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#SummerPD: Student Growth vs. Student Grading

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DATA. One little word can strike fear in the hearts of many teachers.

Actually, not really. Not anymore. We’re a data-driven society.

With pressure from administration to provide data on everything from math fact automaticity to reading literature comprehension, teachers are always on the lookout for ways to measure student growth and achievement. (Data Binders, anyone?)

But there’s a difference between student growth and student achievement. Whereas achievement is a student’s performance as a snapshot in time, measured against a standard (i.e. state testing), student growth is his progress measured over time, and only against himself.

the only person

This is a fundamental debate, one that educators will see for a long time, but as a former special education teacher, I truly believe we should focus on our students’ progress, not just proficiency. One reason is that the two top predictors of student success are entirely out of teachers’ control: parent education, and socio-economic status. The other factors? Reading frequency [lots of independent reading in the classroom!]; vocabulary [lots of academic vocabulary in the classroom!]; writing [lots of opportunity for writing in the classroom!]; and student collaboration [lots of discussions in the classroom!]. The common theme here is in the classroom, where teachers can monitor and facilitate.

Grading Is Necessary

However, we can’t deny that grading is necessary. Accountability is also an influence in student performance. Which brings us back to data.

What are teachers doing with all that data? In many schools, by the time teachers receive the information from state testing, their students have already moved on to the next grade. So the real attention should instead be on formative assessments that are ongoing throughout the school year. The results are usually instant, and can be used to make decisions about future instruction.

Classroom Example

I’ve struggled with writing instruction, and have sought out strategies to make it more tangible for my students. Writing instruction is a process, and different kids need a unique timetable for taking over control. Not only that, but we emphasize the process, and how it takes first, second, third and even more drafts to get it right. So I’ve been left with how to measure their growth. With all of the grammar rules we cover, all the spelling lists, and all the writing skills throughout the year, there’s no way to independently produce a perfect piece of writing in one or two hours. Not to mention the number of hours it takes to read and respond to every student’s writing every day.

The Solution? Be More Strategic

In order for students to gain any benefit from my feedback, they need to hear it within a day or two of submitting their work. So I have decided that I need to be more strategic in how I provide that feedback.

  • A student does not need to submit a 2-page essay (or even a 5-paragraph essay in 3rd grade!) to demonstrate learning. A shorter piece will suffice.
  • I will give my students specific “Look Fors” before they begin writing. That is, I will tell them exactly what skills I want them to target, and I will only look for those skills in their submitted work.
  • I will have my students highlight within their writing where they feel they’ve demonstrated the concept that we’re focusing on properly. This emphasizes their learning and ensures that students are as attentive to the concepts as we hope them to be.

By being consistent with my expectations and how I practice them in my classroom, and by giving focused feedback, my students will better understand what is required off them, and they’ll be more able to demonstrate their learning. It’s a grading versus growth win-win!

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