here’s the kicker! Instead of assessing tests, projects, and assignments a la proficiency scale (28/34 is Developing because my grade book is set up to determine the proficiency based on percentages…ew…yuck), I view tests, projects, and assignments as evidence of a particular curricular competency, asking myself, To what extent does this learning opportunity show ____(insert curricular competency). It’s not about what each student got on the learning opportunity but how the learning opportunity shows the proficiency level of the curricular competency.

PGSS Proficiency Scale – created by me in the summer of 2018 for the purpose of standards-based grading. It was generated to align with the levels used by elementary teachers in School District 57.

Why levels of proficiency? Proficiency scales are a transparent and effective way to track and communicate student learning and achievement. Fewer gradients of cognitive complexity (in this case five levels) means that assessment will be more accurate than, say, using percentages which assume 101 gradients of cognitive complexity.

There is no technology involved. There is no math involved. It is just the tracker, the proficiency scale, the learning opportunity, and I. It is a very intimate process this business of assessment. It should be an intimate process. Assessment shouldn’t be something left up to technology to determine.

As a result of tracking in this way, I am better able to see the story of learning. For this particular curricular competency, above, this student completed weekly literature circles and began their learning at Beginning and by week 3 had shown progress, Applying. Feedback was provided after and during each learning opportunity. The levels were withhold and only feedback provided. You will notice, though, that there’s a setback in the learning story; week 4’s assessment of learning shows a drop to Beginning. This is a definitely a red flag with one of a variety of reasons to explain it, some that have to do with learning and others that have to do with understanding the whole child. Did the student not connect to this particular learning opportunity? (I try very hard to provide meaningful learning opportunities but I know that not all learning opportunities reap success.) Is there a social-emotional dilemma I am unaware of? Was the student having a bad week? What is happening in their personal life? Do they not understand the criteria? Do they need some reteaching? By tracking in this way, I am able to see patterns for a specific skill (curricular competency) as opposed to a jumble of task-specific scores. When I spoke with this student, as it turns out, their dog had passed away and they were an emotional mess. By the next learning opportunity, however, the assessment proved that they did, indeed, show competence and needed no reteaching. I would, however, provide more feedback so they could level up once more.

My grade book tracker allows me to consider the whole student, the journey, and any red flags that come up. I can swoop in and discover curricular-competency specific learning issues or social emotional conflicts. I can notice problems and generate new, student-specific learning opportunities for individual students. I can notice patterns and address individual students, small groups, or the whole class. I can turf data that doesn’t justify the curricular competency.

Isn’t that a fantastic story? It get’s better. We’re not even at the climax yet! Squeal.

Now, we head towards interim time. It is five weeks in. How does this tracker influence my interims? It’s so awesome! At interim time, I ask myself, To what extent can this student ___ (insert curricular competency). I can LEGITIMATELY remove the one hiccup in week 4 and there is proof, right there…right in front of me, that this student is at Applying. They have shown that they have a grasp of the main concept or skill and can apply that concept or skill to unique contexts or situations (extracted from the wording in the proficiency scale). Boom. They are at Applying.

But now imagine if I had used a program to determine the level at interim time. What if I had pre-assigned a score for each level? Let’s say, for kicks and giggles, that every Beginning equates to 5/10, Developing equates to 7/10, Applying equates to 9/10, and Extending equates to 10/10. If I input those scores into a grade book machine, the average would determine that this student would be at 7/10 or Developing. Developing? Is this an accurate assessment of learning? No way! Does that honour the student? It does not. Full stop!

My current interim report.

What about content? I only see the curricular competency in your grade book tracker. Content is the foundation of learning. I teach content specifically for the knowledge base (Students are expected to know…). It is through the content that students show me proficiency of the curricular competency (Using oral, written, visual, and digital texts, students are expected individually and collaboratively to be able to…). I can see that students might not know the content when there are problems in the curricular competency. For English 8, for example, students need to learn literary elements and literary devices which they would use to work on the comprehension curricular competency. I don’t specifically track content proficiency, but we review content through no stakes daily activities (Show me what you know) and exit slips (What did you learn today? Write two things on the post-it or share with a partner. Share one thing with your group that is confusing you.) in order to embed knowledge it into long-term memory. (A great book about the science of learning is Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning by Pooja K. Agarwal and Patrice M. Bain.). By tracking the curricular competency, I am, effectively, tracking the standard (the curricular competency + content).

woman holding brown umbrella

Ultimately, with my grade book set up like this, I am more in tune with the kinds of learning opportunities I create for my students. A vocabulary quiz does not fully show the comprehension competency, nor does a worksheet focusing solely on the plot of two short stories. I still use them, but I note them in my grade book; I don’t assess them on the proficiency scale. I teach everything that the competency entails in a no or low stakes fashion, and then I give students agency over their own learning by providing a new opportunity for them to show me what they can do. Now, I create learning opportunities via the curricular competency…backwards design.

A grade book can be an incredibly powerful tool. It can be destructive. It can be inspiring. I am still making tweaks to my grade book on a semester by semester basis, but one thing is for certain. It absolutely honors my students’ learning journeys. It tells great stories and allows me the opportunity to rewrite those stories with instead of against my students.


Click on the picture below to take you to the video:



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