Evidence-Based Grades and Your PLC Team
Doug Lillydahl - Communication Arts Director
Middle and high school teams across the country are diving into standards-based grading because they want conversations in their classrooms to circle around skills and improvement instead of “how many points do I need to get a B?”
Many teams at our school have based their skills conversations with students and their teammates on rubrics that take a particular skills target, call it mastery, and then describe what it looks like as a student (1) begins, (2)approaches, (3) meets, or (4) exceeds it. We have gained a consistency in our feedback and communication with students as a result, and have avoided assigning arbitrary point values to each cell of a rubric.
The trouble arises when, much like a currency conversion, some students and teachers see a designation of a “3 “ or “4” on a 4 level rubric as converting to a certain value in a grade book. This is a natural part of our world, regardless of the grading system used in our classes. In the end, we know we will be converting dollars to pesos if we are going to Mexico – or rubric ratings to letter grades if we apply to college. The GPA is as entrenched as ever in college admissions. But, while it is easier to say with confidence across teams, “This is a 2,” we are still struggling with the final “currency conversion” of that 2 -- and a PLC team needs to share such a basic understanding.
Do we align 4=A; 3=B, 2=C, and 1=D/F? On the surface, that might make sense, but then the 1 represents two grades. Shall we scrap the four point scale and swap in a five point scale? Or a 10 point scale?
There have been some lively debates about how to meet this challenge, but my advice to teams is to take a step back, remember the purpose of our feedback, and proceed from there.
The four point scale is really meant to be a four category system to communicate to a student where they stand in respect to a Learning Target. You can master it (3), exceed expectations (4), be approaching expectations (2) or be still developing (1). In order to make sense of these designations, a student needs to develop an understanding of the target. Without that anchor, we are back at the days when I would look at some writing and say, “Feels like 7.5/10 for Development,” and move on to the next column of the rubric.
So our feedback on the 4 point scale serves the target first, and grades second. Let me reiterate that – we are not putting grade calculation first and student feedback second, but the reverse: progress toward the target drives the communication.
So, instead of a student left puzzling over how a 7.5/10 converts to their future learning, we have teachers puzzling over how a 3 converts to a letter grade. The challenge has been transferred from child to teacher… and while it is indeed a new challenge for us, I’m ok with that. We can figure this out.
Let’s start with accepting that all the CCSS standards (the basis for our learning targets) are rigorous. If you can master those expectations, you are achieving a lot. In fact, if you can do that consistently with a grade level complexity of materials and task, that is excellent. I propose an A or A- conversion for a pattern of 3’s.
If you can exceed that level, I am really impressed—I know that teachers struggle in my division to define how the standard can be exceeded. Words like “insightfully” and “creatively” begin to pop into the otherwise unchanged “mastery” target language. In some ways, it looks like we are grasping at straws to really define what exceeds, but again, I don’t mind. We are describing a narrow band of achievement that is there to capture the imagination of the best and keep them reaching. If a student’s work falls in that four category, I recommend an A+ with no questions asked.
Much of the worry I hear from teachers is that the 2 or “developing” designation is so broad that a student can wander around in that vast space looking for the doorway to a 3 for an entire semester. So, how do we balance the need for clear messaging around the target (you have not mastered it yet—let’s focus in on it), without discouraging students who aren’t just developing (1) but have multiple rooms to visit in 2 before they earn the coveted mastery (3)?
The most successful teams and teachers I know have divvied up the two to provide students with more feedback and motivation within that band. Teachers are experimenting with the 2.5, the 2- or 2+, or simply, more commentary. Is that “cheating” by creating a de facto 5 or 6 point scale? In my mind, no. We are staying true to the anchor of the target in our communication, yet, we have recognized and adapted to the reality of that communication. Beyond the rating, the commentary feedback allows a student to know more about where to go next. This is essential to their learning.
As with any grading policy, converting that 2- or 2+ into a letter grade should be calibrated out with a team and consistently applied. Regardless of your team’s method, the focus on the target and a little “common sense” adjustment for the realities of our world make the “grade conversion” less of a crisis and more of an opportunity for team professional learning.