March 16, 2008


Do your students understand your assignments? Do they know exactly how they are evaluated? Is your grading system clear and clean? Are you sick of students asking, “How much is this project worth?” Do you use a rubric for evaluation of student work? Do you give your pupils the evaluation grading rubric ahead of time? Do you issue regular progress reports on your own? Do more students pass your class then fail your class? How transparent is your evaluation process and your approach to grading your students?

In my first year of teaching high school I shared a group of remedial students with another teacher. When grading time came we sat down to assess our students’ progress. I brought my grade book, as did my partner. We went through the roster, student by student, sharing our individual semester scores. I offered my numerically calculated objective evaluation. My colleague also shared a number in the grade book, and then added comments like, “well, he didn’t work that hard, so instead of a B I’m going to give him a C+.” Shocked, I innocently asked, “Can we do that? Are we allowed to change a grade based on our subjective evaluation of the students’ effort in spite of the earned and recorded mark?” My collaborator told me, “sure.” While I DO NOT personally condone such grading practices I will not criticize those who do grade students in this manner. However, as an advocate for kids, I want to suggest that all teachers strive to be as transparent as possible in their approach to assessing their students.

In the school of education credential classes that I teach I recommend using rubrics to grade student work. When I started teaching teachers I used rubrics occasionally and never shared them with students. Since teaching rubrics to others and advocating their use in the classroom, I’ve made a more focused effort on using them more often. Now I experience clearer teacher/student communication and improved student performance. And my rubrics have gotten more detailed as well. In the past, I used a few general categories with arbitrary point values. Now I break every assignment down into multiple specific categories and line items assigning smaller values between 1 and 5 points to each area of evaluation. I give the students the appropriate rubric as soon as I give the assignment. Now as the kids work they can self-grade.

That’s only the half of it. As a result of using more detailed rubrics, my assignments have become clearer and cleaner. Once upon a time I might assign an essay and simply state, “Tell me about your summer vacation.” Now whenever I assign just about anything I include much more specific information like, “Your essay must include 5 paragraphs of at least 5 sentences each. You must use correct spelling and grammar. Be sure to put your name date and period number in the upper right hand corner. Write the heading ‘My Summer Vacation.’” I teach in a computer classroom, so I can also add, “Use a 12 point font, 1” margins, and double spaced lines.” This way I can take each one of these smaller instructions and evaluate students on whether or not they met the assignment criteria. By embedding these instructions clearly in the assignment, and in the rubric, students know exactly what is expected of them.

It gets better. By using this approach to the giving and evaluation of student work, the students can self-grade. I include a check-off list as one of the columns on the rubric. As students complete their work they literally check-off what they have completed. When all the checks are placed, the assignment may be turned in. At the very least the student can feel confident that they have fully completed what they were asked to produce, and I no longer have to return what I cannot assess because the child left their name off the paper or forgot a heading. Helping our pupils to develop this type of self-assessment is a great way to help them in many areas of their lives and their futures.

Many students today have a very difficult time with backwards planning or backward design. They are unable to see the goal and work in reverse to find a starting point that will help them reach their desired target. As teachers we do this instinctively all the time. I learned it from producing plays. First I decided what I wanted the production and the experience to look like in the end. Then I made choices that I believed would lead me to my ultimate vision. It doesn’t always work, but having the goal clearly in mind makes it easier to develop the steps required to get there. We teachers have the benefit of giving our assignments more than once, so each time we see the student make an attempt, and struggle in a specific area, we can make adjustments to help them along the way. By analyzing our assignments in this way we can strive to make them more understandable and as a result, offer students the opportunity to produce better results.

The regular grade reporting cycle asks most of us to total up points and turn in a letter or numerical grade about once a month with semester grades being issued twice a year. That’s good communication with students and parents, but we can do better. Many students at my high school carry around a “Friday Report” every Friday and ask their teachers to record a mark and to list any missing assignments. Sure, it’s a pain when you’ve got 4 or 5 or more to fill out each hour. However this type of regular communication with students simply adds to the clarity of the assessment process. Sadly, those who most need these weekly grade check-ins usually don’t ask for them. Anything that we can do to help all students to teach themselves to be attentive, productive, contributing members of our world is worth our time.


  1. I agree that the arbitrary grade your colleague gave to his student due to perceived lack of effort is unfair, but I also wonder if the assignment was not challenging enough to that student to encourage much effort.

    Do you believe that some students need different grading criteria? I am just starting to introduce differentiation into my classroom, and the assignments my students are working on right now will be the first where the scoring criteria is different for different students. I did not choose the scoring criteria -- the students did. Some of them are choosing harder projects of their own volition, and they seem to have matched themselves to the difficulty of the assignments well.

    I have students who are capable but whom I could generally label as "lazy" making themselves do the most challenging assignment and finally getting the rigor I want them to get out of my class.

    I also have students who struggle succeeding, with an appropriate amount of effort, in working towards the grade-level standard (none of the options I offered do not meet the state standards).

    They are all coming from different levels, and I do think growth is more important than grades, so in some ways I understand your colleagues desire to grade a student who isn't trying lower. I think he went about it the wrong way, however. It would have been more appropriate to challenge that student more.

    Of course, this is coming from a teacher just trying this out for the first time. What do you think? I don't know if you have addressed the topic of differentiation yet as I have only just begun reading your blog, so maybe I will find my answer as I continue reading.

    Thanks for the reading material.

    -M (another CA teacher)

  2. I like how you use a checklist rubric for each assignment. I am going to start using this in my own classroom. I need to get my students to take more responsibility for their learning and I think this is a great way to do that. Thank you for the sharing.

    Check out my blog.