Assessment still matters during distance learning. In order to be sure we’re teaching our students valuable skills, we must have a way to gauge what student already know and what they need help on. But this doesn’t mean we have to keep giving grades. Traditional A-F grades are archaic, and they tell students almost nothing about student progress.

What’s the difference between grading and assessing?

Grading and assessment are two different things, and we have to remember that. Grades are decontextualized letters or point totals, while assessments are tools we use to gauge what our students know and are able to do. Grades are for compliance, while assessments inform our instruction. They are intended to give us information so that we may improve our teaching.

The word assessment comes from the Latin assessus, meaning “a sitting by.” This is quite a powerful reframe: it repositions us from standing above or hovering over our students to ensure they comply with our success metrics, and instead reminds us to sit beside our students, observe them, and partner with them to find out what they are able to do and what they’re struggling with.

The difference between grading and assessment lies in its intention, and for this reason, it’s critical to know the difference. We should never be using assessment as a means for control or compliance; assessment should always provide teachers with better insight into a child’s inner world. It should allow us to build self-reflection skills and self-awareness in students.

So where do I start if I want to move from grading to assessment?

I recommend starting by identifying what you want students to know and be able to do. This aligns with McTighe and Wiggins’ Understanding by Design framework. Identifying skills or standards that you want students to master narrows your focus and also allows you to provide feedback in the context of specifically identified learning objectives, as opposed to generalized feedback like “Good job!” or “You got 8 correct this time!”

For instance, in the first month of school, I usually focus on number sense in math. When I was teaching third grade, this meant focusing on skills related to place value, including rounding; identifying place values up to the ten-thousands; and comparing and ordering three- and four-digit numbers.

After identifying these skills, I created a series of assessments, each of which were intended to assess the skills I’d be focusing on in the first month of school. I created a pre-assessment that allowed me to gauge their knowledge and understanding of these skills at the start of the unit; I created a summative assessment that looked somewhat similar to the pre-assessment, as a means for gauging progress over the course of the unit; and I created a handful of formal formative assessments, intended as checkpoints over the course of our unit.

Creating these formal formative assessments was especially powerful. In doing so, I was freed from having to assess every single assignment, math task, or workbook page. We shouldn’t be assessing and tabulating every single assignment our students complete. Doing so is not only unsustainable, it doesn’t actually provide us valid and reliable information. Oftentimes, these daily assignments are completed with assistance from peers or teachers; they don’t actually provide insight into what our students can do with independence. And that’s okay. Learning is supposed to be collaborative, and it’s perfectly acceptable for students to collaborate on these daily assignments.

So when should I be assessing formally? When should I be logging assessments in my gradebook?

Far less often than you might originally think. But ultimately you will have to decide this for yourself through trial and error. Only you will know the proper cadence for getting a read on your students’ progress.

That said, I aim to do one formal formative assessment every 1-2 weeks in my classroom, per subject. I create a calendar for myself that schedules these assessments, so I know if I’m on track. For example, if I know my place value unit will take place over the course of 4-6 weeks, I will arrange my assessment calendar as follows:

MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFriday
Week 1No SchoolSchool StartsPre-Assessment
Week 2Place Value
Task 1
Place Value
Task 2
Place Value
Task 3
Place Value
Task 4
Place Value
Formative
Week 3Rounding
Task 1
Rounding
Task 2
Rounding
Task 3
Rounding
Task 4
Rounding
Formative
Week 4Comparing and Ordering Task 1Comparing and Ordering Task 2Comparing and Ordering Task 3Comparing and Ordering Task 4Comparing and Ordering Formative
Week 5Review TasksReview TasksReview TasksPost-AssessmentReflection
Example Assessment Schedule

Bear in mind the calendar above is just an example. As we all know, things don’t always go according to plan. It’s not uncommon for me to review a formal formative assessment and see that I need to go back and reteach. In instances where that’s necessary, I’ll simply change my plans, either using the couple days of review to provide more tasks related to the challenge areas I discovered when reviewing the assessments. In other cases, I may simply extend my unit and create tasks that leverage skills from the first unit, while reviewing skills rom my next unit. In the context of the place value unit, this may look like creating a task that asks students to apply rounding skills to addition (the following unit), using rounding to estimate the sums and differences of numbers.

What about all of those tasks in between? What do you do with those?

Formally assessing all of those would be unsustainable. During in-person learning, my students log all of their math tasks in their math journals, and during remote learning, they logged all of their work in Seesaw, either taking pictures of math journal pages or simply completing the tasks in Seesaw. Shortly after each of our math lessons, I would quickly skim through these in Seesaw, looking for glaring misconceptions or things to address in the following day’s lesson. During in-person learning, reviewing their math journals was as easy as circulating around the classroom and taking notes while they were working, or in some cases, collecting their math journals for a quick review of them prior to the following day’s lesson.

The important thing to note here is that I don’t actually provide individualized feedback on those activities most of the time. This is partially due to the fact that there’s not enough hours in the day; but it’s also because it is unnecessary. Oftentimes, students receive informal feedback through our math discussions, and due to the structure of our journals, students reflect on their successes and errors daily anyway by completing a reflection. Providing formalized feedback just wasn’t necessary, given the structure of our math block and the ample opportunities for feedback embedded within the learning block.

If I’m not supposed to use point totals and percentages, what should I do instead?

In my gradebooks, I came up with a general rating scale which I use for internal purposes only. I don’t share these numbers with my students, because I don’t find sharing them actually helpful. The number system is rather simple:

  • 3 means students have mastered the skill
  • 2 means student are approaching mastery of the skill, meaning that there are minor misconceptions or errors.
  • 1 means students are emerging in their understanding of a skill, meaning they may have some prerequisite knowledge but have a lot to learn.
  • 0 means the skill is entirely new and/or the child was unable to attempt the task

This is an image of one of my gradebooks with names redacted. Documenting scores in this way not only helps me see where students are with individual skills, it also helps me see class-wide strengths and challenges.

You may already have a standards-based rating system that aligns with your school’s progress reports. If you do, I would recommend using that. In Google Sheets, you don’t even have to use numbers; you could very well use letters and the conditional formatting tool in Sheets to provide the same color-coding you see above.

You can get creative, too! In order to compare data between formative assessments, you can add extra columns into Google Sheets to see how your ratings of students change over time. It’s important to reiterate, though, that these scores are entirely internal for me. Stamping a number or letter on student work doesn’t actually help students; it spotlights the quantitative metric as opposed to the qualitative feedback. In order for assessment to humanized and most productive, we must center qualitative feedback.

What if I get questions from parents about this new way of assessing?

It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when. Parents will absolutely ask questions when you move away from traditional grading. Check out this post about how to answer some of those questions.

At the end of the day, though, what’s most important is transparent communication and an easy way for parents to check in on progress. I recommend putting together portfolios that parents can view occasionally. In an era of distance learning, it makes a lot of sense to use a digital tool like Seesaw. But simple binders work, as well. Regardless, communicate with parents the rationale behind this change in grading, emphasize to them that this style of grading is student-centered in the sense that it teaches them to articulate their learning, and create avenues for parents to ask questions. They will get on board once they understand that this style of assessment is actually better for kids and they’re learning.

What else are you wondering about assessment? What else are you struggling with? Tell me in the comments.

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