Education Week - November 11, 2015 - Special Report - (Page S6)
November 11, 2015
Understanding Formative Assessment > www.edweek.org/go/formativeassessment-digital
Research director of
group at Educational
Testing Service, who
studies the use of
to improve learning
S hou ld
F orm at i v e
A ssessm en t s
B e G raded?
F o u r ex p er t s o f f er t heir
t ak es o n t he q u est io n an d
su g g est so m e alt er n at ives
By L ian a H eit in
When asked whether assignments that are
meant to inform instruction should receive a
grade, researchers and instructional experts
almost inevitably offer a resounding "no."
Formative assessment is about measuring
where students are in their learning and giving them feedback, they say, and then working to fill in the gaps. Grading can shut down
But sometimes theory and practice collide in the classroom. Many middle and high
school teachers say they need to grade quizzes and homework and in-class tasks to get
students to take the work seriously. And parents often expect students to get grades on
work they've put effort into. Some districts
even have policies requiring that certain
numbers or types of tasks be graded, which
can make it tough to avoid giving grades on
In an effort to dig a little further into why so
many people say formative assessments and
grades shouldn't mix, and what teachers can
do to get around that, Education Week talked
with some researchers and practitioners. ■
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Grading work meant for formative purposes can be
"highly problematic," said Wylie, especially if the goal is
to get students to reveal what they don't understand.
Giving students comments about their work is helpful,
she said. But feedback in the form of grades can be
discouraging, according to research by Ruth Butler, an
education professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem
in Israel, and others. When teachers pair grades with
comments, students still focus on the grades and fail to
process the meaningful feedback on how to improve.
The best thing to do is decouple grades and
substantive feedback, she said. When working in a
system that requires grades on student work, teachers
can "find creative ways to give comments first, let
students reflect on how to improve their work, then a
day later show them their grade," she said. "You have to
break the cycle. ... If it's always being reinforced [that]
you're a D student, I think that's a real challenge."
This change can be hard to make in a single
classroom, she said. "It's got to be a systemic thing,
not just this one teacher doing something very
differently. It's easier if you have the [entire] school or
grade level doing things differently."
Assistant professor of
educational studies at
St. Louis University in
Missouri, and a
Some teachers enter grades for formative
assessments, particularly when using an online
gradebook, to keep parents and students informed,
Pierce said. "In this instance, the scores are for
information purposes. They don't 'count' in the final
course or unit grade-they're meant to be feedback on
current progress," she said. "I know that some teachers
also enter a grade for a formative assessment, and
then replace it with the summative-assessment grade.
Again, the grade provides a general sense of progress
toward a goal."
However, a problem here is that "knowing that I have
a 7 out of 10 on the formative assessment doesn't help
me know what I need to work on or how I can improve
my performance." Instead, she said, offering specific
feedback "in a scoring guide, in narrative comments, in
a face-to-face conference, can be much more useful
than providing a score."
Many teachers worry that students won't take tasks
seriously if they're not graded, but that's a problem of
engagement, Pierce said. "For example, students who
want to pass the driving test to get their initial license
generally don't need grades or scores to motivate them
to learn the material," she said. "Formative
assessment, if it helps them improve their chances of
passing the driving test, is useful to students, and a
grade is not necessary. [And] students writing
college-application essays generally appreciate
formative-assessment information, because they are
committed to crafting a successful essay."
Dean and a
professor of research
the University of
Colorado at Boulder
The major problem with grading is that it "subverts
learning for its own sake," Shepard said. "All the
metacognitive things you want to accomplish with
formative assessment and the affective dimension of
wanting to do it and feeling good about doing it are
subverted by grading."
Online gradebooks that require parents to log in are
"the devil," she said, because they often force teachers
to grade tasks that would be better off not graded.
One alternative for teachers is to offer "as if" grades,
she explained, in which they tell students what grade
they would have gotten if what they turned in were a
finished product. This can help students "internalize the
criteria for good work, which is part of learning."
Teachers also can calculate grades and offer
students a choice after a comprehensive test or final
project: The students can either take the grade on
their final assessment as their grade in its entirety,
or take the overall average of their grades. This
ensures that students who had a steep learning
curve are not penalized, as long as they learned the
content by the final.
English teacher at
and author of a
Grading formative assessment, Filkins said, is akin to
ranking basketball teams based on how they do in
"If we say this is for practice and we hold you
accountable for the practice, then it wasn't really
practice," he said. "You almost want kids to make
mistakes on formative assessments because that's
how you figure out your next teaching cues. Once we
attach a grade, students try to hide their weaknesses."
Even so, schools' grading policies can get in the way.
"We literally have a grading policy that says there will
be X number of major grades and X number of minor
grades, and minor grades are things we consider
formative," he said. "I don't think we're unusual with
that kind of policy."
In that situation, teachers have to talk to students
explicitly about the fact that the minor assignments are
really for practice and revision, he said, even though
they're graded. "That's a strange conversation," he
said. But students are flexible. "It's all in how you frame
a conversation. [You can say], 'Here's what I learned
about you from doing this, here's how I'm going to teach
you differently, and here's a goal you can set for
yourself for next time,' " he said.
And those grades also don't necessarily have to be
written in stone-they can serve as a temporary marker
and later be revised, said Filkins.
Overall, though, core-subject teachers have a lot to
learn from their colleagues teaching visual arts and
music. "When you're watching kids paint or listening to
them play an instrument, you give them feedback on
the spot," he said. "But you don't take off points for
playing the wrong note."
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - November 11, 2015 - Special Report
Education Week - November 11, 2015 - Special Report
Table of Contents
Bringing Clarity to a Cloudy Idea
Should Formative Assessments Be Graded?
Common Core: Tools to Check Students’ Grasp
Putting Students in Charge of Their Own Learning
An Arizona Initiative Sets Sights on Teachers
Learning Progressions: Road Maps for Teaching
Tech-Powered Teacher Tools
Education Week - November 11, 2015 - Special Report