Fair, standards-referenced grading systems that communicate what a student knows and can do are often difficult to design. Developing grading systems that are fair and consistent across an entire school district can seem like an impossible task. However, it is a task that is necessary and worthwhile.

My school district began looking at grading reform in 2010 but was unable to gain any traction on making changes across the entire system. However, in 2017, the board of education adopted the district’s first policy on grading. Known as Policy 415: Grading and Reporting, the board mandated grades to have “consistent meaning through the school system and be based on grade-level standards.” This vague but powerful policy required the curriculum and instruction department, school administrators, and teachers across the district to develop a guiding document. In order to create a guiding document, a well-thought-out process was required. Our process consisted of six steps:

  1. Forming a committee
  2. Building knowledge through credible resources
  3. Developing the guiding document
  4. Sharing the work of the committee and guiding document
  5. Implementing the new practices systemwide
  6. Evaluating and revising the guiding document.

Here’s what we learned about the process:

The first step, forming a committee, was crucial to the success of creating standards-based practices. The curriculum and instruction department invited all sixth- through 12th-grade teachers in the district to apply. Teachers who were interested in taking on the yearlong work were selected based on established criteria for creating a committee, which represented all content areas and subgroups in the district. The committee was led by the executive director for curriculum and instruction and co-led by district instructional coaches. In total, the committee consisted of 31 voting members.

After setting norms for its work, the committee began increasing its knowledge around standards-based grading. To accomplish this second step, the committee read books and peer-reviewed journals, participated in webinars and video conferences with experts in the field, and conducted interviews with teachers and administrators of districts who have implemented standards-based grading practices. In addition, the committee itself was called upon to share valid experiences with standards-based grading practices.

The largest portion of the committee’s yearlong work was the development of the guiding document. After expanding its knowledge and understanding of standards-based grading, the committee began writing the document that outlined the grading practices and guidelines. This document clarified the role of professional learning communities in student achievement, defined the differences between practice and assessment, and established four grading practices. Our common practices across the district are that grades will be standards-referenced, behaviors will be communicated separately from standards-referenced grades, teachers will use consistent grade calculations, and students will have multiple opportunities to demonstrate proficiency on assessment. The guiding document identified what each practice looked like, what it didn’t look like, what PLCs could do with it, and the benefits of the practice.

After the guiding document was developed, it was then time to share the committee’s work and the guiding document with teachers, administrators, and the community. Through a series of meetings and staff professional development, the guiding document was not only shared, but also broken down into the specific grading practices. Teachers had the opportunity to ask questions and share with other teachers specific examples of what they do in their classrooms for each of the practices. This helped to ease the minds of teachers who were unsure and hesitant about the new guiding document.

All of the work up to this point was completed in one school year, with a couple of summer sessions. Now it was time to implement the grading guidelines to meet board policy systemwide.  This endeavor was a yearlong effort, which required weekly checks by PLCs to determine the effectiveness and implementation success of the grading policy. Administrators met with teachers at their sites regularly, and the curriculum and instruction department conducted monthly check-ins along with a year-end survey.

The final step was to evaluate the implementation at the end of the year and really look at the data to determine what worked and what didn’t. The original grading committee took information from gradebooks and feedback from teachers and administrators and began to make necessary revisions to the guiding document. Some adjustments were made to address the challenges schools faced while implementing the four practices in the guiding document. Throughout the entire process, the document was shared with stakeholders as a living document that would be revised as necessary. This was incredibly important in maintaining teacher support for the document.

Fair and equitable grading practices are necessary to inform students of what they have actually learned and can do.  Through standards-based grading practices, students are provided with feedback, see their growth, and experience success. 

Ryan Kettler is currently serving as vice principal at Rio Rancho High School in Rio Rancho, NM.  He is in his 11th year as an administrator and is New Mexico’s 2019 Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter at @R_Kettler.

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