Differentiated instruction is a nice idea, but what happens when it comes to grading students? Being sensitive to students' readiness levels, interests and learning challenges while holding them accountable for the same standards can be a challenge. What's fair and leads to real student learning?

Why Do We Grade, and What About Effort, Attendance and Behavior?

Grades are used for a variety of reasons, but ideally should be an indicator of what a student knows and what they are able to do (i.e. subject mastery). Grades used for motivation, punishment or student sorting tend to be ineffective or contrary to a teacher’s educational goals. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the promise of good grades and the threat of poor grades are not very effective motivators in the long term. Grades that are intended to document student progress, provide feedback and inform instructional decisions are more effective and useful in the long run.

Incorporating Participation into Grading: Criteria for evaluating participation often includes many of the following: willingness to participate, courtesy, attentiveness, balance between listening and talking, timing, avoidance of incendiary language, quality and manner of contributions or remarks, manner of contribution, incorporation of proper resources, references and protocols, and growth throughout year. However, participation generally shouldn’t be included in formal grades because is not an indication of student progress towards mastery and will dilute the intended meaning of the grade. Teachers often use student participation as a method of aiding students who are not able to complete assignments outside of class time, but this is not advisable and should be reflected in feedback about a student's work habits.

Incorporating Effort and Behavior into Grading: Effort and behavior, which are subjective, are often used by teachers in the determination of grades (in spite of measurement difficulty) because of the following: the significant correlation with academic success and the need for students to strengthen the perceived link between effort and achievement.However, student grades should not be influenced by factors that do not reflect their objective knowledge & skills. The meaning of a grade is diluted by incorporating these subjective factors. Public recognition for effort/behavior would serve a similar function while helping to strengthen the positive learning environment.

Grading Scales: In the book, 2 types of grading scales are discussed:

  • The 4 point scale (for this discussion, this will include 3 and 5 point scales)
  • The 100 point scale or the percentage mark (any thing that is marked and put into a percentage)

Smaller Scales: These make individual distortions less likely as we will use these small scales more often in class. Using rubrics allows teachers to correlate marks with clearly defined criteria and it keeps everyone focused on the credible justification for each grade. It is easier to fudge numbers in larger scales and/or hide observations of mastery behind grade averages. Grades based on the frequent use of rubrics with clear descriptors results in a more accurate result of the students’ mastery at the end of the grading period and grading on averages distorts its accuracy. Overall, try to use rubrics as much as possible but its fine to you use math averages too. It takes 2-3 years to get a good selection of rubrics that are really accurate.

Scale Correlations:  You are able to use a 4 point scale and convert the mark to the 100 point scale. The 4 point scale can be broken down into 0.5’s; for example, 1, 1.5, 2.0, 2.5, etc. These then line up with a grade and percentage.

For example, 94-100% = A = 4.0

90-93% = B+ = 3.5

To summarize,

  • Grades are hard; they can motive and deflate students.
  • Rubrics given to a student before a test can prepare a student for what to look for, the key skills that the teacher is looking for. As well, the students mark, based on the criteria, will be a reflection of what they could do on the test or project.
  • Students learn best from timely and specific feedback during the process of learning (emphasize formative over summative), not a total of answer correct.
  • Students focus more on the learning and feedback, not the grade. In turn a student will be more concerned with what skills they mastered on the test over having to get more answers correct on the next test.
  • The main focus for using the rubric is so that parents and students focus on the descriptors via the descriptors.

Gradebook Formats for the Differentiated Classroom

Gradebooks are records of our actions. These records should reflect the learning and differentiation. As we enter data on students, we reflect on their growth and how the lessons we provided helped or hindered that growth. There is no one best type of gradebook, teachers need to choose what is right for them. They should  record what was achieved, not specific strategies.

To consider a gradebook format ask yourself these:

  • Does it respond to the differentiated approaches that you use?
  • Does it accurately show mastery?
  • Does using your gradebook make grading and assessing more manageable?
  • Does it support your learning and teaching beliefs?It is easily understood by others without your presence?
  • Does your gradebook allow you to stay on top of good feedback?

Types to consider:

1. Grouping Assignments by Standard, Objective, or Benchmark:   Overall, break standards up and insert assignments into the standards so you can see how a student did on; for example, Analysis, Synthesis, and Prediction. At the end of their name you can total their average and then grade. This asks teachers to do an assignment and then look at the list of skills and give a mark on how they performed on the specific ones that they touched on during the project or assignment. They may have to assess their level of mastery on more than one concept or skill. At the end of the semester, you will have an average to consider on all skills. Then you can look at the averages of all skill or concepts and provide a mark with a good outline of where the student was strong and where they need work.

2. Grouping Assignments by Weight or Category: Assignments are grouped according to their weight and that weight is determined by importance and complexity. For example, harder work is graded by three, tests by two, and homework by one. Total all of these and divide by six to get the total mark.

3. Listing Assignments by Date: This allows a teacher and parents to look at a student’s growth longitudinally. The problem is that the next assignment may not reflect the student’s growth in a particular topic, it may be a totally new topic; therefore, you are not seeing growth, just a new mark in a gradebook.

4. Topics-Based Gradebooks: All assignments are listed at the top and given a letter. Then all letter are placed down the left column for each student, along the top, you break up all the key components that make up your course; for example, in English you may break up your course or unit into: Nouns and Pronouns, Modifiers, Verbs, Preposition, Conjunctions etc. Then, when you give an assignment you can place a mark in many columns. A test may allow you to leave a mark in all categories as you would potentially be assessing all skills.

Responsive Report Card Formats

It is important to provide a greater range of narrative comments that express unique situations with students.  The other goal is consistency teacher to teacher, when reporting on a student. Reporting in a differentiated classroom should be an “accurate and developmentally appropriate rendering of mastery that is clearly communicated to students, their parents, and other educators.  From these reports, we have insightful knowledge of a student’s growth and accomplishments.”

There are several report card formats that include the above characteristics:

  1. Adjusted (Modified) Curriculum: We may have adjusted or modified the curriculum in some way to better meet the needs of the student. We need to indicate this adjustment on the report card.  This can be done in the following ways:
  • Adjust the course title e.g. “Honors”, “II”, or“Remedial” near the regular course title.
  • Place an asterisk next to the grade indicating that the viewer of the report card should access a comment recorded about that grade.

2. The Dual Approach - Grading Both Personal Progress and Achievement Against Standards: This method involves recording a symbol or mark indicating a student’s personal progress as well as a symbol or mark indicating where the student stands against the standards set for everyone.

3. Multiple Categories Within One Subject: Identify the standards, objectives and benchmarks for grading, then provide a grade for each one.

4. Continuous Progress Report: This method could be used for a cohort group or for teachers who have the students in their classes for a two year block of time.  It reports the continuum of development to ultimately the benchmark mastery.

In the next article, we will discuss in detail about implementation of Grading and Assessment in a Differentiated classroom.