Each leader comes to the table with their unique set of experiences that mold their platform, style, and passion. Many of these experiences are small, almost unrecognizable in the grand scheme of life, but they represent significant cogs in the wheels of our processing. As a teacher, leader, and student, for me it was always the stigma of the grade that was one point under the goal. As a student, I detested the evil 92, just shy of an A in Maine, and as a teacher never gave a 69 because no child should fail by one point. The emotional significance of these scores outweighs the academic statement of what the child “earned.” 

What has always struck me about this phenomenon is the inability to engage educators in a civil discourse around the difference between a 92 and a 93. The reality is that no defining factor exists. It often lies in the hands of the educator, who by all accounts is very human and often unwilling to discuss the flaws in the system that may seemingly reflect back on them and their practice. Realistically, each classroom can vary vastly, even if it just comes down to how many questions are on the assessment—never mind the dreaded and adored partial credit. Students simply cannot predict what their score might be when they complete an assessment, and traditionally we provide them no tools to do so. 

Taking the Guesswork Out of Learning

Creating space and dialogue for performance-based grading begins to open the door of opportunity for students to take the guesswork out of learning. Engaging teachers in talking about what level of performance demonstrates understanding and achieved skill in a concept is incredible professional development. When teachers participate in these reflections and changes in practice, they realize that students were missing entire chunks of their learning but still passing the class. Not that passing is a bad thing, but truly every teacher wants more for their students. They want to move them to their next level prepared and having learned enough in their class to use it in life. 

The key is creating transparency and clarity in how we assess. For our district, that was accomplished through shared rubrics. We spent an entire year just building an agreed-upon understanding of the content standards and creating rubrics that aligned to them on a four-point scale. Our motto was that a 3 is reasonable and a 4 achievable, and from there we outlined for students exactly what those scores meant. Teachers used their professional expertise to define the details collaboratively, and then challenged themselves to do it again in “kid language.”

Developing a Toolbox

When teachers build, adjust, and rebuild rubrics, they develop a toolbox that elevates their teaching. This toolbox eventually affects all aspects of teaching and planning. It starts with reflecting on the end goal of each assessment, unit, or lesson and how it relates to that rubric. The simple act of teachers asking themselves if their assessment (formative or summative) is achieving the desired effect is transformative—and often avoided. Eventually we found that teachers begin to reflect on their daily practice, the value in their lessons, and whether we are making students jump through hoops that don’t lead to understanding without even realizing it. 

The key to this transformation and reflection, though, is challenging teachers to start with the end in mind—not personally, but instead with kids. What allows performance-based grading to challenge traditional thinking (and, in my opinion, win) is when we are transparent with our students from the day a unit starts. This change requires more than an adjustment in the gradebook. It requires an adjustment in classroom culture. Teachers who find the most success are the ones who share the roadmap for learning with their students before they leave the driveway—the teachers who clarify the learning targets, talk with students about them daily, and help them track their own progress along the way. 

Society has put a value on grades as if they are the currency of education, allowing them to dictate what it means to be successful. We have used this definition for years, built upon a target that doesn’t stand still. Opening the eyes of our educators to the potential of performance-based grading at all grade levels, partnered with clarity and transparency, can steady the target. It can bring students to any destination they desire, as long as they know the way. 

As leaders, it is crucial we create the space for teachers to reflect and discuss what grades really mean in our classrooms, schools, and society. We must strive to take the guesswork out of learning and build our students roadmaps to success through clear targets and transparency. 

About the Author

Erin Maguire is the former assistant principal at Bonny Eagle High School in Standish, ME, and the 2020 Maine Assistant Principal of the Year. She recently was assigned to the role of 6–12 curriculum coordinator, where she hopes to continue making learning accessible and equitable for all students to meet their goals. She’s also reaching for her own goal of hiking all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot mountains!

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