Grades For Growth: Managing Change in a School that is Transforming Grading

At Graded, we started our school year with an ambitious goal: to transform the learning environment in classrooms through a new grading paradigm. Over the course of last year, we did our research and followed the advice of Rick Wormeli, Ken O'Connor and Thomas Guskey and took the leap forward.In the Middle School we have made the following changes:
  • We have separated learning habits from academic achievement.
  • Formative assessments are no longer used to determine the final grades.
  • There are no grade penalties for late work. Instead we have a Supervised Academic Support time for immediate make up work.
  • Teachers do not average grades. Instead they determine final grades by looking at the most consistent, most recent achievement.
  • We use a 1-7 grading scale instead of 0-100 that is aligned to clear achievement descriptors
  • We allow students to re-assess when they haven't met learning targets.
None of these measures are particularly revolutionary. Schools all around the world are engaging in the same process, but change is always hard, especially when you are talking about shifting a culture and modifying foundational practices for teachers. In thinking about this, I followed the advice of the Heath Brothers, authors of Made to Stick and Switch. Here is Dan Heath explaining the importance of "Getting out of Maslow's Basement"

The idea that I gleaned from this was that in order to get people motivated for the change, we had to appeal to their sense of purpose. The focus for us has been making sure that our teachers, students and parents understand that we are designing a structure (grading) that aligns with building a growth mindset. In our new system of grading, students are no longer punished for taking risks and failing as long as they respond well to feedback and dedicate themselves to improvement. Teachers no longer have an impersonal digital gradebook that "calculates" grades. Rather they determine the final grade by gathering the best evidence. This means that this system values the voice of our teachers and signals that we trust their professionalism. In addition, by moving fully to criteria-based grading, rather than norm-referencing, we are telling our students that success is available to all, and we do not expect achievement to fall along a bell curve.

In Thomas Guskey's fantastic article, Five Obstacles to Grading Reform, he reminds us of the fundamental question we must answer as educators: "Those who enter the profession of education must answer one basic, philosophical question: Is my purpose to select talent or develop it? The answer must be one or the other because there's no in-between."

He goes on to say: "If your purpose as an educator is to develop talent, then you go about your work differently. First, you clarify what you want students to learn and be able to do. Then you do everything possible to ensure that all students learn those things. If you succeed, there should be little variation in measures of student learning. All students are likely to attain high scores on measures of achievement, and all might receive high grades. If your purpose is to develop talent, this is what you strive to accomplish."

I shared this message with our teachers at our first faculty meeting of the year. It is inspiring because it transmits the hope that we have to see all kids succeed. I sensed a deep sense of relief from teachers who have often felt guilty when a large percentage of their students excel, as if that were an indication of a lack of rigor.

In sharing our new Grading and Reporting policies with students, I started by showing them the inspiring story of Brandon Todd in the short documentary film 5/5.

I walked them through the difference between formative and summative assessment and asked them to draw connections to the video. They could see that while formative assessment would not be included in the final academic grade, it was still important to their progress and growth. When I asked the students: "Does formative assessment count?", they answered with an emphatic "YES!"

Below are some resources that we have created to support the transition at our school. Feel free to borrow from what we have learned and alter to best suit the needs of your school.

Grading and Reporting Policy and Support for Teachers
Grading and Reporting Policy for Parents


  1. Here are some questions that came to mind as I read read this really well organized and informative post:
    1) Does growth over time play a role in assessment?
    2) What parameters are in place as teachers go about considering the most recent and most consistent student work?
    3) Do students at Graded maintain portfolios and are self-assessments ever employed?


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