Are Your Classroom Assessments and Grading Practices Stuck in the Stone Age?

November 30, 2015 Jonathan E. Martin

Classroom assessment and grading practices in independent schools have changed the least in the past few decades of educational innovation.

In curriculum, we’ve seen new STEM, STEAM, computer science, and robotics curricula swiftly emerging; in instruction, we’ve seen great advances in project-based, blended, differentiated and personalized learning.   Teachers throughout our sector are experimenting with flipped classrooms, online discussion groups, blogging, design thinking.

And yet, in the vast majority of our schools, we’re still grading student work (particularly in middle and high schools) via a few tests and papers each semester, with maybe a few points thrown in for homework, class participation, and the like.   Grades are calculated with a 100 percentage point model, with A’s assigned to those whose semester average lands somewhere in the 90s.

Grading in this manner is our equivalent to what the use of  bloodsucking leeches would be to medical practice in the 21st century.  Nowhere in our schooling system are our practices so outdated, so “stone age,” and so uninformed and uninfluenced by research and evidence as in our grading and assessment.

Is the above a fair generalization of our field today?  Perhaps it’s overstated.   It’s intended to provoke, to demand attention and consideration by you the reader.   Curiosity abounds: do you agree?

After all, many more educators today than ever before are using understanding by design to carefully plan their assessments and work backwards to organize their curriculum and instruction; many are becoming much more intentional and frequently in their employment of feedback and formative assessments; rubrics are increasingly implemented to give students far richer guidance and responsiveness on expectations and performance.   Did you know that university provosts report that the use of portfolios and rubrics in collegiate grading has tripled in just the past five years?   Maybe the long overdue renaissance in grading and assessment is indeed upon us.

Those educators who have taken their courses online have been forced to dig deep to rethink how they will provide the connection, support, and feedback their students will need to succeed in this environment.   They’ve been considering how to best leverage the online environment to assign work, monitor student learning, and grade student accomplishment.   Online and blended class instructors are having students collaborate, research, publish, self-assess, and peer assess in new and novel ways, using powerful technology and careful methodology.   They’ve had to think about how to verify the authenticity of student work submitted online.

There’s much all educators can learn about new and better practices in grading and assessing student work from the online learning environment.  My new e-book for Blackbaud, Grading and Assessing Online Student Work:  Core Concepts and Key Strategies You Can Use Today, provides a look at some of the lessons learned and opportunities emerging for better practice, and is intended to offer suggestions which might benefit all teachers, no matter the environment in which they teach.

At the core this short and easy-to-skim booklet is a list of 14 methods for best practice.   Number one, for example, is to better design your course to ensure your assessments are appropriately aligned.

Set aside your preconceptions and begin anew. What is your course intended to teach and develop? What are the ways students will demonstrate that they have learned those things? And what are the ways in which they will receive feedback so that they do learn?

Design requires a more user-centered approach, putting the emphasis on the learning, not the teaching. It allows you to build a course map of formative and summative assessment that will provide transparency, accountability, and equity in grading.

Eric Hudson, director of teaching and learning at Global Online Academy, says, “It is highly recommended to approach assessments through the lens of design, not instruction. Through the lens of design, two things come to the fore—goals and audience. Imagine yourself as a designer, and whether by design-thinking strategies or Understanding by Design practices, design student experiences that are meaningful and valuable to students and that will ensure they can achieve your goals.”

Another highlighted method is to implement more meaningful alternative assessments.

Consider having students maintain a digital portfolio of reflections. Initially, this can be used for formative feedback, and then later revised to provide a new product for summative assessment. Challenge students to make movies, animations, screencasts, or website contributions to keep in their portfolios.

Ask them to explore the implications and ramifications of what they’re learning. How are the content, skills, understandings, and analyses used in the world to shape and influence action? Then ask them to learn from that example and make their own kind of impact. How can they demonstrate their learning by doing work that matters?

This free, downloadable pdf also provides a peek into the future, forecasting the most important trends emerging in grading and assessment, and ends with five questions educators in every school can consider and reflect upon as they work to enhance their practice. Enjoy—and please let me know what questions or comments you have about the book as well as grading and assessment generally.


About the Author

Jonathan E. Martin

Jonathan E. Martin has 15 years experience as a Head of School, and eight years as a teacher, at three independent schools in California and Arizona. He holds a BA from Harvard University and an MA in School Administration from the University of San Francisco; in 2008 he was a Visiting Fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University. An expert on 21st century learning and assessment, he has presented to school-leaders, teachers, and trustees at more than eighty conferences and schools since 2010. He writes widely and consults to schools nationally on innovative instruction, 21st century educational program design, educational leadership, and next-generation assessment. Jonathan is also a Blackbaud K-12 expert and you can find him online at and on Twitter @JonathanEMartin.

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