more on grading—a synthesis of some my favorite thinkers (part one)

This is part one of a series I’ll be writing on grading.

Guskey, Kashtan, and Reeves

On his blog, Douglas Reeves writes:

I know of few educational issues that are more fraught with emotion than grading. Disputes about grading are rarely polite professional disagreements. Superintendents have been fired, teachers have held candle-light vigils, board seats have been contested, and state legislatures have been angrily engaged over such issues as the use of standards-based grading systems, the elimination of the zero on a 100-point scale, and the opportunities for students to re-submit late or inadequate work.

Miki Kashtan, co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication, succinctly and insightfully explain  what’s needed to ground intense conversations in cooperation and goodwill:

Focusing on a shared purpose and on solutions that work for everyone brings attention to what a group has in common and what brings them together. This builds trust in the group, and consequently the urge to protect and defend a particular position diminishes.

In On Your Mark (Solution Tree, 2014), Thomas Guskey backs up Kashtan and calls upon the work of Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins on backward design when he writes, “Method follows purpose.” (p. 15)

Guskey continues to emphasize the importance of beginning with the end in mind when we come together to discuss our craft with other educators:

Reform initiatives that set out to improve grading and reporting procedures must begin with comprehensive discussions about the purpose of grades … (p. 21)


  • Discussing grading can quickly become prohibitively emotional. (Reeves)
  • Focusing on a shared purpose helps those of us who have already put a stake in the ground to be willing, eager and able to move it. (Kashtan)
  • Before considering the “how” of grading, deeply consider the “why.” (Guskey)

A couple questions on my mind

  1. What practices do you, your department, and/or your institution have in place to facilitate difficult conversations about grading, reporting, and assessment?
  2. To what extent would it be a useful exercise for each department within a school to produce its own purpose statement for grading? (“The purpose of grades within the ___ department at ____ School is …”)

More to come.

thoughts on resilience & grading

I spent the last three days helping to facilitate a leadership retreat for some of our rising 10th, 11th, and 12th graders. This year’s theme was resilience, which we linked closely to one’s relationship with failure.

In several different ways, we asked students to reflect on the extent to which the school provides opportunities for them to fail, process what happened, make adjustments, and persevere through a difficult situation.

As we concluded the retreat this morning, we invited the students to consider how they and the adults at our school could facilitate the development of resilience during the upcoming school year. I was overjoyed with the first comment a boy put forward, which he intended for both students and adults:

Too often we get so focused on grades that we lose sight of the learning. Let’s keep the conversations about the learning rather than the grade.

I was blown away because I had hoped a student would bring this up, and this boy came right out with it. I’d like to make some strategic changes in my messaging around grading, reporting, and assessment this school year, and making the connection to resilience explicit could help keep these shifts rooted in a value to which the community has expressed a commitment.

My guiding question is this: What grading, reporting, and assessment practices (and policies) most effectively promote resilience in students?

There are many broad categories of issues come to mind, but in my current context I’d like to focus on redos and retakes.

I would like to try to assemble the most concise, convincing evidence that allowing multiple attempts at demonstrations of mastery facilitates the development of resilience. (I would go further and say that the practice of averaging in the scores of unsuccessful attempts impedes the development of resilience.)

Here’s a selection of articles I’ve read that support this view.

As Thomas Guskey writes in On Your Mark, we won’t get very far if we don’t agree on the purpose of grades, so the goal here is to convince someone who believes that the primary purpose of grades (in math class especially) is to summarize performance on one-time tests (via the arithmetic mean).

What do you think?

  1. What grading, reporting, and assessment practices (and policies) most effectively promote resilience in students?
  2. What is the most concise, convincing evidence you know of that allowing multiple attempts at demonstrations of mastery facilitates the development of resilience?

P.S. The value of mastery-based (competency-based) learning has begun to make its way to the independent school world as well: in this article from 2014, David Cutler writes about his expectation that traditional grades will be obsolete by 2034.

planning for accelerated precalculus

This fall, I’ll be teaching a group of very strong students in the highest of three levels of math my school offers. The goal is to give students an intense “Honors Precalculus+” treatment and get them started on calculus (up through the product rule or so) by the end of the school year so that they can jump right into BC Calculus the following fall.

I’m working on developing the standards for the course, and I’m using the model of “performance indicators” and “learning targets” I grew familiar with when I worked at a mastery-based learning school in New Haven. (For background, see the Great Schools Partnership’s document Proficiency-Based Learning Simplified)

I would welcome your thoughts on these learning goals. Do any of them feel too easy? Too difficult? How is the balance? If you had to write an essential question capturing these standards, would would it be?

Finally, here’s some additional background on where I’m coming from.

Source Materials

I’m building this course based on a few sources of problems and materials:

Influential Books

Here are a few books I keep thinking about as I plan this course: