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Multiple Grades: The First Step to Improving Grading and Reporting

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Thomas R. Guskey Ph.D.* returns as a guest blog author. He is Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Kentucky and known throughout the world for his teaching about  student assessment, grading and reporting, professional learning, and educational change.

Imagine going to your physician for a medical examination. During the exam, the physician records data on your height, weight, blood pressure, and heart rate, and asks you questions about your lifestyle and how you are feeling. After gathering all this information, imagine the physician entering the data into a computer that uses a mathematical algorithm to calculate a single number describing your physical condition. The physician then reports the number to you, suggests how you might improve it, and sends you on your way.

Would you be satisfied with such an examination? Would you have faith in a physician who analyzed information about you in this way? Would you trust a computer algorithm to tally the information and offer an accurate assessment of your health? Would you find a single number generated by a computer to be informative or helpful?

Few people would answer "Yes" to any of these questions. Many would even find such a process insulting. We need and expect more. In particular, we want our physician to be a thoughtful and knowledgeable professional who looks carefully at the different aspects of the data in assessing our health. We expect that individual to evaluate this information thoroughly and understand its nuances. And we certainly want more than a single number tallied by a computer from the diverse types of information gathered.

One Single Grade is Inadequate

 Yet even though most of us find such a process unacceptable in a physical examination, few object to teachers using a nearly identical process when determining the grades they record on students' report cards. Every marking period, teachers gather evidence on students' performance from scores attained on major examinations, compositions, and classroom quizzes. They record data on students' homework completion, class participation, and punctuality in turning in assignments. Some teachers gather additional information on students' behavior in class, collaboration with classmates, respect, and effort. They then enter these data into a computer grading program that calculates a single number or grade that is recorded on a report card.

 Sadly, a single number used to describe students' performance in school is just as inadequate and difficult to interpret as would be a single number describing our health or physical condition. That number or grade combines highly diverse data, gathered through different means, and measuring a variety of different attributes. And just like a single number representing our health would be, it's not particularly informative or helpful.

Product, Process and Progress Criteria Matter

A more useful and meaningful description of students' performance includes multiple grades. At a minimum, it provides grades that distinguish product, process, and progress learning criteria.

Product criteria reflect how well students have achieved specific learning goals, standards, or competencies. These might be determined by students' performance on major examinations, compositions, projects, reports, or other culminating demonstrations of learning. Product criteria describe students' academic achievements; that is, what they have learned and are able to do as a result of their experiences in school.

Process criteria describe student behaviors that facilitate or broaden learning. These may be things that enable learning, such as formative assessments, homework, and class participation. They also may reflect extended learning goals related to collaboration, responsibility, communication, perseverance, habits of mind, or citizenship. In some cases process criteria relate to students' compliance with class procedures, like turning in assignments on time or not interrupting during class discussions.

Progress criteria show how much students have gained or improved. Sometimes these are referred to as "value-added" criteria. Although related to product criteria, progress criteria are distinct. It would be possible, for example, for students to make outstanding progress but still not be meeting course academic goals or achieving at grade level. It also would be possible for highly skilled and talented students to show they have achieved the product criteria without making notable progress or improvement.

Multiple Grades Don't Require More Work

Although these types of learning criteria vary in their importance depending on the subject area and grade level, all three are essential to school success. Meaningful communication about that success, however, requires that they be reported separately. In other words, students must receive different grades for whatever product, process, and progress criteria are considered most important in their learning.

Ironically, reporting multiple grades for these different criteria does not require extra work for teachers. In fact, it's less work. Teachers already gather evidence on different product, process, and progress criteria. They keep detailed records of students' scores on various measures of achievement, as well as formative assessment results, homework completion, class participation, collaboration in teamwork, etc. By simply reporting separate grades for these different aspects of learning, teachers avoid the dilemmas involved in determining how much each should be weighted in calculating a single grade.

Reporting multiple grades on the report card and on the transcript further emphasizes to students that these different aspects of their performance are all important. Parents gain advantages because the report card now provides a more detailed and comprehensive picture of their child's performance in school. In addition, because product grades are no longer tainted by evidence based on students' behavior or compliance, those grades more closely align with external measures of achievement and content mastery, such as AP exam results and ACT or SAT scores - a quality that college and university admissions officers have been shown to favor.

Products, Processes, and Progress Criteria

The biggest challenge for teachers and school leaders rests in determining what particular product, process, and progress criteria to report. This requires deep thinking about the learning criteria that are most important to students' success in school and beyond. From a practical perspective, it also involves finding an acceptable balance between providing enough detail to be meaningful but not so exhaustive that it creates a book-keeping burden for teachers.

Clear Rubrics Matter

An additional challenge in reporting multiple grades involves developing clear rubrics that describe each type of criteria so that expectations for students' performance are well-defined. If teachers decide to offer a separate grade for homework, for example, they must articulate the difference in scores between students who complete an assignment but do so incorrectly, versus others who complete only half of the assignment but what they complete is done well. Similarly in assigning a grade for class participation, teachers must consider if frequently contributing to class discussions is all that is necessary or if the quality of those contributions also must be taken into account.

In the End

Grading and reporting are much more a challenge in effective communication than simply a task of quantifying data on students' performance. Providing multiple grades that reflect product, process, and progress criteria enhance the meaning and accuracy of that communication. Without adding to the workload of teachers, this simple strategy can do much to improve the effectiveness of grading and reporting. It provides more meaningful information, facilitates communication between school and home, and offers specific direction in efforts to improve students' learning.

 *More about Thomas R. Guskey can be found here. and he can be reached at guskey@uky.edu . 

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools.  Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo by gubh83 courtesy of 123rf

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