By Rick Wormeli


Asking teachers for their grade books so you can assess their implementation of standards-based grading practices can shoot defensive walls sky high. Declaring that homework cannot count in a final report-card grade may pull the safety pin on a faculty grenade. To complete the war analogy, open discussion of grading practices is often an emotional minefield. But it doesn't have to be this way. Grading need not be a battle. In fact, it can be the liberation of allies.


When faculties move toward grading philosophies and policies that reflect differentiated, standards-based instruction and assessment, many current practices are questioned, and teacher behaviors change. As a school leader, you can look at those changes as, "Be careful what you wish for," or you can see them as, "Shackles off, look what we can now accomplish!" Here's a beginning list of what will happen among your teachers; consider each one in terms of its helpfulness to your vision for your school:

  • Teachers will want to interpret and use specific standardized testing data themselves.
  • When a student fails to learn, teachers will question their instructional approach, not just the student's choices.
  • Teachers will be comfortable changing their lesson plans daily, depending on the needs of students as they arise real-time in the classroom and regardless of what's been submitted for approval earlier. And they'll expect to be supported in those decisions.
  • Teachers will need more opportunities to increase their instructional flexibility, which means they will request more time during the day to work with one another and during the year to attend instructional conferences. They may ask you to provide funding for educational journal subscriptions or professional books and DVDs.
  • Teachers will make decisions that are based on their own classroom observations and assessment data, and they should be comfortable explaining those decisions publicly.
  • Teachers will emphasize formative over summative assessments during instruction, and summative over formative assessments when reporting student progress, i.e. grading. As a result, grades will generally drop a bit during the first year of implementation as students adjust to the new system that requires evidence of true learning. They will no longer be able to rely on nonacademic factors, such as bringing in canned food for the canned food drive, getting permission slips signed, effort, attendance, doing classwork, class discussions, and group projects, to boost their grades.
  • Homework assignments will rarely be the same for the whole class, and they will not count heavily in the final grade, if at all.
  • Final exams will not carry as much weight.
  • Grading will be criterion-referenced, not norm-referenced. This is the beginning of intense conversations about what teachers will accept as evidence of mastery as well as how to handle late work and failure to perform constructively, including allowing retakes for full credit. It will signal the end of averaging grades, using zeroes on the 100-point scale, and setting up gradebooks according to formats used to represent standards (tests, quizzes, homework, writings, classwork, and the like). Report cards will need to be redesigned to reflect differentiated, standards-based assessments. Parents will need to be educated about all of this, of course.
  • Some teachers will claim that differentiation and standards-based grading is not done in upper grade levels, so they consider differentiating instruction, assessment, and grading as a disservice to students. Principals have to remind those teachers that every single element of those approaches actually increases what students learn and builds personal autonomy. Learning the material well and building that independence will be the best preparation for students' later years, regardless of whether or not the teachers and professors formally differentiate or grade according to standards. Put another way, just because students will be miserable with teachers in future classes that teach in pedagogically inappropriate ways doesn't mean we have to make them suffer through miserable, inappropriate instruction now so they are used to the misery all along.


In just this short list, we can find elements that match our own educational philosophy as well as one or two that might run counter to what we would do if we were in the classroom. If principals are to be helpful, they have to know themselves and reconcile differences between personal opinion and the larger profession. Ask yourself: What are my own interpretations and preferences when it comes to assessment, grading, and differentiation, and are they accurate? What am I doing to keep informed? Am I open to teachers who come to me with articles and books that challenge my notions? To what degree will I accept philosophies in my faculty that differ from my own? Talking with other principals about your responses to these questions will help immeasurably.


Understanding the Teacher's Process
As you conduct walk-through's, observations, and conversations with teachers, you'll want to know whether they are assessing, grading, and differentiating instruction successfully, as well as whether their approach is developmentally appropriate for their students. To see the true extent of a teacher's differentiated approach, you must get an intimate look at his or her planning process. Here are some great conversation starters to get that inside view:


  • Tell me about the students in this class.
  • May I see your class profile? (also known as a "learner profile")
  • How did you determine who was in which group today?
  • Why are you teaching this topic this way to these specific students?
  • What did you do with students prior to this lesson to prepare them for it?
  • How will you have students respond to this information tomorrow or later in the week?
  • How did you alter your instruction based on the unique needs of these students?
  • How did (does) assessment inform your decisions?
  • Is there anything you would change in this lesson the next time you teach it?
  • How will (or did) you know you were successful in this lesson with every student?
  • "Fair isn't always equal," is a popular sentiment in differentiated classrooms. Please show how this is manifest in your classroom.


Alternatively, I've found the following self-reflective questions reveal a lot about a teacher's mindset toward differentiation and standards-based grading. Listening to a teacher's thoughtful response to a few of the following questions will inform your perception of a teacher's level of implementation:


  • Am I willing to teach in whatever way is necessary for students to learn best, even if that approach doesn't match my own preferences?
  • Do I have the courage to do what works, not just what's easiest? Can I give examples?
  • Do I actively seek to understand my students' knowledge, skills, and talents so that I can provide an appropriate match for their learning needs? And once I discover their strengths and weaknesses, do I actually adapt my instruction to respond to their needs?
  • Do I continually build a large and diverse repertoire of instructional strategies so I have more than one way to teach?
  • Do I organize my classrooms for students' learning or for my teaching?
  • Do I keep up-to-date on the latest research about learning, students' developmental growth, and my content specialty areas?
  • Do I ceaselessly self-analyze and reflect on my lessons—including my assessments—searching for ways to improve?
  • Am I open to critique?
  • Do I push students to become their own education advocates and give them the tools to do so?
  • Do I regularly close the gap between knowing what to do and really doing it?


Adapted from Wormeli, Differentiation: From Planning to Practice, Stenhouse, 2007


Principals who lead teachers successfully into these new waters realize that many people resist change because accepting the new idea means that they have to admit that what they were doing before wasn't working, and at times, that they have failed. When teachers create their professional identity via their classroom practices, while at the same time being in survival mode throughout the school week, change is very threatening—even to the most positive and flexible thinkers. As education leaders, then, what are you doing this week and month to help teachers turn the threat they feel from change into a personal opportunity to grow, be effective, and be valued? You can change structures and programs all you want, but as Anthony Muhammad declared in his book, Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff Division (Solution Tree Press, 2009), to change structure without changing teacher beliefs is a willful act of failure.


To help change those deeply held beliefs, many schools do a combination of the following:


  • Create clear definitions of differentiation and standards-based grading as well as their intended goals.
  • Generate and provide clear examples of what is and is not differentiated and standards-based.
  • Bust differentiation and grading myths, such as we don't allow zeroes or differentiation means all lessons are made of noisy group work.
  • Practice identifying differentiation and standards-based practices in classrooms through videos, peer observation, and written descriptions.
  • Affirm currently used practices that represent differentiation and standards-based approaches.
  • Conduct quarterly "venting" sessions in small groups of mixed departments and grade levels in which faculty members share questions and frustrations and receive constructive advice for responding to the situations.
  • Work with a lot of hypotheticals. Teachers feel comfortable talking in the abstract, and they'll consider their own actions as they comment. In addition to classroom hypotheticals about differentiation and standards-based grading, however, it's important to consider scenarios that the teachers encounter as adults. For example, would they tolerate going to the doctor for a broken arm, and having the doctor say that he's only doing kidney transplants that day for all those who enter his door? What quackery and arrogance! It's the same quackery and arrogance to assume that every child who enters the classroom has the same needs regarding noun-verb agreement in an English class.
  • Help teachers see differentiation as homegrown, eclectic, responsive teaching, not a commercial program to be purchased. This will come across not as something done TO teachers, but as something done WITH teachers.
  • Provide a lot of on-going professional development through conference attendance, turn-around training, E-Seminars, book studies, and e-mail conversations with national leaders.
  • Ask those who give the ideas a try to present their journey to the faculty—"mistakes, successes, and all."
  • Maintain a place on the school's Intranet to post questions and have them answered by teachers or guest experts.
  • Ask teachers to train you, the administrators, and the rest of the faculty on these ideas, thereby creating credibility, empathy, and a common framework of knowledge.
  • Promote specific ideas about differentiation and grading in public spaces frequented by teachers. If it's in sight, it's in mind; if it's out of sight, it's out of mind. Put it in sight.
  • Publicize differentiation and standards-based grading at faculty meetings, in newsletters, to local news organizations, and on the Web site. Create a sense of cultural immersion: "This is our way of doing things around here." If everyone is doing it, it's hard to keep your toes dry. As teachers experiment, they'll think more about the possibilities.


Great books with specific ideas for changing faculty thinking regarding any new initiative include the following:


  • Breaking Ranks II (NASSP, 2004) and Breaking Ranks in the Middle. (NASSP, 2006)
  • Breaking Ranks: A Field Guide to Leading Change. (NASSP, 2009)
  • Leading Change in your School: How to Conquer Myths, Build Commitment, and Get Results. (ASCD, 2009)
  • Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff Division. (Solution Tree Press, 2009)
  • The Differentiated School: Making Revolutionary Changes in Teaching and Learning. (ASCD, 2008)
  • Talk About Teaching! Leading Professional Conversations. (NASSP/Corwin/NSDC, 2009)
  • Fair Isn't Always Equal. (Stenhouse, 2006)


For specific ideas on assessment and grading practices, principals will find helpful information in the works of Ken O'Connor, Robert Marzano, Tom Guskey, Susan Brookhart, Rick Stiggins, Debra Pickering, Jay McTighe, Grant Wiggins, Doug Reeves, Dylan Wiliam, Damien Cooper, Anne Davies, and Ruth Sutton.


Finally, there are five skill sets that teachers and administrators must have to experience successful professional development for differentiation and grading. Wise building leaders make sure there is as much attention paid to each of these skills as to the larger aspects of differentiation and grading:

  1. How to write and talk about teaching; how to make the implicit explicit, and how to find evidence of and draw connections between decisions that were made and the result on students' learning.
  2. How to use formative and summative assessments in the classroom to guide instruction.
  3. How to use cognitive science in the classroom, and how to keep up-to-date on its latest thinking.
  4. How to critique each other constructively, including how to work positively with mentors/coaches.
  5. How to get to know students well: learning styles, challenges, strengths, interests, intelligences, backgrounds, and any other factor that influences their learning.


Social commentator and writer, Eric Hoffer, once said, "In times of change, learners inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to work in a world that no longer exists." This is a time of major change in education, especially when it comes to leading teachers through increasingly diverse student populations and assessment/grading practices. Educators who rely on what they learned about teaching and assessment 20 years ago or more will wonder why their practices no longer work, and as a result, they may grow cynical and lose interest. This is not the person I want teaching my own children.


If you're wondering whether to start the conversations regarding differentiation and grading, and in particular, if it's worth pushing these points with your faculty members, ask yourself, What goes unlearned and unachieved because I decided to play it safe and not rock the boat? Students get one year to complete their current grade level (at least we hope it only takes one year), so it better be the best experience it can be. If educators mire students in ineffective practices that are justified only by teachers' comfort with the familiar, they sacrifice a significant amount of student growth. It's no longer acceptable for everyone to agree to let teachers differentiate and grade in their own ways if they are not proven effective; there are identified specific principles that work better than others. With questioning and the strategies included here, a principal is in the best position to help teachers themselves carve through the dense hesitation in grading philosophy, trim back the weeds, and reveal the fertile soil for something healthier underneath. It's so much better than fighting battles, and you'll realize that you are tilling new earth. Let your students grow strong.


Rick Wormeli is an education consultant working with principals, superintendents, and teachers in the United States and abroad. His book, Fair Isn't Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom (Stenhouse, 2006), includes several dozen suggestions for helping teachers through their changes in grading practices. He can be contacted at