Establishing an alternative to traditional grading systems

Prepare teachers for the future of assessment
David Garrick is dean of the Graduate School of Education, UCDS College for School Culture in Seattle.
David Garrick is dean of the Graduate School of Education at UCDS College for School Culture in Seattle.

Letter grades have been traditionally viewed as the only way to report student progress. Over the years, progressive education leaders have come to realize that while A-F grades may be an easy way to rank students, the outdated system comes with heavy burdens and expectations that emphasize an institution’s efficiency over the learning process. At the UCDS (University Child Development School) College for School Culture in Seattle, we are preparing future teachers to assess and report student progress with greater clarity.

In the early 1990s, UCDS leaders worked with the late Bonnie Campbell Hill, an internationally known education consultant specializing in literacy instruction and assessment, to apply her new idea of assessing reading levels on a continuum instead of on a grading scale to our early elementary and elementary school programs. 

Inspired by Hill’s vision and research and anticipating trends that soon followed, UCDS administrators and teachers collaborated to create a set of competency-based continua for various subjects. 

The continua, combined with narrative commentary and face-to-face conversations, provide all parties with a clearer understanding of what and, more important, how a student learns, and include information on core skill progressions. UCDS uses all of this to design curriculum for young students. A gradeless approach is implemented across every grade level.

UCDS educators provide students with a full picture of their academic and social development, so students can better understand how they learn. Moving beyond letter grades promotes self-reflection and self-assessment, and eliminates the pressure of earning or maintaining a class rank.

There are enough alternatives to an A-F grading system, and it’s up to education leaders to decide what method fits best with their student body.

As dean of the Graduate School of Education at UCDS, I’ve seen firsthand what a “going gradeless” philosophy can do. Moving to a more robust system of assessment provides teachers, parents and students with clearer information. 

This information allows all parties to take action to improve the learning experience and outcomes. Skills-focused assessments are part of a larger alternative evaluation trend in education, with a variety of tools in use and development. Our graduate students will be ahead of the curve as grades are replaced with competencies.

Mastering the basics of a competency-based curriculum

At UCDS, it is in our DNA to provide families with specific, actionable and clear feedback about a student’s performance. Grades only offer a surface-level view of how a student performs, without any insight into what is being learned or how. 

As a first step toward greater clarity, a continuum offers a progressive view of skills within subject areas over time. UCDS educators designed a reporting system that encompasses two major components: a continuum of skills and narrative commentary. 

The continuum of skills covers four domains: math, reading, writing and reflective thinking. This replaces the traditional report card as a fresh way of reporting student progress. This system supports our belief that each child thinks and understands in a different way and progresses at a unique pace. The continuum of skills ranges from “discovery” to “independent,” with plenty of room for growth in between. Without the attachment of a grade or score, teachers can differentiate learning for each student. 

Narrative commentary for each student focuses on pertinent information to illustrate how a student is engaged in each domain. It can include student accomplishments and struggles as well as coaching strategies for how to improve academically and socially. This information is shared with families to highlight the skills, strategies and progress of each student, and it shows how a student approaches learning.

Through the continuum of skills and the narrative commentary, we can provide a more complete picture of each student’s skills, strategies, supports and learning dispositions. With a competency-based program, we engage with every student on a personal level.

Equipping teachers with tools for success

UCDS isn’t just a pre-K through elementary school. The UCDS Institute has a well-established track record of consulting with schools and teachers who are looking to develop more robust assessment tools. For over 20 years, the UCDS Institute has been a resource for professional development, and we recently introduced a master’s degree in education program.

Since the going gradeless model is integral to our culture, we’re starting at the source to equip teachers with the tools they need to understand and use this assessment philosophy. Through an innovative learning model, we prepare educators to adapt to an ever-changing landscape in education.

In our graduate program, we’ve built a competency-based education into coursework through two classes that are focused on assessment. The first class covers types of assessments and cultural implications of different methods, and the second covers how to design assessments and communicate findings. Each course is paired with practicums so educators are gaining experience and learning to evaluate a variety of assessment and reporting tools—from traditional grades to a range of gradeless alternatives.

Read: How schools are reassessing their assessments

Presenting teachers with a variety of assessment methods means they will be better equipped to handle and adapt to different learning environments while maintaining an innovative teaching style.

Taking the first steps to going gradeless

To start adopting a gradeless assessment method, administrators and teachers must first commit to dedicating time and effort to communicate information to students and parents. 

It’s equally important that school leaders understand their school’s culture and values. This will help them move forward to discuss and come to a consensus on the format and information to include in the final assessment. 

Research is important. There are enough alternatives to an A-F grading system, and it’s up to education leaders to decide what method fits best with their student body. And leaders should feel empowered to customize whatever method they choose. 

Let me stress that no matter what grading system school leaders adopt, they will need to make modifications over time. Education is about learning. As teaching and learning changes, our assessments and how we report student progress must reflect those changes. 

There is no one-size-fits-all way to teach, and there is no one-size-fits-all way to communicate about learning. But when you shift to a more comprehensive method of reporting your students’ learning, you create a better informed community. Teachers are able to report how they tailor learning, parents understand the specifics of their child’s progress, and students gain the knowledge to advocate for what they need to succeed.

David Garrick is dean of the Graduate School of Education at UCDS College for School Culture in Seattle.


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