Book Response: Rethinking Grading by Cathy Vatterott

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Rethinking Grading
Rethinking Grading by Cathy Vatterott (2015)

I think this book is really helpful for teachers rethinking grades. Okay.

In Rethinking Grading: Meaningful Assessment for Standards-Based Learning, Cathy Vatterott offers a framework for standards-based grading to reflect student progress and learning, and she provides examples from elementary, middle, and high schools. Still, it is grading.

I read this book to help me imagine how I could NOT use grades at all, which it doesn’t really talk about. Instead, Vatterott suggests standards-based grading as a way to revise traditional grading practices, such as using a standards-based report cards to communicate/document learning. (Thomas Guskey writes about the challenges of standards-based grading.)

To begin, Vatterott suggests we start with a standard (e.g., write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences using effective techniques, descriptive details, and clear event sequence). The standard then drives learning tasks , which drives learning activities.  Vatterott demonstrates how the standards can be assessed using rubrics: rethinking grading_Vatterott

Alfie Kohn and others have concerns about rubrics because rubrics do not change the paradigm of power in the classroom and they still work as an external motivator:

Just as standardizing assessment for teachers may compromise the quality of teaching, so standardizing assessment for learners may compromise the learning.  Mindy Nathan, a Michigan teacher and former school board member told me that she began “resisting the rubric temptation” the day “one particularly uninterested student raised his hand and asked if I was going to give the class a rubric for this assignment.”  She realized that her students, presumably grown accustomed to rubrics in other classrooms, now seemed “unable to function unless every required item is spelled out for them in a grid and assigned a point value.  Worse than that,” she added, “they do not have confidence in their thinking or writing skills and seem unwilling to really take risks.”[5]

Rubrics aside for now, how I standards-based grading  will be helpful to teachers is in, well, rethinking grades more generally. Vatterott provides some historical context and rationale for doing away with traditional grades including the nonacademic behaviors that end up being a part of the grade like absences, late work, and lack of materials. In this way, I think Vatterott helps teachers get to the ethical and logical reasons that traditional grades are problematic.

For example, Vatterott acknowledges that there are at least three strong beliefs bound up with the identities of “teacher” and “student” that may be make it difficult for teachers to try standards-based grading or a no-grades classroom:

Rethinking Grading

Take a look at Rethinking Grading to read how Vatterott challenges these beliefs. She does a nice job or laying out how a standards-based approach recognizes the complexity of learning and works toward individualizing the learning process for each student.

The standards set learning goals and guide learning. Standards, rather than letter grades or points, is the language of learning. The standards provide language for teachers and students to engage in conversations about what is happening in the classroom. It can start conversations about what students are creating and the sort of thinking that is happening as students demonstrate learning or discover they need more resources. Standards could make this process of shifting learning away from “grades” more meaningful; it is a frame to replace grades.

I just don’t want standards to replace grades. What do I mean by that? I am worried that standards will just be on rubrics for teachers and students to check off. I am worried that students will long for “exceeds” in the same way they do for the “A” now.

In “The Importance of Low-Stakes Feedback,” Katrina Schwartz outlines four assessment movements happening in the U.S.:

  1. The standards-based method, as discussed in Rethinking Grading, is one, which identifies students strengths and weaknesses.
  2. The grade-less report card, which replaces letter grades with other language like “outstanding” or “needs improvement.”
  3. Digital and paper portfolios involve a “reflective process,” which can be paired with the above .
  4. And a narrative report card, “Some colleges primarily use this method, but in K-12 education, it is often limited to independent schools where smaller class sizes make it more feasible.” This year, I could have 180 students, so this method would be quite difficult to do well.

Clearly, people are trying to figure out the best way to revise how we’ve come to assess and communicate learning.

I will try to blend these methods this year, relying more heavily on the narrative. My intention this school year is to resist simple evaluating words, letters, and numbers by using  narrative feedback every step of the way. I am going to stay with that for now.  I will, however, for my first year without grades, add an end-of-quarter standards-based report card that the student and I complete together during a conference using their portfolio as evidence. Still, I am not comfortable with putting any number or mark next to the standard, so I will talk to students on how best to handle this.

2 Replies to “Book Response: Rethinking Grading by Cathy Vatterott”

  1. My kids’ county did away with grading last year. Little schoolwork, test, etc… Came home for my review. Was pretty much told that the highest “grade” was unacheivable. Not okay with doing away with percentage-based grades and based on teacher opinion.
    Throughout our lives we have to meet some sort of metrics for achievement. Not everyone will fit into the same category. But the non-percentage-based grades are doing just that…no metrics. However, the standardized tests use metrics. I am very unhappy with this approach to mediocracy and the experiment that is being tested with MY children. I have higher expectations, and so should the BOE’s that have adopted any such approach.

    1. I certainly understand how doing away with grades can lead to lower standards of achievement. In many ways, the “A” or “B” has become rather arbitrary, and I’d like to actually rethink that with the students. My hope is to change the language we use to talk about learning this year. I’ve found that the letter grade ends the conversation about learning as if to say, “I have an A, so I’ve learned that.” I’d rather students say, “This is what I can do and why it matters, what can I try now, what concepts or thinking did this prepare me for.” I will write about this as I go — it is just a pilot for me. My district is far from going the no-grades way. I have a post that talks about my rationale for trying a no grades classroom:

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